Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

Clean Water Act Compliance Costs Are Hurting Our Cities and Promoting Sprawl

Cleveland has been unfairly portrayed as the epicenter of the housing crisis in America. One publication after another, national and international, has piled on. Yet why here? Clearly the Inland Empire areas, Miami condos, Phoenix, and even Minneapolis have had very bad housing situations, many of them arguably worse than Cleveland.

I guess it is just easy to pick on Cleveland, the “Mistake on the Lake”, and tales of decline there fit with a narrative that people are already primed to accept. I’ll admit to not always being so kind to Cleveland myself. So today, I wanted to highlight a couple of great positive national articles about Cleveland, while also using them to other ends.

The first is a great New York Times piece on the rebirth of the Cuyahoga River. You may recall that this river famously caught on fire 40 years ago. Today, it is a totally different story.

The first time Gene Roberts fell into the Cuyahoga River, he worried he might die. The year was 1963, and the river was still an open sewer for industrial waste. Walking home, Mr. Roberts smelled so bad that his friends ran to stay upwind of him. Recently, Mr. Roberts returned to the river carrying his fly-fishing rod. In 20 minutes, he caught six smallmouth bass. “It’s a miracle,” said Mr. Roberts, 58. “The river has come back to life.”

On Monday, people who have worked for years to clean the Cuyahoga will celebrate at its banks. “It’s just remarkable,” said Steve Tuckerman, the Cuyahoga River specialist for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “I never thought I would see in my lifetime, let alone in my career, such an amazing comeback of a river.”

America has cleaned up its waters greatly since the Clean Water Act. Still, the turnaround of the Cuyahoga is amazing. Once one of America’s worst polluted industrial rivers, now you can fish there. Contrast that with, say, the Indiana Harbor Canal, which remains unsafe according to every measure the EPA tracks.

But this article holds a cautionary note, not just for Cleveland, but for almost every older American city. Despite remarkable progress in creating a river you can fish in, Cleveland is still facing $5 billion in future costs to fully comply with the Clean Water Act. That’s not a mis-print. It really is $5 billion.

Cleveland is far from alone. Indianapolis faces $3.5 billion in costs. Cincinnati in excess of $3 billion. And so it goes. In city after city the largest public works project by far is some sort of sewer remediation project, often involiving so-called “deep tunnels”, to eliminate combined sewer overflows.

To put this in perspective, the previous largest public works project in the history of Indianapolis was the entirely new terminal complex at the airport that opened last year at a cost of $1.2 billion. The sewer project is three times that. It will exceed the cost of the aiport, Lucas Oil Stadium, the new convention center, Conseco Fieldhouse, Circle Center Mall, the new Central Library, and the Cultural Trail – combined. It should come as no surprise this is destroying cities fiscally. Jefferson County, Alabama (Birmingham) is on the verge of bankruptcy. Other cities will be forced to raise water and sewer rates to ruinous levels to cover the cost.

This may clean up the water to some extent but will have offsetting environmental harms that could be worse. First, many suburban areas already have separate sanitary sewers and effective stormwater management. Thus they may not have to incur any significant compliance cost in the future. With central cities like Indianapolis forced into tripling or more their already high rates, suburban districts like Carmel, Fishers, and Noblesville look even more attractive financially. Thus, sprawl is encouraged. This leads to more automobile usage and air pollution which is actually a greater danger to human health than CSO overflows, to say nothing of CO2 emissions.

I am a supporter of clean water. I believe in it. I think the Clean Water Act was a good thing and the Cuyahoga River cleanup illustrates why. But the last ten percent is the hardest to get. Looking at the cost/benefit from a purely local point of view, is there any way Cleveland will get $5 billion worth of improved public health, economic, or recreational benefits out of this project? It is extremely unlikely. And what is the opportunity cost? Huge. Think of what you could do with $5 billion. Cleveland could solve its abandoned home problem, renew a huge chunk of its infrastructure, build more transit, invest it back in lower taxes and fees, and much more – all things that could make a huge difference in that city.

If we as a nation want to realize the vision laid out in the Clean Water Act, then I think it is imperative to do so in a way that actually net helps the environment and makes central cities more, not less attractive. The easiest way to do that is for the federal government to pick up the bulk of the costs of compliance for CSO problems. Given that every city has spent years fighting with the EPA over this, I think it is fair to say there are no solutions that have been gold plated at the municipality’s request. And by the way, the deep tunnel project that everyone uses as the example of how to do it, Chicago’s, was largely paid for by the federal government.

If you wanted to name one policy that could help keep our central cities competitive, I would argue it is federalizing the cost of CSO overflow remediation, alleviating billions of dollars of crippling liabilities in almost every large metro area.

Bonus Good Cleveland News

To bookend this with another positive article about Cleveland, our friends at the New York Times had another great piece, this one on the East Fourth Street entertainment district. The article has a fantastic photo of a street filled with people drinking and dining at sidewalk cafes, but alas I can’t reproduce it.

About a third of the $110 million project is retail space and two-thirds is housing. The redeveloped area has 14 restaurants, eight bars, a 16-lane bowling alley, a coffee shop, a theater, a nightclub and a concert stage that attracts national acts. Above the restaurants, the developer, the Cleveland-based MRN Ltd., has built 322 rental apartments.

I must say, that putting in 322 rental units was very smart. That’s not a tiny number, and rentals are doing much better than condos in this market. Quite prescient. Plus the rent at 1,200 square feet for $1,200 is pretty good.

The article also shows the tenacity of the developer who brought it into being:

Most of all, East Fourth Street reflects the stubbornness and daring of Rick Maron, the founder of MRN Ltd…..It took seven years, Mr. Maron said, to identify, locate and strike deals with more than 250 separate landowners who held title to the properties. Mr. Maron said the slow pace enabled the family to settle on a development strategy and a public-private financing plan that enabled the street to develop organically over time, like a real urban neighborhood.

The article is worth a read.

Topics: Sustainability
Cities: Cleveland

31 Responses to “Clean Water Act Compliance Costs Are Hurting Our Cities and Promoting Sprawl”

  1. Alon Levy says:

    The $5 billion are an investment that will last for decades. Right now, many rivers are clean enough to have thriving schools of fish, but polluted enough for the fish to be contaminated and present health risks to people who eat them. The Hudson has the same problem, mitigated only by the facts that there are no good fishing spots and that everyone thinks the river is deadly.

  2. Patrick says:

    You're right – Jefferson County, Alabama (my home) is facing the largest municipal bankruptcy in history because they've defaulted on bonds issued to make our sewer comply with the clean water act.

    Of course, the real reason we're going bankrupt is the unbelievable corruption of every Jefferson County Commissioner, ever.

    One thing I've learned through our little saga is that the money to repay these bonds often comes straight out of sewer bills. It isn't a drag on county's general fund. Surely suburban areas are paying off their sewer bonds too, right?

  3. Josh says:

    I agree, but there are other, MUCH MUCH MUCH cheaper ways to accomplish this.

    Using rain garden techniques as a ubiquitous part of the built environment. By doing this on a recent project of 800 acres, we will reduce the amount of water going into the sewers without ANY detention ponds, or pipe increases. Reducing the CSO without any apocalyptic water burial chambers. And its cheap.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You can complain all you would like regarding the costs of compliance with the CWA, and believe me, many do. But the City of Indianapolis, and other cities like it, had the opportunity for years and years to recieve grants and no-to-low interest loans to offset the cost of compliance, and because they chose to spend their time blocking enforcement by IDEM and other regulatory agencies (only to lose), those resources are unavailable. Taxpayers should be upset. This situation could have been completely prevented had any leader been forward thinking enough to work through the separated sewer process in stages, using available funds. Instead, we are now in a situation where we must comply, and the only way is to raise rates.

  5. CorrND says:

    That East Fourth Street project is very, very interesting. Creating an urban restaurant and entertainment zone with the kind of "little details" control that you usually only get from a single-owner retail entity like a suburban mall. Clearly they benefit from location, location, location, but kudos to the Marons for their vision and execution.

    "The Marons added art, flowers, decorative paving, planters, outdoor seating and ribbons of white lights overhead to create atmosphere."

  6. Jeffrey C says:

    High rates in Indy? I've lived here for 15 years and my water/sewage bill has never cracked $30.

  7. Robert Munson says:

    I agree with Josh about finding cheaper methods. Chicago's Deep Tunnel is, if I recall, one of the largest, costly localized public works projects ever and took three decades to complete… and it still wasn't effective in the recent record-breaking rains. Josh is correct about cheaper and more effective methods of infiltration. We should view stormwater as an asset to green the planet.

    Separately… Wasn't the new HUD/DOT collaboration proposed by the Obama Administration supposed to include the EPA on certain topics? Stormwater should be included given that this capital expense needs to be used elsewhere.

  8. marko says:

    I think the key to cleaning the waterways is reduce the cost via volume. Each of these cities has extremely high costs individualy but combined it could prove to be such a large task that the competition to clean them will reduce costs. i recall as early as 92 a machine built by catapiler to clean the Chicago river bed was canceled because the cost was too great. But what if this machine could be reused over and over? It was essentially a barge like device that dammed the river as it went dredging the bottom and putting down new fill without much disturbance of the sediment which release trapped heavy metals and dioxens. I would imagine the "market" for such devices could be great with a little stimulus and lead to new settlement ares near traditional city centers.

  9. thundermutt says:

    Jeffrey, water-sewer bills in Indy are slated to rise into the $100/month range to pay for the deep tunnel project. Look carefully at that bill, too: it already costs you twice as much to flush the water down the drain as to fill the toilet tank.

  10. N O R T O N says:

    Cincinnati Water Works is seeking to expand their services into a truly regional multi-state water district. In doing so, they would make water an entrepreneurial activity, economically benefitting from the growth of their existing service area. They are planning to apply funds created from this district for improvements to the aging water system in Cincy's urban core. VERY interesting project. Good to hear Cincinnati is being progressive and capitalizing off of their greatest assest, the Ohio River. 14 min. video about this here: http://www.local12.com/mediacenter/local.aspx?videoid=40600@wkrc.dayport.com&navCatId=86&articleID=40435

  11. JG says:

    Interesting take on the CWA. I'm surprised there hasn't been more chatter on this topic.

    My question is what is the scope of this problem nationally? How many cities are in need of deep tunnel projects, and cities of what size? Should Kokomo, IN (population 48,000) qualify for federal assistance on such projects?

    I assume starting with two parameters, city size and urgency of sewer upgrades, and taking 50 year cycles to reinvest in each cities public works.

    Still, poster JOSH is on to something regarding cheaper ways to cut down on rain water run-off. I don't know specifics and will defer to others, but could not support deep tunnel projects without binding agreements for future development and some existing to adopt better water management policies.

  12. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for all the comments.

    Alon, the projects might last for decades but are not an "investment". Investments are made to generate returns. Clearly, there were huge returns to human health and recreational uses from previous cleanups, but I'm very dubious that there is anything remotely resembling an ROI case in the traditional sense.

    Patrick, no doubt, corruption is bad news down there.

    Josh, I believe Cincy floated a plan to use rain garden like techniques instead of a deep tunnel and the EPA nixed it. I don't know all the details, however.

    anon 11:38, I myself have criticized the city of Indianapolis for not addressing this problem long ago. Still, the fact is that neither Indy nor most other places did anything. So here we are and what is the best route forward?

    JG, smaller cities have similar problems. IIRC, Anderson, Indiana has a $165 million project to fix theirs. I don't think most of them are doing deep tunnels however.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Regional stormwater management solutions are an investment to the degree they enable the denser and more environmentally sustainable patterns of development envisioned by many.

    I'm not a water resources expert, but my understanding is that many county and municipal governments currently do not count sustainable stormwater best management practices towards their baseline requirements. Perhaps this is changing. If there are water resource / civil engineers out there who follow this blog, please weigh in on what's happening out there.

  14. Alon Levy says:

    Recreational use is not completely safe until the river's pollution levels are down to pre-industrial levels. How far down they need to go in practice is a decision for environmental scientists.

    What you say about sprawl underscores another point: on some environmental metrics, the suburbs outperform central cities, and should be rewarded with not having to pay for inner city cleanups. Of course on most metrics the city is better, especially those concerning air pollution, CO2 emissions, and the social cost of sprawl, but pro-urban regulations and taxes should be instituted only to the degree that they reward the city for those advantages. The overall advantage should not be generalized into a "city good, suburb bad" attitude informing all other concerns.

  15. thundermutt says:

    Anon, Indy is looking very hard at it through the Office of Sustainability with an eye toward downsizing the deep tunnel diameter (and thus its cost) by use of better surface management techniques.

    DPW has proposed a "green supplemental document" to guide green BMPs.

  16. thundermutt says:

    In Indianapolis and every other central city, water in rivers and streams ENTERS the city polluted to significant levels. Mud and sediment (suspended solids that damage aquatic life-supporting capability) from poor construction management techniques, plus herbicides and pesticides from suburban lawns and golf courses and rural farms, runs off and flows downstream from the suburbs to the city.

    It's necessary to separate that kind of dirty water (to which Alon refers) from the kind of dirty water that results from combined sewer overflows, a characteristic of almost every major Midwestern city's sewer system.

  17. thundermutt says:

    Geez it's late; skipped making my point:

    It's necessary to make the distinction because the only viable solution to the CSO problem is often the deep tunnel; the alternative is going through the whole city and retrofitting in a second sewer system just for stormwater.

    Cleaning up the rest of the chemical pollution SHOULD fall to the farms and suburbs; the deep tunnel and urban runoff-mitigation strategies don't deal with that.

  18. Anonymous says:

    The federal government only spends about $2 billion/year on water projects, a pitiful amount. As a result, the cost for meeting CWA compliance falls on ratepayers.

    Earl Blumenauer, an Democratic Congressman from Oregon, wants to increase federal investment inwater projects to $20 billion/year, meaning municipalities and rate payers will get a much needed break.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Arenn, how much value can you place in clean water and a healthy population? Personally, it is invaluable, and $5 billion for clean water seems to be a small price to pay for it.

    The general welfare shouldn't be subject to narrow metrics like ROI.

  20. Jeffrey C says:


    I'm well aware of what future projected rates are, but Urbanophile describes our current rates as "already high."

    I'll reiterate my point that $30/month or less in the past few years seems like a bargain.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I don't have all of the details on the Jefferson County situation but as I understand it, the County's financial meltdown is due largely to them entering into financial arrangements for their bonds that the county financial officials failed to understand the risk and which the bond issuers failed to disclose the potential downside.


  22. Brian says:

    Urban, you can find 2 pictures of East 4th at this link.

  23. The Urbanophile says:

    Brian, thanks for sharing the link. I took the liberty of deleting your first posting from the other, mistaken thread. Nice pictures there. Everyone should check it out.

  24. John says:

    I agree with Josh. Governments need to get more creative with how they deal with the stormwater problem. The solution may not be one multi-billion dollar centralized project. It may be 10,000 very small local projects. Ironically, this is more like how the suburbs manage stormwater with all their faux ponds used for detention.

    Some ideas:
    -Make every on-street parking lane some type of permeable pavement, so a large portion of the water never reaches the curb.
    -Install rain gardens at the end of every block in areas where CSO events are common.
    -Plant more large shade trees to intercept water before it hits the ground.
    -Provide incentives for residents and businesses to install green roofs and rain barrels.
    -Tax people based on the amount of impermeable surface on their property.

  25. The Urbanophile says:

    Jeffery C, I don't get billed for water/sewer directly in my apartment. I believe Indy's rates are higher than suburban districts like Carmel. However, if a residential unit is $30/month, that's not ridiculous today.

  26. The Urbanophile says:

    John, I believe most suburban stormwater management districts do in fact tax based on impermeable area.

    I would love to see more creative approaches to stormwater management, but again, from what I have seen, the EPA is resistant. A change in policy at the federal level to encourage instead of discourage these approaches is another way to help.

  27. The Urbanophile says:

    Oh, I should probably be fair on the Indy example too. I think "only" $1.6 billion is for CSO remediation. The other $1.5 billion is for septic tank elimination. That bill wouldn't go away even with improvements in stormwater management.

  28. sitephocus says:

    As others have mentioned, there can be many more effective ways to mitigate stormwater at the source than the typical engineering solution of large tunnels or storage. Green roofs, permeable pavement, green streets and alleys, rain gardens and bioswales all help to treat water quality and reduce volume at the source rather than develop costly mitigation measures.

    In Washington, DC, the Casey Foundation did a study looking at Green Roofs and Street Trees and how those could reduce the need for large, multi-billion dollar tunnels by the city providing incentives or grants to aid in the installation throughout the city. http://www.caseytrees.org/planning/greener-development/gbo/index.php

    Nashville is currently working on a similar study looking at quantifying the benefits of Green Infrastructure, which in many cases provide multiple benefits to the city beyond stormwater management.

  29. sitephocus says:

    Additionally, Portland has been a leader in the Green Streets movement to mitigate stormwater. Here are some photos of a couple of their projects…


  30. The Urbanophile says:

    sitephocus, that's for sharing that information.

  31. John says:

    I thought this was interesting and relevant:

    City seeks ideas to improve water systems
    Indianapolis is seeking international feedback on its water and wastewater systems in a request for expression of interest (REI). Released by Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, the REI seeks ideas to improve the systems and deliver both services at a reduced cost to users in and around the city.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

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