News Feature | December 3, 2013

Cincinnati Shells Out Billions To Stop Sewage Overflows

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome


Cincinnati is trying to get sewer water out of its waterways with a $3 billion effort called Project Groundwork. 

The overflow problem is infamous in Cincinnati "Every year, about 14.1 billion gallons of raw sewage and stormwater overflow into local rivers and streams and back up into basements," according to the city. 

WCPO tried to put that in context in a report last week. "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," the report said. 

But it does not stop there. 

"Then from field to rim again. And again. And again, for a total of four very smelly football stadiums,” according to estimates from the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSDGC), the report said. "And that’s just one pipe."

Those overflows head into the Mill Creek and Ohio River, the area's drinking water source.

As in other cities, Cincinnati’s sewers were originally designed to get rid of waste as soon as possible, meaning it "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."

Federal regulations have had a limited effect. 

"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," the report said.

Project Groundwork aims to improve the situation. 

Since 2009, the project has managed to catch "10 million gallons of stormwater annually. The projects range from permeable pavers and biofiltration basins to rainwater harvesting systems and green roofs, among others." 

The project draws on storage and conveyance, product control, and source control as its main ways of halting overflow damage, according to the city. 

"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," WCPO reported. 

Ratepayers shoulder the brunt of the costs of overflows. WCPO reported that "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."

Image credit: "Cincinnati Skyline," © 2008 adamsofen, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license:

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