Managing Stormwater: GOPC Attends Great Water Cities Conference

May 16th, 2016

By Jon Honeck, GOPC Senior Policy Fellow

Introduction

On May 12, 2016, the Water Environment Federation (www.wef.org) held its “Great Water Cities 2016: Rainfall to Results in Action” conference in Chicago, IL.  The focus of the conference was creating a holistic approach to managing stormwater in the 21st Century, and the panel discussions were organized around recommendations from WEF’s Rainfall to Results report.  Attendees included water utility water leaders and industry representatives from across the country and as far away as Australia.  GOPC’s Jon Honeck, Senior Policy Fellow, attended as part of our ongoing water and sewer infrastructure project to find new strategies to modernize Ohio’s aging infrastructure. 

Background

Stormwater management is an issue that accompanies growing urbanization. Urbanization creates thousands of acres of impervious surfaces and removes the ability of the natural landscape to absorb water when it rains.  Unfortunately, many U.S. cities in the early 20th century constructed “combined” sewer systems that mixed rain water and sewage water in the same tunnels, causing raw sewage to discharge into waterways during heavy rains.  In recent decades, EPA enforcement of the Clean Water Act has forced cities around the country, including many in Ohio, to separate their combined sewer systems and find ways to hold millions of gallons of rainwater temporarily out of the sewer system.  This is often accomplished by building deep storage tunnels, which are extremely expensive capital projects that take years to complete.  New approaches, such as using “green infrastructure” that restores that ability of the landscape to capture stormwater runoff, are now taking center stage as cities look for ways to lower costs and provide more effective solutions.

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Stormwater Utilities

There is an emerging consensus among water industry experts that the field needs a new paradigm, called a “stormwater utility,” and that governmental regulatory frameworks and planning approaches need to change to support this.  Traditional municipal utilities have been organized around drinking water or sewer systems, each with their own user charges, infrastructure, and performance expectations.  Stormwater management in its own right was usually an afterthought, except insofar as it was needed for basic flood control.  A stormwater utility could take many forms, depending on the state and local regulations and needs, but the basic concept is an entity that can work on a large scale, across individual municipalities in a metro area, and even across an entire watershed, to plan and implement stormwater management. 

One of the keys to the paradigm shift is the concept of stormwater runoff as a commodity that has a price.  Districts around the country are implementing dedicated stormwater fees to create an ongoing revenue source for operation and maintenance.  Afternoon speaker Howard Neukrug (Senior Fellow at the U.S. Water Alliance) who implemented Philadelphia’s nationally renowned green infrastructure program, noted that the foundation of the city’s program was a parcel-based stormwater fee and redevelopment regulations that require capture of the first 1.5 inches of rainfall from new or renovated buildings.  Sometimes existing regulatory arrangements make it difficult for utilities to work on scale commensurate with the need.  Morning panelist Karen Sands, Director of Sustainability for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District, related that MMSD has an aggressive green infrastructure program, but in order to meet its stormwater capture targets by 2035, the district would have to spend at an annual rate 18 times higher than its current level.  MMSD is now looking at other public private partnerships as a potential solution. 

In other areas of the country, federal and state regulatory frameworks create an urgent need for local governments to cooperate.  As explained by panelist L. Preston Bryant, Senior V.P. of McGuireWoods Consulting and former Secretary of the Virginia Department of Natural Resources, Virginia law treats the US EPA’s Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) regulation for Chesapeake Bay as a joint responsibility between the state and local governments and this has spurred regional collaboration.  The state of Virginia also has a Stormwater Local Assistance Fund as part of its EPA clean water revolving loan program that will pay for up to 50% of the costs of local projects.  The state of Maryland also has a stormwater law to help protect the Chesapeake.  Prince George’s County, MD, is an example of a county that moved ahead with a stormwater fee that is being used to fund a public-private partnership that is aggressively creating green infrastructure. 

Asset Management

Asset management for both capital projects and human resources was another theme of the conference.  It is obvious that there are a variety of approaches to maintaining green infrastructure and that there is no agreement on best, or even standard, practice. David St. Pierre, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, explained that MWRD shares the initial installation costs with local governments and then maintains agreements in which the local governments are responsible for long-term maintenance.  In Baltimore, Randy Chow, Director of the Baltimore Department of Public Works explained that the department wants neighborhood organizations to play a role in maintaining green infrastructure. Korey Gray, Business Development Officer of DC Water, described how the city public works department helps to maintain green infrastructure in Washington.  

Several of the afternoon panelists presented visions of both optimism and pessimism about the future adaptability of water utilities in general.  On an optimistic note, Marcus Quigley, CEO and Founder of Opti, a data analysis firm, noted that rapid advances in the field of sensor technology were making it possible to have real time monitoring and control of individual assets, leading to the potential for huge gains in efficiencies from existing infrastructure.  On a more pessimistic note, William Stowe, CEO and General Manager of Des Moines Water Works discussed his organization’s decision to file suite against upstream quasi-governmental water management organizations for allowing agricultural runoff (excessive nitrates) to pollute the Des Moines River.  In his view, as long as industrial agriculture remains outside of the EPA stormwater and pollution control framework, agricultural areas in the Midwest will have to invest heavily in equipment to clean excessive nitrates from their drinking water, leading to excessive financial burdens on urban residents.

The conference made it clear that stormwater management is a dynamic, emerging field in which information-sharing across geographies and across professional boundaries is essential.   There is a real desire for innovation and experimentation as local utilities try different approaches.  The need for creativity will become even more important as the 21st Century matures and the effects of climate change are felt more acutely. 

Water Resilient Cities Conference Offers Innovative Solutions to Water Infrastructure

May 5th, 2016

By Jon Honeck, Senior Policy Fellow, and Colleen Durfee, Research Intern

Greater Ohio Policy center recently attended Cleveland State University’s Water Resilient Cities conference. From April 21st to the 22nd professionals, practitioners, community development organizations, and academics gathered to discuss the current state of water infrastructure in the Great Lakes region. The innovations, needs, consequences, and potential growth of Great Lakes cities depend heavily on water infrastructure, its maintenance, modernization, and adaptation to more variable climate patterns. How do we protect our natural water bodies when faced with the desire for economic and community growth? The conversation between the themes of regional growth, natural resource protection, and looming effects of climate change is one of paramount importance when considering the future of the Great Lakes region.

The Water Innovation Keynote address was delivered by Hillary Brown, a Fellow at the American Institute of Architects and Professor at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at CUNY.  Dr. Brown showed numerous examples of cities around the world are creating innovative solutions to water infrastructure needs while lowering the carbon footprint of a treatment facility or sometimes parts of a city.  Some of the most innovative practices include on-site reuse of wastewater and stormwater in large buildings and mixed use districts.  These areas are taken “off the grid” in terms of their water use and save energy through decentralized treatment systems that do not have to move water long distances.  Other examples showed treatment facilities finding ways to maximize opportunities for co-generating energy:

  • In Japan, a water utility placed acres of solar panels in its adjacent reservoir, generating electricity for the facility but also lowering evaporation from the reservoir.  The water also helps to cool the solar panels.
  • In Lille, France, a utility is recovering biogas from wastewater and other organic waste to produce biogas for the municipal bus system.
  • In Oakland, CA, a utility has constructed a biodigestion facility that generates electricity from sewage;
  • In Vancouver, Canada, heat from wastewater is being used to heat a residential district.
  • In Mankato, MN, treated wastewater is being used for cooling a traditional power plant.

In order to fully promote these types of opportunities, Dr. Brown advocates for the inclusion of specific clean energy principles in the award formulas of state infrastructure banks or state drinking water or wastewater revolving funds.  These principles include: supporting mixed land use, mitigating CO2 production, incorporating green infrastructure, integrating social and energy benefits, and including climate adaptation measures.

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In the third panel session, Professor Richard Norton from the University of Michigan demonstrated the variability and vulnerability due to climate change and development patterns on Lake Michigan’s shores. He made an interesting point that like the world’s oceans, the Great Lakes will change water levels due to climate change. However, these changes have a very different timeline than those of saltwater coastlines and therefore are more difficult to track. There is no daily tide on lakeshores as there is on our salt-water coasts. The Great Lakes ebb and flow at a variability of several meters over the course of a decade, not several hours. This variability is fairly normal. It’s the severity of the high and low levels that are anticipated due the accumulated effects of drier summers and wetter, warmer, winters over long periods of time. For example, between 1980 and 2000, Lake Michigan gained over 200 feet of beach frontage. Many property owners see this as a gain in real estate but each municipality on lakeshores has different zoning ordinances and city codes regarding lakeshore development practices.

Dr. Norton showed an example of a property owner’s development decision that highlights the vulnerability of lake shore development and the conflicts that sometimes manifest between private property owners and city zoning officials and planners. It is difficult to dissuade someone from developing on their property when for the past several years they had access to hundreds of feet of lakeshore frontage. Dr. Norton showed satellite images of Lake Michigan’s shoreline from the 1930s, 1960s, and 2000s. They varied by hundreds of feet of beach frontage – about two meters change in lake depth. The property owner decided to build a multimillion-dollar home closer to the shoreline but against the city’s guidance. Years later, the shoreline rose and nearly ran right up against the outside walls of the home. The homeowner asked for permission to build a sea wall to protect his home against the rising water and the city denied it. Eventually, the home was lifted from its foundation and moved further back from the shoreline to avoid flooding. If the water level continued to rise as it very well might, the home would be almost completely under water. The take away from Dr. Norton’s presentation is that lakeshore coasts and their communities need to understand the variability and timeline of water levels for great lakes. Development along lake shorelines is very different from that of saltwater coastal areas and in the coming decades of higher variability, lakeshores will be even more vulnerable to severe rises and falls in the water lines.

GOPC is in the midst of a multi-year project on Ohio’s water and sewer infrastructure.  The Phase I report, released in Fall 2015, analyzed infrastructure needs and gaps, and our recent report on “green” infrastructure describes how cities in Ohio and around the country are using innovative and less costly approaches for stormwater control. Our current work focuses on identifying best practices in infrastructure financing that can be adapted to Ohio.   Some examples of financing tools include credit enhancements or loan guarantees for cities without debt capacity, state infrastructure banks or other methods to pool financing needs, additional state investments in revolving loan funds or grant programs, incentives for regionalization and shared services among water and sewer systems, improved funding for integrated watershed management, and public-private partnerships.

 

A Look Back on my Internship at GOPC

April 22nd, 2016

By Addie DesRoches, GOPC Intern

As my time as an Intern is winding down at the Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC), I have taken some time to look back on my experience as part of the organization. After anxiously waiting to begin my internship at GOPC, Deputy Director Alison Goebel helped me feel more at ease on my first day. She introduced me to many of the staff members and then took me into her office to discuss what I would be doing at GOPC. I then met with Sheldon Johnson and Colleen Durfee, who showed me how to track conferences and call for submission deadlines on a spreadsheet. Later, Lindsey Gardiner introduced me to a project where I would sort through House and Senate bills that involved rural, suburban, and urban revitalization, which she ultimately presented to the House.  I also helped create a list of contact information of representatives running for House in the next cycle who are involved with Lindsey’s bill.

A few months later, I met Dr. Nobuhisa Taira of Seigakuin University in Japan, who had come to learn about Ohio land banks. Following our meeting, I wrote a blog post on his plans to apply research on Ohio land bank models in Japan. While working on these projects, I also created one-page documents that briefly describe GOPC’s areas of work. Because I really enjoyed this design work, I created an updated GOPC press release banner. I also found out that I thoroughly enjoyed working on spreadsheets when I was involved with two projects. For one project, I helped Alex Highley and Sheldon update Ohio newspaper contact information and the second involved helping Lindsey locate all the Brownfield locations in Ohio in order to draw up a live map.

I have learned a lot from my colleagues at GOPC and enjoyed my time working with them. They have given me so much insight on how a nonprofit organization works and tools that can be used to improve Ohio’s cities. For instance, before I came to the GOPC I had no idea what a Land Bank or Brownfield was, let alone what they can be used for. Being able to read GOPC reports and seeing the success of Ohio’s Land Banks gave me new knowledge about solutions I was not aware of.  Now knowing and understanding how to utilize these and other tools in improving the community, I feel as though I will bring an alternative outlook to policy creation and action in my future endeavors.

GOPC Staff Attends the 2016 Ohio Brownfields Conference

April 20th, 2016

By Lindsey Gardiner, GOPC Manager of Government Affairs

Earlier this month GOPC staff attended the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency’s 2016 Ohio Brownfields Conference. The two day conference included beginner-friendly and advanced presentations, making the event attractive to attendees from a number of different disciplines such as environmental consultants, economic development, brownfield and other municipal officials, state government officials, developers, and various nonprofit community organizations.

The Abandoned Gas Station Cleanup Fund Program was one of the headlining topics during the keynote portion on the first day. GOPC played an instrumental role during the creation of the program nearly one year ago. The program was designed to offer funding for the cleanup and remediation of abandoned gas stations and enable environmentally safe and productive reuse of the sites. The program was established in conjunction with the Ohio Development Services Agency (ODSA), the Ohio EPA, and the Department of Commerce, Bureau of Underground Storage Tank Regulations (BUSTR). For more information on the Abandoned Gas Stations Cleanup Program, please visit here

Brownfields Conf

Photo by Ohio EPA

The presentations throughout the conference offered creative ways to take the problem of brownfields, and utilize them so they are part of the solution for Ohio communities. Some solutions include building green infrastructure on contaminated sites to tackle combined sewer overflows in urban areas, or turning contaminated materials into value-added engineered materials. It is clear that leaders in the brownfield industry see these contaminated sites as opportunities for growth. Presentations from out-of-state industry leaders offered a valuable education to attendees about what has worked for their state, and how their rules and regulations compare to Ohio’s. GOPC looks forward to incorporating information gained from the Ohio EPA’s 2016 Brownfields Conference to create more opportunities for brownfield remediation in Ohio.

Rising Rent in Ohio Cities Highlights Need for Affordable Housing

April 4th, 2016

By Sheldon Johnson, Urban Revitalization Project Specialist

According to a recent study released by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, there has been an unprecedented surge in rental housing in the US. In 2005 there were approximately 34 million families and individuals living in rental housing; by mid-2015 there were approximately 43 million. The increase of nearly 9 million rental households from 2005 to 2015 is the largest gain of any 10-year period on record.

This historic increase of rental households nation-wide has been coupled with rising rent as the share of households who experienced a rise in rent grew from 31% to 37%, which is the highest level since the mid-1960s. Of the 43 million families and individuals who rent, 1 in 5 are considered to be cost-burdened, meaning they pay between 31 and 50% of their income on rent. Additionally the number of severely cost-burdened renters, who pay more than 50% of their income on rent, increased from 7.5 million to 11.4 million from 2005 to 2015.

Ohio cities have not been immune to this nationwide trend. According to CBRE, a Cincinnati based commercial real estate firm, rent adjusted for inflation rose 7% in Greater Cincinnati from 2009 to 2015. The National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) estimated that nearly 34% of the population in Greater Cincinnati are renters. While renters of all kinds are affected by increasing rent, low-income renters are most adversely affected.

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The Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies reported that 44% of Cincinnati renters are cost-burdened and 24% are severely cost-burdened. An NLIHC study found that an individual working at the state’s minimum wage of $8.10 an hour would need to work 44 hours a week to afford a modest studio apartment at fair market rent in Cincinnati. They would need to work 55 hours for a one bedroom apartment, 73 for a two bedroom, and 101 for a three bedroom.

Low-income renters in other areas of Ohio also face difficulties paying for rent. The Urban Institute reports that Franklin County has 24 affordable housing units for every 100 extremely low-income (ELI) households— defined as a family of four making less than $20,000 a year. Columbus has more than 59,000 extremely low-income families, but only 14,000 available units they can afford.

It is clear that housing affordability is an issue that will be critical to the redevelopment of Ohio cities. Greater Ohio Policy Center is engaged in emerging conversations in local communities and statewide regarding potential solutions.

 

GOPC Releases Memos Recommending Strategies to Reform Ohio’s Transportation Policy

March 15th, 2016

GOPC is a leading advocate for policy reforms that will support a diverse and modernized transportation system in Ohio.  To support GOPC’s most recent policy recommendations, GOPC has published a series of research memos that:

  • Analyze Pennsylvania’s 2013 comprehensive budget reform and identifies strategies that Ohio could replicate.  Undertaking a similar reform in Ohio could produce more resources and recalibrated funding to better fund all transportation modes, especially public transportation.
  • Outline the benefits of “flexing” $30 million of Ohio’s federal dollars to public transportation.  Ohio is the 7th most populous state in the country yet ranks 38th in state support of public transportation.  The allocation of existing federal funds to transit could support 370 new rural transit vans or 107 new full size buses per year.  Ohio currently has 275 rural vehicles and 900 urban buses beyond their useful life and 22 rural counties without any transit service.
  • Discuss the benefits of raising the state motor fuel tax, indexing it to inflation and removing, through statewide ballot, the constitutional provisions that restricts the gas tax’s use to highways.  By the Ohio constitution, the state’s gas tax can only be used for highway construction and repairs.  While increasing the gas tax is not a complete  solution, it is a longstanding resource that will remain so for Ohio.

To attract and retain businesses and residents, states across the country are investing in diverse, modern transportation systems that support all modes.  Ohio has a geographic advantage of being within 600 miles of over half of the U.S. and Canadian populations.  To leveraging this prime position, Ohio must invest in transit, bike/ped, rail, deep water ports, airports and highways. GOPC’s memos outline strategies to support and enhance all the modes that make up Ohio’s transportation system.

Click here to for more information and to access the memos.

Connecting Neighborhood Revitalization to “Green” Water Infrastructure

March 10th, 2016

By Colleen Durfee, GOPC Research Intern

Stormwater runoff and Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are primary concerns of Ohio’s industrial legacy cities. In the midwest, we have long depended upon natural water sources for city and metro water needs but severe weather patterns, decades of unsustainable development, aging infrastructure, and fluctuating populations damage natural hydrological systems by allowing human produced bypass and overflow to enter them without being treated. Because of this, many municipalities are faced with needing to upgrade sewer and stormwater infrastructure. Whether mandated by the EPA or adopted independently, stormwater and sewer infrastructure upgrades are extremely expensive. However, municipalities are finding incorporating green infrastructure allows them to cut costs while meeting desired stormwater and CSO capture. Green stormwater and CSO infrastructure often require making more porous surfaces, meaning the land can act as a sponge and absorb the first inch or so of water during a storm rather than flowing on impervious surfaces until reaching a sewer system that overflows into rivers, streams, and lakes. In legacy cities where population and income decline leave abandoned and vacant land in their wake, we find an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

Click Here to Read Part I of GOPC’s Infrastructure and Brownfields Needs Assessment!

Repurposing vacant land for green infrastructure can also revitalize neighborhoods, attract populations, stimulate economic activity, and increase incomes and property values. In cities with brownfields and abandoned property, green infrastructure is a welcome alternative to letting the space remain unusable. Buffalo, NY is addressing the problem of population shrinkage by using abandoned and vacant land to “right-size”, incorporating green infrastructure into its urban core. In Ohio, Youngstown adopted a shrinking city policy as part of their comprehensive land-use plan, allowing them to incorporate porous surfaces and act as a location for wetland creation, fulfilling a need for companies to create wetlands under the wetland banking regulations. Cleveland, St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati, are using abandoned lots for green infrastructure like rain gardens and storm basins as part of their overflow control plan.

Repurposing condemned and abandoned properties beautifies neighborhoods, decreases crime, enhances health, reduces urban heat index, and has long-term economic benefits. For municipalities riddled with abandoned properties –remnants of mid-twentieth century hay-day – opportunities to “right-size” while positively affecting stormwater runoff issues should be seized upon. Green infrastructure is not only cost effective but also efficient and adds benefits to the human experience, environment, and health far beyond fiscal viability. In the long term, green infrastructure upgrades will not only provide stormwater runoff and CSO benefits but create resilient and long-lasting communities that house more permanent residents, leading to economic, human, and environmental health.

Ohio Landbanks – An International Model

February 29th, 2016

By Addie DesRoches, GOPC Intern         

In 2008, when Ohio was just starting to experiment with land banks, there wasn’t a guarantee that benefits would come from the innovative idea.  Now eight years later, Ohio is being used as a national and international model.

The Greater Ohio Policy Center (GOPC) had the pleasure of meeting with Dr. Nobuhisa Taira of Seigakuin University of Japan to discuss the opportunity of creating land banks in rural and urban areas of Japan.  Nationally, Japan’s vacancy rate is 10% to 15%, which is par with Ohio’s (which is about 11%).

Dr. Taira informed us about the multiple issues Japanese communities face with vacancy.  They often run into temporary vacancy because the owners are using the property for specific storage space or they are hospitalized.  This is a difficult issue because someone has ownership of the space but it is not their priority to take care of the property.  Ohio has similar issues, but Japan has implemented a system that allows them to track the owner or presiding decision-maker of the property.  Unfortunately Ohio does not have a statewide system that tracks property ownership.

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Another example Dr. Taira stated is that every time a snowstorm hits a new vacant property, there is the potential for it to become a blighted property.  Another specific case is in a row house situation.  The houses are protected under historic preservation designations, but when a property in the middle of the structure becomes blighted, it affects the structure as a whole.  This not only causes property and revenue loss but the loss of the historical protection as well.  With the creation of land banks, land banks could work to take control of the problem property to then make improvements or prevent blight from occurring.  Additionally, a land bank could return the property to a desirable state for people and preserve the historical features.

GOPC is excited to see what advances come in Japan from Dr. Taira’s visit.  We are wishing him the best and hope he enjoyed his time in Ohio while gaining insight into some of the most efficient land banks in the nation.

The First Step to Revitalization

February 18th, 2016

By Torey Hollingsworth, GOPC Graduate Intern

This week, GOPC released a study called the62.4 Reporton urban health and competitiveness in Akron. The report, whose title refers to the city’s square mileage, realistically acknowledges that the city is facing challenges, but also finds that Akron is in a strong position to deal with them. GOPC’s work on small- and medium-sized legacy cities nationwide has found that for many cities, the first step of recovery and revitalization is understanding and accepting their current situation. This may have been more challenging for Akron, because unlike many of its peers, it has not had a clear moment of hitting “rock bottom” when a major economic sector completely left town. Instead, change in Akron has been slower, with a steady stream of residents and businesses leaving the central city for the suburbs and a more gradual shift from a manufacturing-based to service-based economy. Without a major crisis, the alarm bells never rang, even though conditions in the city were declining.

Downtown overhead

Akron, Ohio

Fortunately, many stakeholders in Akron are willing to take a hard look at where Akron is now to plan for where the city can be. Kyle Kutuchief, program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation – which grew out of Akron and funded the study, compares the report to diagnostic testing required when going to the doctor. Once the city knows what is wrong, it can start making a plan for getting better.

Akronites are excited about making that plan. GOPC Executive Director Lavea Brachman and Graduate Intern Torey Hollingsworth travelled to Akron this week to present the report’s findings. At meetings with stakeholders, they had productive conversations about what the city could do to reposition itself as a vibrant, competitive city where people want to live and work. Despite the sobering data, there was clear energy about Akron’s future and resolve to do what it takes to get the city there. Now that the city has taken the tough first step of finding out what needs to change, Akron is even better positioned for recovery. 

Go here to read the report!

GOPC Partner Preservation Rightsizing Network Releases Action Agenda

February 11th, 2016

The Greater Ohio Policy Center has been a long time contributor to and supporter of the Preservation Rightsizing Network (PRN).  PRN works in legacy cities to preserve local heritage and revitalize the built environment, bring market sensitive tools and solutions that leverage historic preservation for urban revitalization.

GOPC has long supported a holistic approach to legacy city revitalization—calling for a strategic and thoughtful mix of demolition, rehab, historic preservation and new development.  GOPC is pleased to share a video associated with the release of an Action Agenda for historic preservation in Legacy Cities.  GOPC co-sponsored the public event where the report was released and looks forward to supporting Ohio’s communities as they implement tools and policies contained in the Agenda.

Please take 5 minutes to watch this video to learn more about the Action Agenda.