Workstream: Environments - NEOSCC Conditions & Trends

Are environmental conditions in Northeast Ohio getting better or worse? The answer to that question depends a lot on the type of environmental issue being considered.

Since the 1970s, the region has made a lot of progress cleaning up what is typically thought of as “pollution.” Industry has reduced emissions from smokestacks and effluent pipes. Wastewater treatment plants are doing a much better job treating sewage. And some of dirtiest sources of industrial pollution have closed down or moved to places with lower environmental standards. As a result, the air and water are cleaner than they used to be.

But other types of environmental issues have been harder to address. These are “nonpoint” sources of pollution — sources that are numerous and dispersed rather than a single point that is simple to regulate and control. For example, the region’s lakes and streams are impacted by polluted stormwater runoff, which flows off countless streets, parking lots, and farm fields. Similarly, the big problem affecting the region’s air quality now is the motor vehicle pollution from more than two million cars and trucks.

These nonpoint sources are a big reason why the region struggles to make further environmental progress. Most Northeast Ohio counties still fail to meet federal air quality standards for ozone and fine particulates. Flooding from stormwater runoff is a persistent and costly problem. And there are disturbing signs that the health of Lake Erie, which had been improving for several decades, may be deteriorating again (lack of data further frustrates understanding of potential trends).

It is important to note that these environmental problems are related to patterns of land use. As development has spread out over more land, there are more paved surfaces and rooftops to shed rain, and people have to drive farther to reach far-flung destinations. The spread of development also affects the diversity of plants and wildlife. And it impacts emerging environmental issues, such as the rising level of carbon emissions that impact the region’s future precipitation patterns and conditions for agricultural production.

Following is a summary of environmental conditions and trends in Northeast Ohio. It focuses on issues for which data were available at the regional scale.

Finding: While the effects of flooding vary significantly across the region, data suggests that it remains a persistent and costly problem in Northeast Ohio.

Finding: Abandoned, environmentally degraded industrial sites (brownfields) pose challenges throughout Northeast Ohio.

Finding: Forest land acreage in Northeast Ohio has increased, but the number of rare species sighted in Northeast Ohio has decreased. While more forest land acres is positive for the region, most of the increase is due to abandonment of former farmland, leading to fragmented or “patchy” young forests that may not be able to support a wide range of species.

Finding: Land-cover data suggests that approximately 4-5% more acreage in Northeast Ohio was converted from “undeveloped” to “developed” between 1979 and 2006.

Finding: The limited data that is available suggests that Lake Erie continues to require remediation. Additional data about the longer-term trends of a number of indicators are needed to better understand Lake Erie’s health and needs.

Finding: Northeast Ohio has experienced some improvement in surface water quality in specific areas, but data suggests that other water sources throughout the region continue to need remediation.

Finding: Most Northeast Ohio counties fail to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ground-level ozone and fine particulates.

Finding: The Northeast Ohio Ambient Groundwater Quality Assessment shows the highest contamination threats from arsenic, a primary contaminant, and secondary contaminants iron, manganese, sulfate, and total dissolved solids. Secondary contaminants pose no threat to human health.

Finding: Additional data is needed to understand the impact of storm water runoff and the cost of its mitigation on Northeast Ohio communities.

Finding: Over the last 50 years, the number of Northeast Ohio farms and their total acreage has declined.

During the same period, the average size of Northeast Ohio farms has increased. Recently, however, the decline in overall farmland acreage has stabilized and shows a significant shift from mid-size to smaller farms. Northeast Ohio has also experienced a recent uptick in the number of farms and a decrease in average farm size, reversing trends of previous decades which saw the number of farms decline and the average farm size increase.

Finding: Most of the Region’s Population Lives within a Mile of Parks and Protected Spaces.

Finding: Northeast Ohio has a relatively high level of carbon emissions.