Sewer Improvements Save Money, Reduce Environmental Impact

Changes are afoot for Cincinnati residents — underfoot, that is.

The Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) recently unveiled sweeping changes to the region’s sewage system. By optimizing the existing infrastructure’s ability to handle wet weather, newly-installed smart technologies will reduce environmental risk, slash rates, and prolong its life.

“Our smart sewer system is anticipated to save tens of millions of dollars in capital investments in projects to control sewer overflows,” said MSD Director Gerald Checco in the press release. “This is our best chance of reducing spending and ultimately costs for our ratepayers.”

Prior to this announcement, MSD’s reputation had been marred by a string of scandals. Investigations into their financial practices exposed several improprieties and a once-in-a-century storm flooded homes across the county with backed-up sewage.

Illustration of a CSO (City of Cincinnati)

Yet, amid the hoopla, the Mill Creek basin was reaping the benefits of a smart sewer system. A centralized “brain” tracked flow rates throughout the system. New sensors and gates diverted excess storm runoff into larger pipes or other areas that weren’t full. “The ability to have a view of our entire system in real time really helps us to respond quicker to things because it raises that awareness,” said Missy Gatterdam, head of MSD’s watershed operations division, in an interview with UrbanCincy.

Outside this basin, MSD’s pipes empty into nearby streams or rivers, a process called a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO). CSOs are legal, but they can damage the environment. Sewers combine domestic, commercial, and industrial runoff with storm runoff. On dry days, this is not a problem. Toxic wastes migrate to a treatment facility.

On particularly rainy days, however, the pipes can’t handle all of the waste and water and must dump these undesirables into the ecosystem. (Here is a video MSD made to help explain the process.)

Untreated water isn’t just disgusting; it’s also deadly. An Environmental Protection Agency report to Congress in 2001 says bacteria found in untreated waters can cause gastric disorders, typhoid, and even cholera. Thankfully, MSD’s smart system will reduces the 11.5 billion gallons of runoff and waste overflow that wind up in the region’s waterways every year.

Gatterdam remarked that the original plan was to rollout the technology to the Muddy Creek and the Little Miami River basins this year, but budget cuts by the county have halted any expansion.

Truth behind county’s MSD vote comes out

UrbanCincy received an internal City email with additional information behind the County Commissioner’s Metropolitan Sewer District vote that happened Wednesday. The vote was to deny any money going to the Cincinnati Streetcar project – the city proposed 3 million be given to the project to replace aging sewer systems underneath the route, in an effort to prevent more costs to be incurred later.

Predictably, the Commissioners voted against the proposal. Here’s the rest of the story:

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Hello all –

I wanted to share some background on all of the chatter about the vote taken by the County Commissioners today. Below is a breakdown of the effects that was sent to me today. The bottomline is that the County Commissioners are sucking up to COAST. Their vote will actually make the Streetcar project cheaper, and cost MSD rate payers more money in the future when they have to pay the full cost of upgrading the sewers. But, whoever let facts get in the way of a good political argument?!

I know you guys like facts though, so read on…

4 key points about today’s [Wednesday’s] vote:

1) The actions taken today by the BOCC [Board of County Commissioners] will not stop the streetcar project. In fact, if the BOCC decides not to allow MSD to permit in the cost sharing agreement, it will actually save the Streetcar project money, as the streetcar will only pay to relocate the minimum conflicts with MSD facilities.

2) We need a final determination on whether the BOCC will participate in the cost sharing agreement within the next week. Final design for the streetcar is due November 1, and currently includes sewer design based on the assumption that the cost sharing plan will go forward as proposed. Our plan is to begin bidding the construction of the streetcar, including the sewer work, by the end of this year. If the BOCC does not participate, we will need to redesign the sewer and work to the minimum scope as well as other aspects of the design. That work must get underway as soon as possible and the longer we wait to start it, the longer we delay bidding the construction.

3) The cost sharing plan as proposed offers the BOCC and MSD to perform $6 million work of work at a tremendous discount of 50%. The MSD work proposed to be performed under the cost sharing plan is work that will eventually be necessary, as the facilities are over 100 years old. They could break anytime. Our goal is, like any other project in the ROW, to coordinate construction activities so as to dig up the streets as few times as possible.
Not participating in the cost sharing plan will only ensure that the MSD work happens at greater expense to MSD ratepayers, as it will not benefit from the unique cost sharing opportunity currently presented. Likewise, it ensures that this inevitable MSD work will happen with greater difficulty, as it will need to take place in an environment in which they have to work around a functioning streetcar system.

4) The construction coordination that is being proposed under the cost sharing agreement is not new. Regardless of your position on the streetcar, the proposed plan not only represents good, efficient construction practice, but a unique opportunity to save MSD ratepayers money.

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Despite some of our official’s best efforts, this is the little rail project that could.