What is a Watershed?

A watershed is an area of land that feeds all the water running under it and draining off of it into a body of water (creek, stream, river or lake).

Whatever we do in our watershed, whether it’s good or bad, affects our neighbors further downstream. The Chagrin River watershed is part of the Lake Erie watershed. Many residents in our region use Lake Erie as their drinking water supply. We need to keep our watershed healthy and productive, because it keeps us healthy and productive!

Chagrin River Watershed Facts

The Chagrin River drains approximately 267 square miles to Lake Erie in northeast Ohio. The Main Branch of the Chagrin River begins as the Upper Main Branch above Bass Lake in Munson Township and flows 48 miles before entering Lake Erie in the City of Eastlake. Along its path, the Main Branch is joined by the River’s other branches - the Aurora Branch, flowing from the City of Aurora and meeting the Main Branch in the Village of Bentleyville, and the East Branch, beginning in Geauga County and joining the Main Branch in the City of Willoughby.


On a map from 1755, the Chagrin River was labeled as the Elk River. The name “Chagrin” has been claimed to come from two different sources. One source claims that the river was named the Shaguin to memorialize a French trader named Sieur de Saguin. Another hypothesis is that the Chagrin comes from the Indian word “shagrin” meaning “clear water”. Regardless of the origin of the name, it was anglicized in 1797 on a map of the Western Reserve prepared by Seth Pease to read “Chagrin River” and the name has since remained. Land use has been changing in the Chagrin River watershed since the settlers first arrived in the 1700’s. These families cleared forests and drained wetlands to build farms and villages. The Chagrin River, particularly in the area of Chagrin Falls, was used for mills in these early days as well. In spite of massive clearing and continued farming, residential, commercial and industrial development, the Chagrin River has maintained high water quality and natural beauty.


Significant wetland areas remain in the Chagrin River’s headwaters and throughout its watershed, though approximately 80 percent of historic wetlands have been filled or drained. While this wetland loss occurred throughout the watershed, much ofthe draining and filling happened in the coastal wetlands in Lake County along the Lake Erie shore. The remaining wetlands decrease flooding, provide important wildlife habitat, and filter pollutants.


Seventy-one miles of the Chagrin River are designated as a State Scenic River. The original designation of 49 miles includes the Aurora Branch from S.R. 82, 12 miles downstream to its confluence with the main stem of the Chagrin, 23 miles of the main stem from its confluence with the Aurora Branch downstream to US Rt. 6, and 15 miles of the East Branch from Heath Road Bridge downstream to its confluence with the main stem was made in 1979. The river’s Scenic designation was extended in November 2002 to include the headwaters of the Chagrin, also known as the Upper Chagrin. This 22-mile designation runs from the Woodiebrook Road bridge and continues downstream to the confluence with the Aurora Branch of the Chagrin River in Bentleyville. Scenic designated reaches of the river are characterized by exceptional aquatic habitat and adjacent high quality forests.


Generally the Chagrin River is a high quality ecosystem, however 7 tributaries do not meet Ohio Environmental Protection Agency water quality standards, while another 9 tributaries are only partially meeting water quality standards.


The Chagrin River is affected by how we decide to balance natural areas and development. In Ohio, the planning and regulations governing these decisions are made at the local level. The Chagrin watershed is similar to other watersheds in the Lake Erie basin in that it is a high quality resource threatened by impervious surface and stormwater impacts related to urban and suburban development. This development pressure will continue throughout the region as communities grow and parcels with natural resource constraints, such as steep slopes, riparian areas, and wetlands, are developed. The Chagrin River is being impacted by:


  • Nutrient enrichment from failing septic systems, package plants, wastewater treatment plants, and suburban lawn care,
  • Increased sedimentation due to runoff and erosion,
  • Filling and drainage of wetlands for development,
  • Urban runoff from stormwater, and
  • Flow alterations