One Water Summit Showcases Innovative Solutions to 21st Century Water Challenges

June 20th, 2016

By Jon Honeck, GOPC Senior Policy Fellow

The U.S. Water Alliance is a coalition of water utilities, environmental engineering organizations, nonprofits, academics, and other groups interested in raising public awareness of challenges facing the U.S. water supply.  The group held its “One Water Summit 2016” in Atlanta, GA, in June, attended by GOPC Senior Policy Fellow Jon Honeck.  GOPC is engaged in a multi-year project to address water and sewer infrastructure needs in Ohio. 

Conference programming reflected the diversity of water-related challenges across the country.  Panelists at the opening plenary session discussed Atlanta’s attempt to address water supply and water quality issues brought about by decades of population growth, sprawl, and more recently, climate change.  The Atlanta metropolitan planning commission took the lead by integrating water with land use and transportation planning.  With changes in water pricing to promote conservation, the Atlanta metro region achieved a 10% water consumption decline in spite of population growth.   Water audits are now required for buildings with 25,000 ft2.  The Atlanta PACE program (Property Assessed Clean Energy) can provide commercial loans for water and clean energy efficiency that are paid back through property tax assessments.  Current efforts are aimed at improving water quality through green infrastructure.  The Turner Foundation is a major driver of this effort and a regional green infrastructure strategy is in the planning stages. 

One of the panels discussed the possibilities for implementing green infrastructure on a larger scale.  Green infrastructure has become a nationwide phenomenon with cities learning and sharing their experiences with each other.  Federal rules now require EPA-funded Clean Water state revolving funds to set aside an amount equal to 10 percent of their annual capitalization grant for green infrastructure projects.  Philadelphia has been considered a leader in this area as it implemented a plan to address combined sewer overflows under an EPA consent decree.   Atlanta has completed its CSO projects, but wants to continue to make progress in water quality to protect drinking water sources and to enhance recreational opportunities in urban areas.  Atlanta sent a large delegation to Philadelphia to learn from their experience.  The delegation included a multiple city departments and private sector groups, illustrating the breadth of the partnerships needed to carry out its goal of reducing runoff by 225 million gallons per year.   Panelists discussed the new mindset needed to implement green infrastructure, including treating natural vegetation as a capital asset and tracking long-term maintenance.  Philadelphia has no ROI information yet on its extensive green infrastructure installations because it is too soon to understand long-term maintenance costs, but green infrastructure is receiving about 3.5% of its annual capital budget.  In the Q&A session, other examples were brought up of cities moving ahead with green infrastructure, including the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District grants program, which provides assistance to private landowners with large surface parking lots (and large amounts of stormwater runoff), and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District, which aggressively pursuing green infrastructure for flood control and watershed management. 

One of many interesting panels discussed “Building a New Business Model for Water.”  Unlike most other countries, the U.S. water and wastewater industry is very fragmented, with 69,000 individual utilities nationwide.  David St. Pierre, CEO of the Chicago Water Reclamation District, discussed opportunities to think about larger structures through mergers, including the potential for cross-state mergers of public utilities.  This would entail putting in place a new regulatory structure that does not exist at present, but it would allow utilities to reap the benefits of economies of scale and learning that at present are only available to large international companies.  Often times, drinking water and wastewater utilities remain separate even in the same municipality.  Tony Parrot of the Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District discussed an inter-agency agreement to tie the operations of the MSD with the local drinking water utility, and how this led to the implementation of a new common billing system that will save operational costs.  The next step is to move to a full merger of the two systems.   Increasingly, some systems are turning to private companies to build or operate their facilities, and representatives of Veolia Water and MVP Capital discussed their experiences in partnering with public utilities. 

It is clear from the One Water Summit that there is tremendous energy and creativity in addressing water-related issues, and that the formerly sedate world of water utilities is changing fast.  Ohio cities have much that they can learn from their peers.  Other legacy cities, such as Louisville, are facing that challenges brought about by managing an infrastructure built for higher levels of water use.  Ohio’s capital city could also learn from growing cities like Atlanta that have combined land use and water infrastructure planning.  The issue of aging infrastructure, which is GOPC’s main concern, was brought up repeatedly by conference participants in panels and in informal conversation.  We are hopeful that GOPC’s forthcoming recommendations on financing mechanisms will not only be of use for Ohio but for other states across the nation. 

 

Gray v. Green Infrastructure

April 10th, 2014

By Raquel Jones, GOPC Intern

As the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) sets out on a $3 billion tunnel project, questions have been raised as to whether enough focus is being spent on a possibly cheaper and greener alternative to tunnels. Rates continue to increase to cover the cost of these expansive projects, but some ratepayers are not convinced that this is the best solution to their water and sewage issues. Some argue that green infrastructure (such as rain gardens, permeable pavement, and bio-infiltration installations) can often provide more sustainable benefits at a lesser cost than single-purpose gray infrastructure. Furthermore, building green infrastructure could possibly improve the overall aesthetic quality of some of Cleveland’s most blighted neighborhoods, by turning vacant lots into lush rain gardens and building more parks. These sort of green projects support property values by beautifying the surrounding areas, while also stimulating the economy by providing landscaping and maintenance jobs.

Although the NEORSD had originally agreed to include green infrastructure in their water and sewer system, they are now planning to spend 97.5% of project funds on seven large tunnels. Some arguments in favor of this decision include the fact that many green projects come with high barriers, such as the EPA requirement that the sewer district have full control over the land in perpetuity, so that it can be properly maintained. Sewer district Executive Director Julius Ciacca and his team have also argued that much of the green infrastructure technology is still unproven in large-scale applications and would be much more time-consuming, which could prove to be a risky move when aiming to meet a series of strict federally mandated benchmarks. This is due in part to the case that green infrastructure is often capable of capturing only the first inch of rainfall and diverting it from the sewer, so that in heavier rains, water retention features become overwhelmed, and the overflow defaults to the combined sewer system.

Although green infrastructure may be difficult to implement in the short term, the lasting effects of going green are undeniable. More and more cities are continuing to pursue green alternatives, such as Philadelphia’s recent projects, as green infrastructure continues to prove to be both sustainable and inexpensive in comparison to gray infrastructure. In many ways, it also adds property value to localities, as it works to beautify deteriorating and impoverished communities. Due to its many benefits, when used in the right locations, green infrastructure can add great value to both the existing water and sewer infrastructure and to surrounding neighborhoods.

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.