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Leveraging Wet Weather Consent Orders to Strengthen Our Neighborhoods

By Columbus (OH) Mayor Michael B. Coleman
August 12, 2013

While Columbus is blessed with a thriving economy, a vibrant downtown and wonderful neighborhoods, it does not have the benefit of having white-sand beaches or snow-covered mountains. The cityís greatest natural asset is its rivers. One of the major focuses during my tenure as mayor has been to enhance our rivers and improve the relationship between our downtown and our river front. We have had many successes, including a private-public partnership that resulted in a dazzling riverfront park, the Scioto Mile. This park has changed the way our citizens interact and view the Scioto River.

But my job is not just to enhance the riverfront, but also to protect the river. That is why my administration has been and always will be fully committed to meeting the requirements of the Clean Water Act. We entered into consent orders with our state regulators in 2002 and 2004, and committed to controlling separate sanitary sewer overflows and combined sewer overflows.

In the ten years since we entered the first consent order, we have made extraordinary progress. We submitted a plan in 2005 that committed us to substantially reducing our combined sewer overflows by 2010 Ė in just five years. We met that commitment by building massive upgrades to our two wastewater treatment plants. Both plants are now successfully treating 50 percent more water during wet weather events. These improvements have resulted in a dramatic reduction in overflows to the river. In fact, we had the wettest year ever recorded in 2011, and still had fewer overflows than in previous years.

In addition, we are constructing a 20-foot diameter, four-and-a-half mile tunnel to further reduce combined sewer overflows. This tunnel will eliminate most of our downtown combined sewer overflows, and control our largest combined sewer overflow to only four events in a typical year. Upon completion, we will have largely complied with United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) combined sewer overflow policy roughly ten years from the time we submitted our plan.

So far we have spent a billion dollars on reducing sewer overflows. And our rates have steadily increased to pay for this work.

Unfortunately, we are nowhere near done. We still have to invest billions of dollars to eliminate our sanitary sewer overflows. The current plan calls for two more tunnels, much longer and much more expensive. We calculate that the work left to do will cost our ratepayers another $2.5 billion.

And the worst part is that it doesnít even feel like we are closing in on the goal, because EPA keeps shifting the goal post. The new stormwater rules that EPA is contemplating for next year will layer on another unfunded mandate that will ultimately be paid for by the city and its ratepayers. Depending on the final scope of the rules, we fear that compliance with the new rules may rival the cost of complying with our consent orders.

This is why I was so encouraged about two recent actions EPA has taken, at the urging of the Conference of Mayors. The recent statement that EPA is committed to revisiting its policy on affordability is welcome news. Columbus has always taken the position that EPAís reliance on two percent of median household income as the sole indicator for affordability is inconsistent with its own policy, and does not adequately measure what a city can afford. We look forward to participating in this important dialogue.

I was also very pleased to see EPAís issuance of the Integrated Planning memo. Integrated Planning allows a city to meet the Clean Water Actís many mandates with a common-sense approach of tackling the worst problems first. It also encourages using green infrastructure, which was already a priority for Columbus.

Based on the Integrated Planning memo, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency recently agreed to allow Columbus to delay construction of the next tunnel while the city explores whether there is better way to meet our commitment to the Clean Water Act. We have agreed that by 2015, we will develop a proposal that concentrates on two things: getting stormwater out of sanitary sewers so that they donít overflow, and putting that stormwater into green infrastructure so that it is cleaner when discharged to the river. We are calling this endeavor: Blueprint Columbus. Clean streams. Strong Neighborhoods.

The benefits of Blueprint Columbus are enormous. It is a much better investment for everyone. It will do more to improve water quality in the rivers than tunnels alone. It will get Columbus ahead of the curve on the impending stormwater rules. And it will save ratepayers money. By dealing with wastewater overflows and stormwater in an integrated plan, we can avoid the wasteful duplication of efforts that would come from viewing these requirements in isolation.

It is also a much better investment for our neighborhoods. Tunnels are out-of-sight, out-of-mind, and do nothing for our neighborhoods. Our plan will instead focus on rehabilitating our aging infrastructure, by repairing sewer lines and laterals so they donít leak. We can install rain gardens, porous concrete sidewalks, and trees in right-of-ways, improving home values. We can take down vacant houses, and replace them with amenities such as porous pavement basketball courts.

Blueprint Columbus can also directly benefit our economy. Unlike tunnels, the plan we are envisioning focuses on small capital jobs that can be designed and built by our small businesses. In addition, the green infrastructure will have to be maintained, which creates local, permanent jobs.

If we have to spend billions of dollars to comply with the Clean Water Act, we should be doing everything we can to maximize the benefits of that investment. I look forward to working with my fellow mayors and the Conference of Mayors in educating everyone on the significance of integrated planning.

Blueprint Columbus has the potential to transform our city into a stronger, greener, healthier place to work, live and raise a family.