USACE works with Cuyahoga Valley National Park on Cuyahoga River bank stabilization

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Story by Dr. Michael Izard-Carroll 

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District  

National Parks in the U.S. are popular tourist destinations. Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio, for example, had over 2.2 million visitors in 2017. National Parks are set aside for us to appreciate nature’s beauty, and guests who visit these areas expect to see healthy wildlife, lush vegetation and clean waters. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is within the Cuyahoga River Watershed, which drains about 809 square miles, split right down the center by the Cuyahoga River; the river is one of the park’s most important natural assets.

Soil erosion and nonpoint source pollution affecting the Cuyahoga River has had downstream adverse environmental impacts and reduced water depths in harbors and shipping channels due to sediment loading. When commercial vessels cannot pass through a harbor, communities suffer economic impacts as well. Because of the recognized importance of addressing erosion, it is a focus area and a priority of the Administration’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI).

To address the problems associated with runoff into the Great Lakes, Congress established the Great Lakes Tributary Model (GLTM) program Section 516(e) of the Water Resources Development Act of 1996. This authority enabled the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to develop tools to assist state and local agencies with the planning and implementation of measures for soil conservation, sedimentation and nonpoint source pollution prevention. Models can be developed at all tributaries to the Great Lakes that discharge to federal navigation channels or Areas of Concern (AOCs). The ultimate goal of this program is to reduce watershed loadings of sediments and pollutants from tributaries in order to enhance Great Lakes water quality, delist Great Lakes AOCs, and reduce the need for navigation dredging.

The USACE’s base funding for the GLTM program is through annual Energy & Water Appropriations. Funding for the program in fiscal year 2017 was $600,000 but there was no funding included in the President’s Budget for fiscal year 2018. There was still funding in 2017 but it was known the 516 program would not be funded in 2018; USACE needed to make a decision how to spend the remaining funds, as the program authorizations were still in place.

Representatives from the Corps of Engineers had already been regularly attending Cuyahoga River Area of Concern meetings, held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was the forum where the idea to work closely with Cuyahoga Valley National Park had developed. The meetings foster relationships among multiple parties interested in the watershed. During these meetings, USACE Project Manager Russell Brandenburg met with Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s Chief of Resource Management, Dr. Lisa Petit, to discuss how the funds could be used to help to support some bank stabilization projects they were considering implementing along the Cuyahoga River.

“Collaboration between Cuyahoga Valley National Park and USACE Buffalo District has been incredibly productive in a very short time,” said Dr. Petit. “The report generated by the GLTM team is a huge step forward to guide the park in implementing strategic floodplain restoration and bank stabilization projects over the next several years.”

The Cuyahoga River starts out in Geauga County, Ohio, and meanders 100 miles from start to finish. About one fifth of the river’s length is within the confines of Cuyahoga National Park. Park officials had installed previous bank stabilization projects before, but they only lasted a couple years. The USACE Buffalo District had agreed to do GLTM assessments from the portion of the Cuyahoga River stretching from the middle toward the northernmost part of the park. USACE Biologist Michael Voorhees was part of the assessment team, who both biked and kayaked along the river to accomplish the task.

“We identified 12 sites where bank stabilization issues were evident,” said Voorhees. Part of our assessment involved prioritizing the sites in terms of being able to reconnect the flood plains, by cutting out flood plain benches along the river in strategic places.”

Voorhees and his team identified two sites that would be good candidates for bank stabilization and floodplain connection. Buffalo District cost engineers estimated how much the projects would cost. Assessments of this kind are normally cost-shared, with the local sponsor fronting 35% of the project while the federal government fronts the balance. However, the 516 program was a 100% federally funded program.

“We turned over the stream bank assessment to the park and we’ve continued our conversations about next steps,” said Brandenburg. “Although 516 funding is no longer available, there are Continuing Authorities Program (CAP) funds available, which could be used for these types of projects. We look forward to building on our partnership with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to see some of these move forward.”

Engineers have done tributary modelling in the region primarily with the SWAT program but most modelling is now web-based, using program like High Impact Targeting (HIT) and L-THIA, which is useful for evaluating urban runoff. Through the GLTM program, a suite of web-based tools were developed which estimate sediment loadings, erosion rates, non-point source pollutant loadings, and assess impacts of obstructions within a tributary within small agricultural or forested watersheds. The tools are free to use and range from simple to moderately sophisticated. The Buffalo District GLTM team has provided training to a large number of watershed groups and state and local agencies on how to use these web-based tools over the past five years.

Stabilizing banks has a number of additional positive benefits. Primary sources for sediment supply in the Great Lakes Region have been linked to stream bank erosion and overland erosion within surrounding watersheds and tributaries. To reduce the need for maintenance dredging, the Corps of Engineers, Buffalo District has taken an active role in promoting soil conservation within the Great Lakes under the Great Lakes Tributary Modeling (GLTM) program; less dredging means savings for the federal government. On the environmental side, reducing runoff helps with water quality. Less runoff means less E. coli and less turbidity; turbidity is a risk for fish and mussel life.

For more information about the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, visit our website at: For interest in CAP projects, visit