By Gabrielle Nelson
An initiative to improve water quality throughout Ohio and Lake Erie is gaining ground — about a hundred acres to be exact.
About a 45-minute drive south of Cleveland, is Chippewa Lake, Ohio’s largest inland glacial lake. On its banks, three wetland restorations are underway that were started in 2021 with a $1.5 million grant from a water quality initiative called H2Ohio.
Urban and agricultural development are replacing wetlands around Chippewa, causing harmful algal blooms to grow rampant in the lake since 2014, said Nathan Eppink, the Medina County Park district director.
Algal blooms release toxins and steal oxygen from native fish and other water animals. They are caused by an increase in nitrogen and phosphorus from lawn and agricultural runoff, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Restoring wetlands around the lake will improve water quality by filtering runoff before it makes its way into it, said John Navarro, the aquatic stewardship program administrator at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Think about how kidneys work: The wetland’s plants and organisms will absorb excess nutrients and let the clean water run through, decreasing the amount of nutrients algae can feed off.
Wetlands are vital for maintaining water quality, but in the Great Lakes region, only around 10 percent of our wetlands are preserved, Navarro said.
“Imagine if your kidney was only working at 10 percent capacity. It’s not good,” he said.
Two of the three projects are under construction at Chippewa Lake. One to the north will restore and filter an inlet that flows into the lake, and one to the south will be a small demonstration wetland with easy public access and a small paddle-craft launch, Eppink said.
Construction at these sites includes digging a ditch to direct water flow and creating “hammock and hollow” habitats — a series of divots in the soil that create small, pond-like habitats for amphibians and aquatic plants. In this stage of restoration, the wetland “looks like a motocross course for young kids,” Eppink said,
The third site is in the cleanup process — removal of debris and invasive species, such as burning bush. It isn’t yet under construction but will look much different from the other two sites. This wetland will preserve the remnants of an old amusement park, including a Ferris wheel, while restoring the surrounding forest, which has the community excited, Eppink said.
“The amusement park was such a part of people’s lives,” he said. “A lot of folks older than me have said they used to come down there for their dad’s company picnics, or the family would go there every summer. And they remember the Ferris wheel being so much bigger when they were kids.”
The three projects were expected to be completed late this year, but because of construction permit delays, they won’t be complete until June 2024, with public access following a couple of months after, Eppink said.
“We’re preserving what people love about Medina County,” he said. “We’re building parks; we’re building preserves; we’re building trails; we’re restoring natural areas.”
But going beyond providing additional recreational park space, these restored wetlands will improve Chippewa Lake’s water quality.
A study by the University of Waterloo and the University of Illinois in 2020 found that an increase of only 10 percent in wetland area may double the amount of nitrogen absorbed from runoff before it reaches a body of water.
Wetlands have the potential to restore the water quality of the Great Lakes, though Navarro says that may take decades of dedicated wetland restoration.