Mid-Sized Cities with Declining Populations Face Water Infrastructure Dilemma

October 31st, 2016

By John Collier, GOPC Research & Conference Support Intern, and Jon Honeck, GOPC Senior Policy Fellow

The United States Government Accountability Office recently released a report on the water infrastructure dilemma occurring in the United States’ mid-sized and large cities with declining population.  GAO’s analysis was requested by Congressman Paul Tonko (D-NY), to understand the unique challenges these cities face in repairing and replacing water and sewer infrastructure.   The GAO noted that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) surveys of water utilities estimate that over 20 years, $655 billion will have to be spent to maintain, replace, or upgrade the country’s water infrastructure.

GAO interviewed water and wastewater utility officials in 10 cities in the Midwest and Northeast, including Youngstown, Ohio, that experienced large population declines between 1980 and 2010.  Youngstown lost 42% of its population over this time frame.  GAO acknowledged that mid-sized to larger cities with declining populations are generally more economically distressed, and suffer from higher unemployment, higher poverty rates, and lower median incomes. These cities, whose peak population typically was in the 1950s and 1960s, suffer from decreased revenue and increased costs. The characteristics of these legacy cities put them in a unique financial bind.

Nearly all the cities in the report expressed concerns over their ability to control combined sewer overflows. Outdated infrastructure in these legacy cities needs updated, but their financial situation makes this difficult.  All the selected cities in the report have raised utility rates in an effort to raise more revenue, but this results in affordability problems for low-income households.  Low-income households in Youngstown now pay over 8% of their median income for their water and sewer bills on a combined basis, well above EPA guidelines for affordability of 3%.  Although Youngstown and other cities have established payment plans to make utility access affordable for lower-income households, it does not discount bills for low-income households, and the prospect of future rate increases will continue to make affordability difficult. 

One of the interesting findings from the report was that the utilities in the study are adopting asset management plans, but it is very difficult to downsize or “rightsize” their infrastructure despite large areas of vacant housing or vacant land.  Asset management refers to creating a comprehensive inventory of the utility assets and their condition, and integrating this data with maintenance and capital planning.  The utilities noted that downsizing was difficult because they still had to service a few houses in each block, or maintain lines through vacant areas in order to reach neighborhoods farther away.  This response illustrates how difficult it is to separate infrastructure planning from overall land use planning. 

Greater Ohio Policy Center considers the modernization of Ohio’s water infrastructure a critical issue. GOPC has conducted an assessment of the issues Ohio’s legacy cities face, and the need for additional mechanisms, such as green infrastructure as an alternative stormwater management tool.  We believe that asset management and regional consolidation are key outcomes that could be accelerated with additional state incentives.     

More information about water infrastructure and links to GOPC’s reports can be found Here.

 

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.

Meeting the Infrastructure Challenge in Legacy Cities

March 31st, 2014

By Jacob Wolf, Research Associate

Combined sewer overflows (CSO) stink—both environmentally and economically—for Ohio’s cities. In many urban areas built up in the 19th and early 20th centuries, stormwater runoff drains into the same pipes that carry raw sewage to treatment facilities. Most days, all of the combined sewer and storm water makes it safely to the treatment plants. However, when there is heavy rainfall, the systems overload, and the excess untreated water gets diverted into rivers and lakes. This is referred to as a CSO event. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, and other cities around Ohio and the rest of the country are under mandates from the United States E.P.A. to reduce or eliminate the amount of CSO discharged into their waterways.

The strategies the affected cities are developing to reduce their CSO can be broadly categorized as either “gray infrastructure” or “green infrastructure.” “Gray” refers to building new pipes and tunnels underground to hold the excess water. “Green” involves using plants, gardens, and open space on the surface to reduce the amount of storm water runoff that gets into the pipes in the first place. The Plain Dealer recently ran a series of articles that analyzed the pros and cons of both approaches, focusing on the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD)’s $3 billion project to build new underground tunnels.

Green infrastructure has many benefits for urban revitalization. It commonly appears as street-side landscaping features or open, undeveloped space. It can also mean “daylighting” previously covered streams and waterways. Some green infrastructure projects transform vacant or abandoned property into “rain gardens.” All these forms of green infrastructure have great aesthetic benefits that improve the quality of urban places as they capture storm water and keep it out of the sewers.

The City of Philadelphia is leading the charge for green solutions to the CSO problem. Philadelphia’s 25-year, $2.4 billion CSO reduction plan will spend roughly 70% of the program’s budget on 8,000 to 12,000 acres of green projects. Officials estimate that this will eliminate about 8 billion gallons of sewage overflow per year. By contrast, the NEORSD tunnel project devotes only 2.5% of its $3 billion budget to green infrastructure.

However, NEORSD leaders and other critics argue that green methods alone will not prevent enough overflow events. Even if Philadelphia’s plan succeeds, it will still produce more gallons of overflow than Northeast Ohio does now. Furthermore, Philadelphia is not under an EPA consent decree, so it does not have the same stringent benchmarks to meet that NEORSD and other Ohio districts have.

Reducing and eliminating CSO discharge is key for economic development in legacy cities. Cleaner waterways create more desirable places that people want to live, work, and play. As it performs its utilitarian function of mitigating stormwater runoff, green infrastructure beautifies neighborhoods and creates vibrant, new public spaces. It can increase property values and provide a tool for disposing of vacant and abandoned residential property. Even if green infrastructure isn’t the only solution for CSOs, it should be at least be part of the solution due to the additional benefits it provides.