Why not a lake and a brook at Horseshoe?

Horsehoe Lake prior to draining. [Photo Courtesy Google]

The discussion around Horseshoe Lake has been presented as a binary choice: either fix the old dam and refill the lake for $20.7 million, billed to Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights, or get rid of the lake altogether and transform that part of the park into a riparian brook environment. Why only two options?

The cost-benefit issue for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) is that repairing the dam would not improve flood control at the critical “pinch point” of University Circle, because the watershed draining into that one lake is quite small. However, NEORSD would fund the creation of a brook designed to help slow down and absorb stormwater runoff.  

Right now, the drained, man-made lake is filling itself in with wildflowers and other vegetation. It looks lovely and is attracting some wildlife, but its current state is likely temporary. Left alone for 20 or 30 years, it would fill in with trees and look much like the rest of the shallow wooded valley downstream and upstream of it.

Whether that’s the “natural state” of the land depends somewhat on whether one considers humans to be part of, or separate from, the natural world, given the effects of a couple centuries of human settlement here. In any case, we’d end up with neither a lake nor a wetland meadow, but a slightly longer stretch of the wooded valley that is already there.

If the philosophical goal is to return things to their natural state, one worn-out, old, earthen dam retaining a small amount of water is much less of an issue than the few thousand acres of impervious surface built in this watershed long after the Shakers were just a memory.

A map from Doan Brook Watershed Partnership’s website shows that the vast paved expanse of commercial development along the north side of Chagrin Boulevard, this side of Richmond Road in Beachwood, drains into the Doan Brook sewershed; you don’t hear anybody suggesting we return that to its natural state in order to reduce stormwater runoff pressure in University Circle. In that light, it’s hard not to see Shaker Lakes' issues as yet another instance of older, inner-ring cities paying the price for further-out development.

It may be useful to think of this as two separate potential projects: one would re-establish a nice lake to the “Shaker Lakes” neighborhood that was built around it; the other would construct an additional section of riparian brook configured to suppress stormwater.

When the Shakers built the lake to its original size and 25-foot depth, they needed that large volume of water to power their mills. We have no mills now, and don’t need a lake that large or deep for our current purposes, which are largely aesthetic and recreational: a few feet deep is fine, and somewhat smaller would also be fine. (We’ve done OK with a shallow lake for quite a while, it turns out).

Would it be that hard to use a bulldozer to make a smaller, intentionally shallow Horseshoe Lake wrapping around the existing park peninsula, and let that drain and meander into a longer section of “flood-control brook” connecting to the existing stream?

Such an approach might retain the flavor of the neighborhood’s historic amenity, provide wildlife habitat specific to a lake, add a bit more riparian brook environment, and address NEORSD’s pragmatic stormwater concerns—and it might not cost $20.7 million (a bewildering figure that must come from fulfilling a bunch of assumptions about how to restore a 170-year-old dam to its original purpose while meeting modern codes).

A quick survey of online resources suggests it typically runs less than $5,000 per acre to construct a fishing pond; by that estimate a brand-new, 10-acre Horseshoe Lake should cost about $50,000. Certainly, the real cost would be affected by specific factors of that park environment, and by the desire for related amenities, such as paths and bridges, but it’s hard to see those adding up to $20.65 million.

In fairness to the sewer district, it’s not its job to remedy the inequities of suburban sprawl, or consider what brings desirability and property value to a neighborhood. If it would fund the project related to flood control, and the two cities pooled resources to make a nice, ornamental pond at modest cost, those two projects together might work just fine.

Greg Donley

Greg Donley has lived not too far from Horseshoe Lake since 1987

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Volume 14, Issue 10, Posted 10:34 AM, 09.28.2021