New Happenings on the Cuyahoga, Part II: Combined Sewer Overflows
As of December 1, 2012
by Matt Muir

Elaine Marsh, Conservation Director for Friends of The Crooked River, spoke at the KHCC meeting in November. Most of this update comes from her excellent talk. (Your Keel-haulers dues support the club's conservation fund, part of which helps support FoCR.)

Ever wonder about the funny smells you get when you’re paddling the Cuyahoga Gorge? Well, the rapids called “Sewer Pipe Hole” and “What’s That Smell?” are no act of nature. They’re in part the result of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). Old-style municipal systems combined storm runoff with sewage collection. After heavy rains, the water collection overwhelms the municipal storage capacity, and the overflow is discharged to the nearest stream—including the human-generated “Brown Trout,” with all its e. coli flavor.

It looks white, but it’s really brown.

As whitewater paddlers, of course we hit The Gorge when it’s rained hard enough to give us high water. So every time you roll in there, that’s what you’re putting your face in.
For nearly 100 years, this has been a problem. For over two decades, the City of Akron has known it would be required to correct the situation. In response, the city has generally delayed, shucked, and jived its way to doing very little about this. It’s conducted the occasional study, and decided its citizens didn’t want to spend the money. The city did construct one storage facility to mitigate overflows. “Rack 40,” built on Cuyahoga Street, cut the (estimated) average overflow volume in a typical year by 37%.
But the US EPA lost its patience in March, 2009, and filed a “complaint” against the City of Akron. Eight months thereafter, Akron entered into a “Consent Decree,” legalese for “All right, I’ll do it, already—now will you leave me alone?”
Akron has really stepped up to the plate and taken the bull by the horns here. There is an extensive plan to improve storage capacity and remove the CSOs. Scoping and bidding began in 2011; the first actual CSO removal would take place in 2013, and the whole project will be completed by October 15, 2028.

Akron CSO map—lots of discharges!

Yeah, you heard me. 2028. It’s a big, complex project (there are 40 Akron CSOs on the Cuyahoga, Little Cuyahoga, and other tribs.) It may as much as triple the monthly water bill for Akron residents. This is a major commitment that Akron’s pursuing--greater than the efforts put forth by many other cities of its size. Even while the Consent Decree is yo-yo-ing from one court to another, Akron is working toward fixing its poop system.
What is the nature of the improvement? Well, in 1992, the typical year saw 50 rain events when the storm system would be overwhelmed and sewage would be discharged. After the planned improvements, there will be no sewage discharges into waterways. None. Nada. Zilch.
In concert with this plan, Akron will spend $900K to remove the Brecksville Dam (see last month’s article) and pay $500K in civil penalties. (Note: this is an expensive proposition, but it’s not out of line with other communities. Pittsburgh’s Capital Improvement Plan is expected to come in at a cool $3 billion bucks, and Cincinnati and Columbus are planning to spend $2 and $2.5 billion, respectively.)
It’s important to note that Akron’s CSO cleanup isn’t final at this point. Judge John Adams has rejected Akron’s plans before (because they weren’t cleaning up enough CSOs in his judgment), and he’s considering the current proposal. But to its credit, Akron is moving forward with its plans anyway—apparently recognizing that it will have to clean up the CSOs, and that delay will only cost the city more in the long run. The removal of the Brecksville Dam, described in last month’s article, is dependent on the judge’s approval of the Consent Decree, as are enforcement-stipulated penalties.
This is Akron’s plan. There are other CSOs on the river, too; the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, NEORSD, has dozens of CSOs on the Cuyahoga and its tribs, for example. NEORSD has invested over $900 million into cleaning up its CSOs. However, in 2011-12, there were 25 discharge events. NEORSD is also under a Consent Decree aimed at cleaning up its CSO mess.
So, thanks to lots of activists including FoCR, as well as agencies such as the two EPAs, the river is getting cleaner. And paddlers will have to rename those rapids. And we will have to do our part to support these clean-up plans and monitor the enforcement of their implementation. Stay tuned.

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