Lake County flood will force nature to adapt

By Jeffrey L. Frischkorn Contributing
Writer

Painesville, Ohio — In the aftermath of the July 28
record-setting flooding in Lake County, scientists predict nature
will demonstrate an uncanny ability to roll with the punches.

More than eight inches of rain fell in a matter of hours,
causing both the Grand and Chagrin rivers to swell well outside
their banks. Stream flows reached speeds of 28,000 cubic feet per
second at the height of the flooding, virtually 10 times greater
than the previous record.

The damages could total millions of dollars as entire sections
of docks with boats still attached were washed into Lake Erie, and
marinas, boat ramps, and dwellings were drowned out.

Yet, even in the short-term, affected plant and animal
communities will adapt, though it could take years before the scars
completely disappear.

But steelhead anglers just might find themselves the most at
loss. Flattened by the rush of water measured at thousands of cubic
feet per second, plant communities living along the Chagrin and
Grand River flood plains at first blush seem to be victims. After
all, many of these plants still lie buried in heavy silt; a medium
that can choke off life.

Yet, don’t count out these plants, says a leading Ohio
naturalist.

“In these kinds of situations, it’s often worse for humans than
it is for biota,” said Guy Denny, retired chief of the DNR Division
of Natural Areas and Preserves.

Denny said many plants will struggle to push their way through
the heavy silt. Yet, considering how plants can punch through
asphalt demonstrates how tough they are, Denny said.

“I’m sure a lot of plant material was rooted out of the ground
but many riparian plant species are designed to withstand that sort
of thing,” Denny said.

And while some plant communities may need a little assistance in
order to repopulate a given area, any damage should be seen in the
context of the short-term and not the forever, Denny says.

“There will be some barren spots for a while but it’s amazing
what can be thrown at plants. I’m confident they’ll bounce back,”
he said.

However, fish in the two rivers and their feeder tributaries
likely will have a more difficult go in the recovery process.
Resiliency will be a factor here as well, says Phil Hillman,
fisheries supervisor for the DNR Division of Wildlife’s northeast
Ohio office in Akron.

“Obviously, wherever current is strong enough then fish will be
relocated downstream but over time there will be repopulation of
the vacated places,” he said.

Most vulnerable will be young fish, Hillman said. And a certain
degree of fish morality similarly can be expected as some
individuals no doubt were squeezed against structure or else caught
in an isolated pool separated from a stream, he said. At that
point, the situation often turns into a smorgasbord for fur-bearing
predators which feast on the trapped fish, Hillman says.

“Raccoons and such can and do take advantage of the situation,”
he said.

Also anticipated to feel the flood water’s impact are various
small aquatic creatures, notably salamanders and crayfish. The
latter will seek to burrow into the mud or hide underneath a rock
if possible while other invertebrates will work to find areas with
minimal current flow, Hillman said. Even sea lamprey larvae could
be affected by the flooding.

“It won’t mean (sea lamprey will) die but they will be displaced
downstream,” Hillman said.

Land-based wildlife possibly suffered the greatest. Yet even
here, course correction is the order of the natural world, says
Harvey Webster, director of wildlife resources for the Cleveland
Museum of Natural History.

“Even though it seems like an unprecedented event for humans
it’s still part of the rhythm of nature,” Webster said.

What a severe flood can do is wipe out ground-hugging bird nests
and rabbit warrens even though the adults likely escaped, Webster
said.

“That’s one reason why species like rabbits produce multiple
litters with a lot of young,” Webster said.

Besides, Webster also says, a good scouring of a river can be a
good thing for wildlife. Such a wash-down cleanses a stream of
accumulated silt and rearranges the substructure of a river and
pours more nutrients into the flood plains.

“None of this may be in our game plan as humans but that is why
it’s called a flood plain,” Webster said. “It’s a part of the ebb
and flow of life.”

As the natural world makes it readjustments wrought by the
flooding, so must anglers, especially those targeting steelhead.
Fishing holes, runs, chutes, and gravel bars that were in one
location before the flooding very likely are now somewhere
else.

“It’s going to change the rivers’ make-up, no question. We’re
all going to have to learn the rivers all over again,” said Bruce
Dickerson, owner of Grand River Tackle in Fairport Harbor,
Ohio.

“There’s always some rearrangement happening but this flooding
makes it much more dramatic.”

Dickerson did say some of the Grand River’s fabled steelhead
sections should continue to provide stable fishing. Such locations
as the Painesville’s Recreation Park stretch can be expected to
maintain its grip because of that section’s rock-based dynamics,
Dickerson said.

“I’d expect the area around Route 84 in Painesville will change
a lot since there’s less slate and much more gravel there, which
washes away a lot easier,” Dickerson said.

The thing is, anglers will need to do some scouting to assess
the changes once the rivers are again confined to within their
banks, Dickerson said.

In this way, a better handle on what to expect this autumn will
come about, Dickerson said.

“On the plus side, if the flows in the rivers keep going the way
they do we might even see an earlier run of steelhead,” Dickerson
said. “Usually this time of year all we have is a trickle in the
creeks.”

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