Water: Features, Water Trails, Wetlands and Watersheds

What’s Covered

The Water Features section contains several topics. Cuyahoga County has two designated State Water Trails. The locations of Water Bodies and Streams can be viewed through these layers. Wetlands are an incredibly critical feature for water regulation. Flood Hazard Areas and Active Stream Areas display land areas affected by high water events. Watersheds define the catch basins for drainage of all precipitation.


Northeast Ohio is a Great Lakes Region and hence, defined by water. Cuyahoga County is in the Lake Erie Watershed and its precipitation and surface waters flow into Lake Erie’s Central Basin. The Water Features layer of the Greenprint Explorer displays Water Bodies such as rivers, streams, lakes and even buried or piped streams. Wetlands are a unique and especially critical type of water feature. Active Stream Areas and Flood Hazard Areas display riparian areas of flood risk. All land lies within some Watershed which defines a boundary that collects precipitation runoff, ultimately flowing into the creek or river for which the watershed is named. Our water bodies provide places for recreation and designated State Water Trails highlight this benefit.

Open water is a recreational benefit for northeast Ohio. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) began its State Water Trail Designation Program in 2005 with the Kokosing River as the first designated water trail. The purpose of designation is to highlight and make more accessible Ohio’s waterways for (primarily) non-motorized paddling and fishing. The Cuyahoga River was designated in 2019 and the Lake Erie – Cuyahoga Water Trail shortly thereafter. Requirements for designation are outlined in the Ohio Water Trails Information Booklet and include: a public planning process; written support from local governments; use of the State Water Trail logo; mapping and signage on both the water body as well as relevant roadways; public access points at least every ten miles or less along the water body; stewardship commitment from key managers; and safety information. The Greenprint displays the two designated water trails as well as the portion of the Rocky River that connects to the Lake Erie trail. It also displays public paddling access points where people can put in or take out their boat, as well as known hazards which include any remaining dams.

Water Bodies and Streams —lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams—have not only shaped the landscape of Cuyahoga County but provide a diverse living system for terrestrial and aquatic life. Water bodies supply most of this region’s population with drinking water and provide many “ecosystem services”—benefits that improve human health, economy, and experience. Cuyahoga County is served by four major water features – the three major river valleys of the Rocky, Cuyahoga, and Chagrin Rivers, and the lakeshore of Lake Erie. Tributaries to these rivers typically reach from upland headwaters, down through a variety of dense urban land uses, and ultimately to Lake Erie. The harmful algal blooms (HABs) found in recent years in various areas of Lake Erie are testament to the connection between upland land uses and the health of Lake Erie.

photo of wetlands
Wetlands retain water after storms, keeping it from entering waterways too quickly, which can cause flooding and water quality problems.

Wetlands are part of the foundation of our nation’s water resources and are vital to the health of waterways and communities that are downstream. Wetlands are often found alongside waterways and in flood plains.

However, some wetlands have no apparent connection to rivers or lakes but have critical groundwater connections. Wetlands feed downstream waters, trap floodwaters, recharge groundwater supplies, remove pollutants, and provide fish and wildlife habitat. They include swamps, marshes and bogs. Wetlands vary widely because of differences in soils, topography, climate, hydrology, water chemistry, vegetation, and other factors. Ohio has lost approximately 90% of its original wetland acreage through degradation or destruction due to drainage, infill, development or other modifications.  Federal Wetland Regulation: Section 404 of the Clean Water Act notes that wetlands are so critical to the function of natural water flow and for habitat that they were legally protected at the federal level in 1972 with section 404 of the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately, in 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court limited regulations via a ruling that the federal government can no longer control discharges into wetlands near bodies of water unless they have “a continuous surface connection” to those waters. Wetlands are categorized by the State based on their habitat quality and function for flood retention and nutrient removal; and thus, have differing levels of protection. From lowest to highest quality: Category 1 wetlands are often isolated and disturbed and are not considered for restoration; Category 2 are of medium quality which hold potential for restoration; and Category 3 wetlands are the highest quality, and thus protected from development and impacts except in cases of public need as defined in the Ohio Administrative Code.

Flood Hazard Areas and Active Stream Areas are the riparian corridors which directly affect and are affected by their stream or river. These areas are significant because any human activity in these zones will have an impact on the river and may, in turn, be impacted by the river, especially during storm events. Protecting these corridors is necessary for the Lake Erie Basin ecosystem, and for human health and prosperity throughout the region. Planners and engineers should note these buffer and flood zones to avoid building structures here which may cause undue erosion or, themselves, be damaged from flooding. Insurance companies often use these zones in determining insurance rates or whether a policy will be issued at all.

image of healthy valleyWatersheds, defined by the rivers and streams of Cuyahoga County and their many tributaries, give structure to the natural systems and ecology of the County. They have contributed to development patterns, and influenced where we live, work, and play. A watershed is a geographic area bounded by a higher elevation “rim” such that all precipitation landing within that rimmed boundary eventually flows, via tributaries, into the stream or river for which the watershed is named. The Lake Erie Watershed encompasses all the smaller watersheds which themselves empty either directly into the lake or into one of the major rivers which flows into the lake. Watersheds can be small, such as the area that drains into the creek behind a house. They can also be large. Consider all the land, streams and rivers that drain into the Ohio River or Lake Erie. The Watersheds layer of the Greenprint provides two depictions of local watersheds:

  • Watershed Assessment Areas
  • Local Watersheds named and grouped according to their major watershed “parent”.

USEPA has identified Watershed Assessment Areas through their ATTAINS (Assessment, Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) Tracking and Implementation System) program which is an online system for accessing information about the conditions in U.S. surface waters.  When you click in one of these areas in the Greenprint Explorer, a pop-up box provides information on the water quality status for various criteria. Since water quality is highly dependent on land use, planners and environmental leaders can use this information to inform land use decisions and for establishing requirements of developers which best protect local waterways.

Local Watersheds display Hydrologic Unit Code (HUC) 12 which is considered a local sub-watershed that includes tributary systems and uses local naming conventions.

Importance and Value

  • The number of canoe, kayak, stand up paddleboard and tubing liveries, collectively, has quadrupled from 2008-2023.
  • Water sport is a recreational asset for local residents as well as tourists.
  • Each year more than 7 million people visit Ohio’s portion of the Lake Erie basin for recreational purposes. However, poor water quality can limit recreational opportunities.
  • The tourism industry along Lake Erie provides 127,000 jobs and $4.0 billion in wages annually. Tourism, travel, and sport fishing contribute more than $15 billion a year in revenue to Ohio’s economy and $1.9 billion in federal, state, and local taxes (2018 study). Pollution from runoff, point sources, and sewage overflows negatively impact Lake Erie’s tourism industry. Similarly, the Rocky and the Chagrin Rivers are a draw for their natural beauty, high water quality, and fishing opportunities.
  • Rivers and streams in their natural state reduce flooding by dissipating sudden influxes of water from large storm events and snow melt. They also provide diverse habitat for aquatic and terrestrial life and ensure that water quality remains high.
  • Unaltered or daylighted stream corridors have better water quality due to cooler temperatures, better oxygenation, and better ability to capture pollutants and sediments from the surrounding land.
  • Unaltered stream corridors with woodland buffers, and intact floodplain and riparian zones are better equipped to handle sediment transport and deposition resulting from erosion.
  • Lake Erie, along with the many rivers and tributaries that feed into it, supplies drinking water to 11 million people in the greater region, which includes parts of Canada, and roughly three million Ohioans. Protecting and enhancing Lake Erie and the rivers and streams that flow into it will provide better and safer drinking water that has fewer pollutants resulting from agricultural, industrial, residential, and commercial runoff.
  • Lake Erie is known for its yellow perch and walleye. The Rocky River is known for its trout fishing. However, unsafe contaminant levels in fish limit consumption of this affordable food supply. Better protection of Lake Erie and its river corridors will reduce the amount of hazardous chemicals from agriculture, industry, and residential areas that can accumulate in the food web.
  • Lake Erie has more consumable fish than all the other Great Lakes combined. Lake Erie’s fishery supports 10,000 jobs per year and adds $1 billion annually to the surrounding local economies. Lake Erie is the Walleye Capital of the World—people come from all over the world to fish these waters.
  • Increasingly, residents and businesses are looking to locate in places that provide an aesthetically pleasing, vibrant, and healthy setting. Businesses have found that they are more viable in places that are able to attract and retain both clients and employees, and places that encourage a healthier workforce. A healthy lake and beautiful river corridors with good access and recreation opportunities are critical to the region’s overall attractiveness to residents and businesses alike.
  • Given the increasing frequency and severity of weather events due to climate change, water features and their surrounding corridors are even more important in providing ecosystem services that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars to landowners and governments, including flood mitigation and sediment control.
  • Wetlands can slow runoff water, minimizing the frequency at which streams and rivers reach catastrophic flood levels. This is of increasing importance given the greater frequency and severity of weather events due to climate change.
  • Wetlands function as a sponge and filter. They capture and hold water during storms, and release water during dry times.
  • A community with healthy wetlands is therefore more resilient to both floods and droughts.
  • Natural wetlands function better than engineered wetlands.
  • Wetlands are great recreational amenities as well as an economic driver for activities such as kayaking, canoeing, hunting, fishing, or exploring and enjoying nature.
  • Wetlands provide diverse habitat.

Recommendations for Communities and Landowners

  • Protect all streams and headwaters by establishing appropriate setbacks for each segment of the stream. Headwaters need larger setbacks to provide adequate protection.
  • Adopt and enforce codes that encourage best management practices and low impact development, particularly in riparian areas and floodplains.
  • Adopt riparian setback ordinances.
  • Permit downspout disconnects that allow homeowners to divert storm water runoff from their home to a rain barrel or lawn rather than the storm sewer. Encourage and incentivize storm water retention on property with installation of rain gardens and/or rain barrels. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District offers a credit for residential stormwater diversion
  • Adopt and utilize Low-Impact Development (LID) strategies and design standards and update building codes to promote these. LID seeks to integrate functional design with pollution prevention measures to compensate for land development impacts on hydrology and water quality.
  • Buffer the edges of streams and lakes with plantings, particularly trees. Don’t mow right up to the edge, rather, leave vegetation on stream banks and edges.
  • Refrain from building in riparian zones. If building is unavoidable, use the latest green infrastructure techniques that enhance infiltration including rain gardens, bioswales, and permeable pavement.
  • Landowners can use landscape management techniques such as fertilizers that apply the least amount of chemicals to lawns and gardens, and plants with the ability to hold water and soil in place.
  • Ensure that all household hazardous wastes are properly disposed of at waste collection events or taken to the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District.
  • Restrict building on or in wetlands, except for sensitively designed access features such as boardwalks.
  • Expand wetlands to increase stormwater retention capacity for the area.
  • Mitigate wetlands (create a new wetland to replace one destroyed) within the same watershed.
  • Protect and buffer wetlands by adopting the strongest possible riparian zoning regulations.
  • Improve or restore Category 2 or Category 3 wetlands to better perform valuable functions including filtering impurities from water, reducing stormwater flooding, and reducing shoreline erosion.
  • Protect important natural functions through riparian and wetland setbacks.
  • Manage stormwater at regional level through the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s Stormwater Master Plans.
  • Limit soil erosion on construction sites through best management practices (minimize extent of disturbance, temporary seeding, etc.) to keep soil particles in place and reduce the amount of sediment flowing into streams.
  • Re-establish natural infiltration, e.g., create rain gardens or bioswales that allow water to filter through the soil naturally.
  • Separate storm sewers and sanitary sewers to eliminate the combined sewer overflow of wastewater with rainwater into the watershed rivers and lakes.
  • Restore the natural biological and physical systems of a watershed through tree plantings, bioengineering, floodplain enhancement, etc.
  • Remove invasive species and plant native species to limit the harmful effects of non-native species and help increase biodiversity of the ecosystem and watershed.
  • Create sustainable landscapes and reduce the size of grass lawns with native plants and trees.
  • Develop green connections between various beneficial natural areas (e.g., parks) to ensure wildlife movement and migration throughout the County.
  • Utilize Low-Impact Development practices that help to mimic the natural environment and ensure pre-development hydrology is reached at site completion.

Resources for More Information

Top photo by Jason Cohn, courtesy of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy