Two of Ohio’s biggest cities, Cleveland and Cincinnati, are using “green infrastructure” to help remedy their sewer districts’ issues with sewer overflows.
Now Akron wants to revise its long-term sewer plan to include similar environmentally friendly measures. The goal is to keep stormwater out of Akron’s overflowing combined sewers that too often pollute local waterways after heavy rains and snowmelts. The greener initiatives also can be less costly to put in place than sewer lines and related infrastructure, which today are estimated to cost the city $1.4 billion to fully implement.
State and federal government agencies — with at least one saying Akron’s request caught it off guard — are considering the new proposal. The city is banking on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency being amenable to such a change.
So-called green infrastructure relies heavily on plants and soils to filter and store rainwater and on methods that can keep rain from becoming runoff: cisterns, rain barrels, green roofs, permeable pavement, retention basins, rain gardens and man-made wetlands.
About one-third of Akron relies on combined sewers, which are a single pipe to handle both human waste and stormwater. The sewer lines are designed to discharge into local waterways to prevent backups into buildings.
The result, however, can be high bacteria levels — dangerous to humans and animals — in the discharge.
Akron’s 34 remaining combined sewer overflows (CSOs) dump about 2 billion gallons a year of untreated waste into the Cuyahoga and Little Cuyahoga rivers and the Ohio & Erie Canal.
The city’s consent decree to remedy the overflows, pending before U.S. District Judge John Adams, does not include green infrastructure.
First in Ohio
Meanwhile, Cleveland and Cincinnati are on what the U.S. EPA called the leading edge of green infrastructure implementation. They were negotiated after Akron’s consent decree.
The 2011 final agreement covering the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, with its 126 sewer overflows, includes green projects that must remove 44 million gallons a year from the CSO system by 2019, district spokeswoman Jen Elting said.
It was the first CSO consent decree in Ohio to include green infrastructure.
The district services much of Cuyahoga County plus areas of Summit — mainly in the Richfield, Hudson, Macedonia, Northfield and Sagamore Hills areas. It plans to spend $81 million on its 10 initial projects that are expected to cut overflows by more than 45 million gallons a year, she said.
The program is intended not only to reduce stormwater runoff, but also to develop community assets, with vacant lots being turned into rain gardens and parks to control runoff.
Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s overall CSO plan will cost $3 billion and take 25 years to implement.
The consent decree that the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati signed in June includes plans for green infrastructure.
Under a 2010 consent decree, the sewer district was required to construct a deep tunnel under Mill Creek or develop an alternative plan. The alternative was proposed to the EPA in December 2012.
The plan will cost $3.2 billion and will reduce overflows by 85 percent. The city causes 14.1 billion gallons of overflows per year.
The latest green Cincinnati plan will be less expensive than a gray, or concrete, remedy, the U.S. EPA said.
At least one local environmentalist is supportive of Akron’s move toward adding green infrastructure.
“If it works, it could be a superior way to go for the city and its residents,” said Elaine Marsh of Bath Township, a spokeswoman for the Friends of the Crooked River, a grass-roots group devoted to the Cuyahoga River. “I’m interested in hearing more.”
A key question, she said, is how quickly such green projects can be planned and developed. She said she is concerned that such projects could further delay getting cleaner waterways.
What happens next on the legal front remains unclear.
Akron has notified the U.S. EPA, the U.S. Justice Department, the Ohio EPA and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office that it is withdrawing its Long-Term Control Plan, a key element of the consent decree pending before Judge Adams.
The city said it intends to work with the U.S. EPA on what’s called an Integrated Plan that could give the city more options and deal more directly with affordability.
Cincinnati’s final agreement included an Integrated Plan; Cleveland’s did not.
Plusquellic met with federal officials Dec. 13 in Washington, D.C., and said there is support for Akron’s plan.
Akron’s request came as “a surprise,” said Kate Hanson, a spokeswoman for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine. Federal and state attorneys are conferring and taking Akron’s action under advisement, she said Wednesday.
She called it likely that Adams will want to discuss Akron’s proposed revisions.
It might take some time for the parties to agree on what happens next on Akron’s overflowing sewers, she said.
Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said his agency was aware of Akron’s decision. He declined further comment, however.
Ohio EPA spokesman Mike Settles said his agency “understands their frustration.” He said the EPA would work with the city and its federal partners to get a satisfactory resolution.
Adams rejected a proposed consent decree in March 2011. He said the agreement troubled him because the city’s sewer problems were polluting the Cuyahoga River in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and because he wanted the sewer cleanup completed far more quickly than the 18 years outlined in the city’s proposal.
A revised agreement was submitted to Adams in 2012. It calls for work to be completed by 2027. The Ohio EPA and the city of Akron had been moving forward with that plan, even though it has not been approved.
The agreement calls for Akron to eliminate all untreated sewer discharges with a system of retention basins, two giant tunnels, a special treatment plant for raw sewage and stormwater from overflows from one tunnel, relief sewers and improvements to the city’s sewer system. Some of these features might be eliminated if Akron’s plan gets modified.
Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or email@example.com.