Cincinnati Receives Federal Approval for Innovative Green Infrastructure CSO Fix

Last week the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the solution proposed by the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) for fixing its combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into the Mill Creek.

Cincinnati is one of many cities struggling to fix their CSOs, which are caused by a combination of higher water runoff and sewer systems that were designed to accommodate both stormwater runoff and sewage. What it means in real terms is that when there are heavy rain events, the stormwater fills up the sewers and then mixes with the sewage.

According to the EPA, raw sewage contains pathogens that threaten public health, leading to beach closures and public advisories against fishing and swimming, and is a problem that particularly affects older urban area.

Lick Run Project
MSD’s plan to reduce 1.5 billion gallons of CSOs from the Mill Creek will include the transformative Lick Run project in South Fairmount.

As a result, under a 2010 consent decree, the MSD was required to either construct a deep-tunnel system under Mill Creek, or conduct further analysis and propose an alternative plan. What is unique about Cincinnati’s approved plan is that it deviates from the standard ‘gray’ tunnel solution, and instead proposes using green infrastructure fixes to reduce stormwater runoff.

“We are very excited to move forward with our innovative wet weather solution that not only provides highly cost-effective compliance with our Consent Decree but simultaneously sets the groundwork to enhance our communities,” James A. “Tony” Parrott, MSD’s Executive Director, said in a prepared release.

In addition to the environmental benefits of Cincinnati’s alternative plan, it is also expected to save taxpayers approximately $200 million upfront and remove 1.78 billion gallons of CSOs annually from the Mill Creek.

The savings come from not building a new deep-tunnel system to accommodate the excess stormwater runoff, and instead aiming to reduce the amount of stormwater flowing into the sewer systems during heavy rains.

The green infrastructure solution being pursued by Cincinnati is already being viewed as a national model for other cities looking to clean up their waterways.

Lick Run View (Northwest) Lick Run View (Southwest)
The $192M Lick Run project would create a linear park through South Fairmount along a newly ‘daylighted’ stream. Images provided.

The hallmark feature of the plan is the $192 million Lick Run Project, which will ‘daylight’ the former creek through the heart of South Fairmount and creating a linear park that officials say will convey stormwater and natural drainage to the Mill Creek. This project alone is estimated to reduce overflows into the Mill Creek, from the largest CSO in the system, by 624 million gallons annually.

“This plan is good news for the residents of Cincinnati and for communities along the Ohio River,” said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Not only will this innovative plan ensure that significant volumes of polluted stormwater and raw sewage are kept out of local waterways, but it will also cost less than more traditional approaches, saving money for ratepayers and the city.”

In addition to the Lick Run Project, MSD’s phase one fixes will also include upgrades to the West Fork, Kings Run, and Bloody Run watersheds that will result in an additional 422 million gallons CSO reduction.

The combined phase one work is planned to take place over the next five years and is estimated to create nearly 1,000 full-time equivalent construction jobs.

MSD officials say that plans for phase two work will be submitted in 2017, and will aim to address CSOs in the Lower Mill Creek watershed. While the plans are not yet finalized, both MSD officials and regulators believe the final remedy will also use an integrated watershed plan approach.

Work on Smale Riverfront Park Progresses Despite Lack of State, Federal Funds

The $120 million Smale Riverfront Park will celebrate its next wave of progress two months from now when the Women’s Committee Garden and Duke Energy Garden are opened to the public – more than doubling the central riverfront park’s completed acreage.

According to officials from the Cincinnati Park Board, the project is still on-time and on-budget thanks to an influx of private contributions.

Originally, park officials had planned on approximately half of the project’s cost being covered by state and federal funds. While those funds flowed early in the project’s life, they have all but dried up over the past two years.

Cincinnati Central Riverfront Plan

“We got into this pretty aware of what the challenges were, but the biggest challenges thus far have probably been the state and federal funding,” stated Smale Riverfront Park’s project manager, Dave Prather. “It’s been a pretty big adjustment when half of the funding you were counting on hasn’t come, but thanks to the private funding we’ve been able to stay pretty much on schedule.”

Prather says that the city leadership understands the realities facing both their state and federal partners, but that without the private and local support the project would most likely be behind schedule.

He is, however, optimistic that things will turn around and says that the park board is working on other ways to get state and federal dollars. One such element that could be the beneficiary of such efforts is the planned 1,000-foot transient boat dock which may be eligible for up to $3 million in grants from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Watercraft.

Should such funding fall into place, Prather says that the boat dock could be operational as early as May or July 2015.

“We received $3 million in the State capital fund three years ago, and that’s what we thought we would get as we worked through the phasing plan,” Prather explained. “Hopefully the state will get back in the business of being able to help with significant capital projects.”

Not all of the funding news has been grim, as Prather noted strong support from Hamilton County, private sources, and the City of Cincinnati which includes a recent $4 million allocation from the proceeds of its recently approved Parking Modernization & Lease agreement.

That $4 million will go towards accelerating the construction timeline of phase four of construction work which will now include the PNC Grow Up Great Adventure Playground and carousel. According to Prather, both of these projects will now be completed by May 2015 – in time for the 2015 Major League Baseball All-Star Game.

One of the features that will be open in two months is the new riverwalk, of sorts, that will run from the Walnut Street Overlook approximately to Sycamore Street immediately south of Great American Ball Park. One of the key features of this riverwalk, Prather notes, is that the guardrails will be 48 inches in height instead of 42 inches so that both pedestrians and bicyclists can enjoy the pathway.

“Our observation has been that you can’t tell cyclists where to go,” said Prather who noted that he is an avid cyclist himself. “So we’re going to construct the closest to the river pathway to accommodate both pedestrians and cyclists – right where they both want to be.”

While much work is left to do, both in terms of construction and securing funds to continue construction, the project team maintains excitement for the transformation they are overseeing.

“I’ve been an architect and a planner for the city for years, and a lot of the time you spend a lot of time and energy on plans that don’t get built,” Prather concluded. “This one [project] is different…we’re just on a roll and it’s awesome to have ideas that everyone embraces, you feel right about what you’re building, and you get the resources to actually build it. We’ve gotten a lot of cooperation from the city and county, and I feel like we’re all rowing in the same direction.”

Officials hope to complete the 45-acre park in its entirety by July 2017, excluding improvements to the river’s edge that will need to be coordinated with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

OKI Survey Results Show Preference for Compact, Walkable Communities

The OKI Regional Council of Governments has released the findings from its 2012 How Do We Grow From Here survey, and is reporting a record response.

According to OKI officials, the survey received 2,474 responses and more than 1,200 comments. In the past, the organization had received around 100 responses for similar surveys, but was hoping for higher numbers this time around due to a larger outreach effort.

The survey is intended to take the pulse of the Cincinnati region with regards to regional vitality, sustainability, and competitiveness with a special focus on land use and transportation policy. The results of the survey are then intended to be used when updating the metropolitan planning organization’s Strategic Regional Policy Plan (SRPP), which was last updated in 2005.

OKI 2012 Survey Results

“While much has been accomplished since the plan’s adoption in 2005, much remains to be done to reach its goals,” state OKI officials. “The SRPP needs to be updated to reflect the impacts of subsequent events such as the Great Recession and significant changes in our demographics, particularly as the baby-boom generation ages.”

Of the survey’s 21 total questions, seven offered particularly revealing insights into the psyche of those from around the region concerning transportation options, economic development strategies, and land use policy.

The survey results indicate a clear preference for sustainable and urban communities. Approximately 60% of respondents said that they felt urban revitalization and neighborhood redevelopment efforts are paying off, and a whopping 88.5% said that it is important to have safe pedestrian and bicycling options in their community.

While the 2,474 respondents stated that they wanted to see existing infrastructure maintained and their communities built in a way to support walking and bicycling, it does not appear that they feel the region is heading in that direction.

“Bicycle infrastructure can play a big role in enhancing public health, providing additional options for transportation, and reducing pollution,” commented one responder. “I also would support a comprehensive transportation plan that includes the extended streetcar line and light rail. This could reduce traffic congestion and pollution and enhance economic growth for our neighborhoods.”

More than a third of those responding said that they feel the region is growing in an unsustainable manner, and more than two-thirds expressed concern about how the region’s housing, transportation, healthcare, and recreation options will support aging individuals and younger generations that desire walkable urban communities.

A 2011 report from Transportation For America found that more than 64% of Cincinnati’s population between the ages of 65 and 79 will have poor transit access by 2015 – ranking the region as the 17th worst out of 48 regions with 1-3 million people.

When asked about energy and the climate, approximately 74% said that rising energy costs have impacted their lifestyle choices surrounding transportation and utilities. With nearly 85% of those same respondents feeling confident about knowing where to go to get more information or help to achieve greater energy efficiency, it appears that organizations like the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance are making a positive impact.

“OKI needs to develop renewable energy sources for our area and eliminate all fossil fuel usage in the next 10 years,” responded one individual on the survey. “OKI needs to actively promote the Greater Cincinnati Energy Alliance that has enough funding to upgrade close to 70,000 homes and business in the Hamilton County and northern Kentucky.”

OKI officials state that while they currently have no authority, and seek no authority, over local land use decisions, they hope that the results of their updated SRPP will bring about more consistency between local land use planning and regional transportation planning.

On episode two of The UrbanCincy Podcast we discussed the issue of transportation poverty facing Cincinnati’s aging population, and how unsustainable development patterns are hurting the region’s environment and economy. You can stream our bi-weekly podcasts online for free, or download the podcasts on iTunes.

The sky-high cost of China’s sprawling cities

The growth of China’s urbanized population is truly staggering. But what might be more unique than that is that Chinese cities have been able to learn from the successes and mistakes made in already developed cities in Europe and North America. The problem, however, is that is appears that almost all of the Chinese cities have ignored those lessons. More from the Financial Times:

Pictures of towering skylines in cities that few outsiders have heard of – from Anshan to Zhengzhou – seem to suggest that China’s urban future will not just be big. It will also be a model of sleek modern efficiency. The reality is, more often than not, disappointing. Many Chinese cities are drab facsimiles of each other, beset by clogged roads, dirty air, hastily built apartment blocks, monolithic government buildings and few green spaces.

The real concern is that when the sprawling cities fill up, they will offer a substandard quality of life that will make for a divided society and an economy that fails to deliver on its promise. China still has time to shift its policies to create happier, more productive cities. But the window is beginning to close.

Cincinnati named finalist to become WWF’s 2013 Earth Hour City Capital

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has put together a list of the cities participating in the Earth Hour City Challenge. Within that list, WWF lists Chicago, Cincinnati and San Francisco as the three finalists in World Wildlife Fund’s Earth Hour City Challenge for 2013. More from World Wildlife Fund:

The cities were chosen by WWF and global management consultancy Accenture in recognition of the steps their community has taken to prepare for increasingly extreme weather and transition towards a 100% renewable energy future. The finalists were selected among 29 of the most forward-thinking cities in the country which have all committed to minimize their carbon footprint and ready their communities for the dangerous local consequences of climate change.

Cincinnati is developing a power aggregation agreement that would make it the largest city in the U.S. to supply its energy entirely from renewable sources and committing to reducing carbon emissions two percent annually for 42 years. The city is also working with residents, businesses and community leaders throughout the city to adopt climate-smart policies; expanding current tree planting efforts, promoting metro ridership, educating students about sustainability and conducting energy audits for local non-profits.

Greater Cincinnati Earth Coalition accepting nominations for 2013 awards

Since 2008, the Greater Cincinnati Earth Coalition has honored the region’s most outstanding and innovative projects, programs and individuals whose efforts have worked to improve and protect the environment.

Each year the organization has honored teachers, students, citizens, businesses, and governmental agencies for their work during Earth Day celebrations at Sawyer Point Park.

2012 Earth Day Environmental Awards

In 2012, Cincinnati’s Office of Environmental Quality (government), the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority’s Metro bus service (business/organization), Regina Faulkner (citizen), Brian Kunkemoeller (student), and Ellen McGrath (teacher) were honored.

Earth Day celebrations will take place on Saturday, April 20 at Sawyer Point from 12pm to 5pm, and the Greater Cincinnati Earth Coalition is now accepting nominations for this year’s awards. Those who feel that they know of a qualified candidate are asked to follow the guidelines for each category.

  • Business/Organization: Recognizes commitment to the environment, including through green design, recycling, environmental programming, energy innovation, or products.
  • Government Agencies: Recognizes environmental stewardship, including through programming, legislation, air-quality, environmental promotion, community building or conservation.
  • Teacher: Recognizes efforts to increase environmental awareness, including demonstrating leadership or teaching others about the environment.
  • Student: Recognizes a student who has demonstrated environmental stewardship.
  • Citizen: Recognized an individual who has demonstrated a contribution to the environment.

Nominations for the 2013 Environmental Awards are due by March 15, 2013. Nomination forms can be downloaded online and submitted to Cindy Kirchmer at kirchmer.cindy@epa.gov or mailed to U.S. EPA, Attn: Cindy Kirchmer (WG-12), 26 W. Martin Luther King Drive, Cincinnati, OH 45368.