Bob Downing

PARMA: There is no nature center at Cleveland Metroparks West Creek Reservation.

Instead what you will find is an ultra-green, environmentally friendly complex dedicated to keeping urban streams including tiny West Creek clean and healthy, fishable and swimmable.

The 18,000-square-foot facility is officially known as the Watershed Stewardship Center at West Creek and it is a one-of-a-kind complex for Northeast Ohio.

The lodge-like building features a green roof covered with soil and vegetation including wild onions and sedums. A cistern will collect up to 2,000 gallons of roof runoff to keep it green. It has to be carefully mowed at least once a year.

Rain chains lead from gutters to direct stormwater to the ground, where it can drain naturally. It was the first building I had ever seen with rain chains, a cool feature to reduce runoff.

The site off West Ridgewood Road features rain barrels and bio-swales, man-made features to curtail water runoff. A man-made wetland and step pools on a small West Creek tributary outside the center will collect and slow down stormwater. In all, the center offers about 40 best-management techniques that people can use to help curtail runoff.

The goal is to help improve the health of urban watersheds in Northeast Ohio by providing useful stream information to everyone: the public, community organizations, academic groups, professionals, and school kids from the fifth grade up, said Wendy Weirich, director of outdoor education for Cleveland Metroparks.

The goal is to inspire everyone to deal with stormwater, she said.

The center, described by Weirich as a living laboratory, has attracted more than 60,000 visitors since July, she said.

West Creek flows only nine miles and is surrounded by residential neighborhoods of Parma, Seven Hills, Brooklyn Heights, Independence and portions of North Royalton and Broadview Heights.

The park, now 324 acres, was created in 1998, thanks in large part to a supportive grass-roots group, now known as the West Creek Conservancy. It became the 17th reservation in the Cleveland Metroparks system in 2006 and features mini-gorges along West Creek and its tributaries.

The stream center is filled with interactive exhibits and laboratories where biologists and students will conduct research. It opened in June.

The main exhibit is a land model of West Creek watershed, the area from which stormwater drains into the creek, a Cuyahoga River tributary. A digital overhead projector lays out more information on that three-dimensional map.

The center is filled with models of a stream, complete with fish and aquatic insects. You can learn about fish that can tolerate pollution and others that cannot. You can walk through a storm sewer pipe, and learn about wetlands, white-tailed deer, coyotes, invasive plants, combined sewer overflows and floodplains.

The main message for visitors: After rains, stormwater doesnt just go away. Its a problem to which we all contribute, and it must be managed for the least environmental impact.

You can sit on a wooden deck and observe birds coming to feeders. Outside the center is a 40-acre meadow, reportedly one of the largest in Greater Cleveland. Now filled with wildflowers, it was once a 22-acre municipal landfill. It was closed and capped in 1988. Paved trails circle its edges.

The meadow is dominated by a television tower, the major landmark tied to the West Creek Reservation.

There are five such towers in the park, some dating back to the early 1950s. The site is one of the highest points in Cuyahoga County and was ideal for early television transmission. It is reportedly one of the biggest concentrations of these towers in the United States.

The 160 acres south of the meadow were largely forgotten, used by an archery club and local dog walkers.

The parks paved trails measure 1.6 miles. Unpaved, unofficial trails add another four miles.

Several wind back into the woods and along West Creek and those are the most interesting trails. They are easy to follow through what some describe as a hidden valley.

Tucked throughout the park are great, gray shale cliffs. Shale is a soft stone that is easily erodible, so West Creek is constantly sculpting its banks. Next to the towers, the parks cliffs may be its most distinctive feature.

The West Creek Reservation in southern Cuyahoga County is a great place for a family day trip, only 40 minutes from Akron.

The park extends north and south with Broadview Road to the east and State Road to the west. There are two picnic areas at the parks main entrance off West Ridgewood Drive: Monarch Bluff and Keystone.

About $11.5 million was spent by Cleveland Metroparks on improvements at West Creek and the stream center. Grants from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District and others provided $5.2 million toward that work.

In the mid-1990s, the 300-acre tract near the headwaters of West Creek was the last large undeveloped tract in Parma. It was slated to become a shopping center and the citys second municipal golf course.

The then-stressed stream was degraded by pollution and runoff, largely ignored, and conditions were deplorable for a long time, but it had great potential, said longtime park supporter David Vasarhelyi.

A grass-roots group, then called the West Creek Preservation Committee, started meeting in 1997 to preserve the 300-acre tract and to make it available to the public. The committee created the vision of the park and the 15-mile-long greenway, then worked to help make it happen.

Voters in 1998 approved preserving the initial 160 acres along West Creek, which was in bad shape from pollution. In 2000, Parma voters approved a $3 million bond issue to buy 72 acres of adjoining land from Gannett Corp.

The first mile of the West Creek Greenway Trail opened in 2003. The plan calls for a 21-mile trail that will, in time, extend through Brooklyn Heights, Independence, Parma and Seven Hills, said Derek Schafer of the West Creek Conservancy.

About five miles are done, two miles will soon be under construction and the rest is in the planning stages, he said. It will connect at two spots to the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail in the nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Its hard to say how long it might take to complete the trail, but five to seven years is possible, he said.

His grass-roots group completed its first conservation land purchase in 2001. As an urban land trust, it has protected more than 150 parcels covering more than 700 acres. It also owns 66 conservation parcels and holds 20 conservation easements.

In its first 10 years, the conservancy leveraged $25 million in funding for conservation, restoration and trail projects. It has partnered with local communities on wetlands and park projects in surrounding communities, too. It is, Schafer said, a very dedicated group.

For information on the Cleveland-based West Creek Conservancy, go to www.westcreek.org.

The West Creek Reservation is at 2277 W. Ridgewood Road, Parma. To get there from Akron, take Interstate 77 north to Pleasant Valley Road exit. Veer to right at end of exit ramp and proceed west to Seven Hills. Turn right on Broadview Road and go north. Turn left and go west on West Ridgewood Road. The park will be on your left.

Reservation hours: 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Watershed center hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 4:30 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. For information, call 440-887-1968 or go to www.clevelandmetroparks.com.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.