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Prototype structures help restore fish habitat along Cleveland’s ship channel.

Cuyahoga River Restoration, a non-profit organization created in 1989 to support river restoration activities, and Environmental Design Group, as part of the local Habitat for Hard Places working group, have designed and installed habitat structures along the industrial ship channel in the Cuyahoga River to increase the river’s fish population.

For decades, fish habitat was all but non-existent along the ship channel, and the goal of this project was to provide areas for resting and foraging needed by fish as they move through the lower reaches of the river.

The “rest stop” structures were designed to accommodate the needs of fish at various life cycle stages while functioning in a working industrial shipping channel.

The “rest stop” structures were designed to accommodate the needs of fish at various life cycle stages while functioning in a working industrial shipping channel.

This new habitat initiative involved design, fabrication, and installation of “rest stop” structures to accommodate the needs of fish at various life cycle stages while functioning in a working industrial shipping channel. Bulkheads of steel and concrete hold back the river banks and ensure clear passage for 700-foot-long lake carriers as they navigate the river’s twists and turns. The channel is dredged to 23-feet to allow these behemoths to pass.

It’s not exactly a welcoming place for fish, but the new habitat structures provide food and shelter, especially for young fish. Without these types of accommodations, the habitat gap reduces the ability of fish to pass from river to lake and has a significant impact on the health of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River.

By improving in-stream fish habitat along this section of the channel, the project fills the gap between the upper river and Lake Erie. Environmental Design Group assisted the working group in translating ideas into four functioning prototypes, which were tested and monitored in the Cuyahoga River ship channel.

The structures are made of steel and wood. Knowing there was a need for extreme durability along the ship channel, and the need for the units to be small enough for one person to manage, the designs produced a new way of looking at fish habitat with existing and environmentally friendly features to protect the fish.

“Each design needed to be able to function at any water level, and they needed to be cost effective, with the ability to be mass produced,” said Jane Goodman, executive director of Cuyahoga River Restoration. “The designs are meant to collect floating organic debris to provide shade, food, and refuge from predators for small fish, but can also mimic natural habitat features like root filaments and aquatic plants to provide safe haven in a challenging environment.”

For decades, fish habitat has been almost non-existent along Cleveland’s industrial ship channel. Steel and concrete bulkheads support the river banks and the channel is dredged to 23-feet to ensure clear passage for 700-foot-long lake carriers as they navigate the river's twists and turns.

For decades, fish habitat has been almost non-existent along Cleveland’s industrial ship channel. Steel and concrete bulkheads support the river banks and the channel is dredged to 23-feet to ensure clear passage for 700-foot-long lake carriers as they navigate the river’s twists and turns.

“Adding to the normal designer angst of correct calculations, appropriate safety factors and the expectation this unusual concept would work, we were asked to design something totally unique that had no close model for success or failure,” said Matt Montecalvo, principal of Environmental Services at Environmental Design Group.

With support from the Port of Cleveland, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, and Enviroscience, teams from Cuyahoga River Restoration and Environmental Design Group installed almost 500 habitat structures in the upper three miles of the Cuyahoga River ship channel.

“With ongoing monitoring, we’re finding the prototypes have withstood the harsh elements of the river channel, and video has shown the fish are using them as a safe haven, which is making a positive impact on the river and is an initial, positive sign that the habitats may be working as designed,” Goodman said.

The unique nature of the project is helping restore and protect the environmental quality of the Cuyahoga River while restoring native habitat and encouraging growth along a traditionally commercial portion of the river.


Information provided by Environmental Design Group (www.envdesigngroup.com).

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