CINCINNATI -- Cincinnati area sewers get scary when it rains.
Think of everything that goes down your drain—in addition to the waste that gets flushed down toilets, there’s unused medicines, kitchen grease, food scraps and even goldfish. All that, plus street litter, debris, road salt, car and truck oils and industry runoff can flood Hamilton County’s aging sewer pipes when it rains.
That leads to one of two outcomes: Raw sewage backing up in basements or overflows into the Mill Creek and Ohio River -- the source of the region's drinking water.
Just how much of that sometimes-soupy, gaseous-smelling bouillabaisse of overflow?
Conservatively, 11 billion gallons. That’s how much sewage and storm water breaches the local system and flows into the 28-mile Mill Creek annually, according to the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSDGC).
One billion gallons of water, the amount released every year from the city’s biggest single overflow pipe in South Fairmount, would fill Paul Brown Stadium from field to rim.
Then from field to rim again.
And again, for a total of four very smelly football stadiums, according to MSDGC estimates.
And that’s just one pipe.
Combined Sewers Built To Overflow
The overflow problem is as old as the city itself. Much of the city’s household plumbing still connects with street and industrial sewage because our system of pipes and drains was built when the city was -- in the 1800s.
Like sewer systems around the country in other older cities—from New York to Chicago—Cincinnati’s pipes were designed to get rid of human and industrial waste as quickly as possible. Here, they wound up mixed together in bigger pipes that opened into the Mill Creek, the Ohio River and other tributaries, leading to decades of the kind of water quality that earned the Mill Creek the most endangered urban river title in 1997.
Decades after the Clean Water Act was enacted, and a decade after the Environmental Protection Agency filed civil suits against the City and Hamilton County to clean up our waterways, Hamilton County still has 212 Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). Most of them empty into the Mill Creek.
And when it rains, they can pour.
Getting sewer water out of waterways is a major goal of the plans the City, county and a host of community groups and consultants have developed to update the system and meet federal requirements. Dubbed Project Groundwork,
it’s a long, and expensive, process.
Paying The Piper
With a cost of more than $3 billion, Project Groundwork includes a variety of efforts to limit sewer overflows, about 25 percent consist of sanitary waste. Those plans include building holding tanks to store excess run-off, known as a grey water solutions, as well as more innovative approaches.
The Ault Park stream restoration, for example, cost just more than $3 million to eliminate about 17 million gallons of overflow into Duck Creek every year.
And the highest profile green solution effort so far, Lick Run will cost more than $120 million and divert more than 620 million gallons of overflow annually, about half of the current amount.
As in other cities around the country, property owners pay the vast majority of sewer updating costs. Since 2006, Cincinnati’s sewer rates have climbed more than 76 percent, costing property owners, on average, more than $700 a year in 2012 versus about $400 a year in 2006, according to figures provided by the Metropolitan Sewer District.
And those numbers are likely to keep rising.
But there are other sewer-related costs every year that may not be as big, but are certainly as messy. In 2012,
Cincinnati spent $3.6 million on its “Water in Basement” program, which includes both prevention and clean-up costs when sewage backs up into homes.
All the costs of dirty water don’t come with dollar signs, though. Untreated waste, pesticides and pharmaceuticals that flow out of the sewer system carry steep environmental costs along with them.
They endanger the catfish, carp and Blue Herons—not to mention kids who play and fish—along the Mill Creek.
“We are embarking on one of the largest public works projects in Hamilton County’s 200-plus year history,” said Tony Parrott, MSD’s executive director, via email. “We are doing everything we can to reduce the financial impact on our ratepayers as we work to make our communities cleaner and healthier.”
With sewer projects scheduled to continue for more than another decade, questions remain about how long sewer rates will continue to climb, and by how much. Parrott, though, framed the costs as investments, not burdens.
“It’s important to remember that investing in our sewer system not only improves the quality of our lives through cleaner streams and improved public health protection, it also creates jobs . . . .which can help strengthen our local economy.”
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