NEORSD’s Regional Stormwater Management Program Brings Much-Needed Improvements to Cleveland

Greater Cleveland

By Jeannie Smith

Since its creation in 1972, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District has made great strides in updating the region’s sewer infrastructure, investing $4 billion in wastewater treatment plants, interceptor and relief sewers, combined sewer overflow control, and other facility upgrades.

“When the Sewer District was created, Greater Cleveland’s waterways were in peril. The Cuyahoga River looked like a huge oil slick and this community was the focus of national jokes,” says Frank Greenland, director of watershed programs for the Sewer District. “Since the days of the burning river, we’ve made significant progress in clean water initiatives. For example, in the early 1970s, nine billion gallons of raw sewage were discharged into the environment. Today, due to the investments made by the Sewer District, the number has been cut in half.”

Currently, the regional agency, with administrative offices and two treatment plants in Cleveland, as well as a treatment plant and Environmental and Maintenance Services Center located in Cuyahoga Heights, is five years into  its largest capital program designed to further reduce the amount of raw sewage discharged into the environment; it’s called Project Clean Lake. Today, the Sewer District discharges 4.5 billion gallons, which will be reduced to 500 million gallons by 2036.  These discharge events are called combined sewer overflows.

“Project Clean Lake is important to our community and will help to improve the region’s water quality,” says Greenland.

While the Sewer District is vigorously addressing the combined sewer overflow problem, in recent years, it has turned its focus, too, to an ever-increasing water quality problem — impervious surface, and its impact on the flow of stormwater to the region’s waters. That’s where the Sewer District’s Regional Stormwater Management Program (RSMP) will make a large impact on problems that only seem to be getting worse over time. The RSMP will address regional flooding, erosion and water quality problems within the Sewer District’s service area.

In a 1978 study, the Sewer District identified 178 problem areas problem areas related to stormwater and, by 2002, those problems increased to 513. The escalation can be attributed to the increase in impervious surfaces. To date, the Sewer District has identified more than $220 million of needed construction projects.

Another contributing factor is the man-made changes to Greater Cleveland’s historic watercourses. As communities have developed over time, streams have been channelized, filled in and piped. This has also contributed to our region’s flooding, erosion and water quality problems related to stormwater.

“Another problem is that each community tries to implement solutions within its boundaries,” says Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells, deputy director of watershed programs for the Sewer District. “However, stormwater knows no boundaries and, usually, the best solution is a holistic, watershed-based approach.”

Origins of the Program

After years of planning and outreach, on Jan. 7, 2010, the Sewer District’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted to adopt Title V, the section of the Sewer District’s Code of Regulations that details the Regional Stormwater Management Program. On that same day, the Sewer District filed an initial complaint in the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas for declaratory judgment. This court action asked the court to affirm the Sewer District’s authority to establish a stormwater utility.

In April 2011, Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas Judge Thomas J. Pokorny ruled that Chapter 6119 of the Ohio Revised Code gave the Sewer District the authority to implement most of the Regional Stormwater Management Program. He also ruled that consent of member communities to participate in the program is not required. He followed with two separate opinions, ruling 1) the charges proposed are ruled a fee, and not a tax; and 2) the Sewer District should increase the contribution to the Community Cost-Share Program to benefit member communities.

Program in Action

After the rulings, the program officially launched in January 2013 with an anticipated 17 projects slated for construction, including the Warner Road Streambank Stabilization project in Garfield Heights and the Doan Brook Stream Enhancement Project in the City of Cleveland.

“Warner Road was threatened by significant erosion on Mill Creek and, under this program, the Sewer District was able to stabilize the bank and protect this major roadway,” says Dreyfuss-Wells. “If the erosion wasn’t addressed, the road could have collapsed into the Creek.”

In addition, the Sewer District, in partnership with the City of Cleveland, finalized the Doan Brook Stream Enhancement Project. It addressed stream bank erosion, failing and deteriorating walls, and created stream features that provide stability and habitat for aquatic bugs and fish, thus improving the ecology and life of the Doan Brook.

In addition to the completion of two projects, the Sewer District assisted the City of Pepper Pike under an emergency RSMP contract. In July 2013, a tornado touched down in the Pepper Pike, causing extensive damage to the gymnasium at Ursuline College. In addition to wind damage, rainfall that peaked at almost one inch of rain in 15 minutes caused major debris blockages along Pepper Creek in the early morning hours.

Pepper Pike officials contacted the Sewer District after the storm, and both parties assessed the damage and restoration options in the days the followed. The Sewer District managed the clean-up of more than 400 cubic yards of debris along 1,700 feet of Pepper Creek in less than two weeks.

“The City of Pepper Pike and Sewer District officials worked together following the storm to clear debris and restore damaged streams,” says Dreyfuss-Wells. “This is an example of the first storm-response efforts of the Sewer District’s Regional Stormwater Management Program.”

Regional Stormwater Management Program Suspended

In the meantime, opposition communities appealed the initial rulings and, in September 2013, the Court of Appeals reversed Judge Pokorny’s decisions, finding that the Sewer District does not have the authority under Ohio Revised Code Chapter 6119 — or its charter — to implement the RSMP under Title V or collect the associated stormwater fee. As a result of that ruling, the Sewer District suspended program activities, including the construction of much-needed projects and the collection of stormwater fees for the program; collected funds were placed into escrow.  Meanwhile, the Sewer District pursued the appeal to the Supreme Court.

In September 2014, the Sewer District argued its case before the Supreme Court and, the following September, the Court ruled in favor of the Sewer District.

“Since the Supreme Court’s favorable ruling in September of 2015, Sewer District staff has worked diligently to resurrect this vital program,” says Greenland “$20 million in fees was collected before the program was suspended and we’ve worked quickly to prioritize projects, so that we could resume resolving regional flooding and erosion problems.”

Regional Stormwater Management Program Today

In total, the Regional Stormwater System includes channels and pipes draining 300 acres or more, or approximately 400 miles. Under the RSMP, the Sewer District will continue to focus its work within the following watersheds: Chagrin River, Cuyahoga River North, Cuyahoga River South, Lake Erie Tributaries and the Rocky River.

The core components of the program have remained the same, as well.

“It’s important to develop Master Plans through the collection of data, which will provide a better understanding of the Regional Stormwater System,” says Dreyfuss-Wells. “Then, with that information, the Sewer District can focus on multi-objective, watershed solutions and prioritize regional projects from those plans.”

Currently, the Sewer District is gathering data from rain gauges located in strategic areas of the Regional Stormwater System, and there are plans to install gages in the Rocky River and monitors in culverted streams for Cuyahoga North.

“In addition to Master Plans, continuous inspection and maintenance is critical to the success of the RSMP as it will increase the functionality of the Regional Stormwater System, reducing critical consequences of flooding, erosion and catastrophic failure,” says Ronald Czerski, deputy director of operations and maintenance for the Sewer District. “Our stormwater inspection and maintenance schedule is just a rigorous as our sewer inspection and maintenance schedule.”

In total, there are more than 3,300 assets within the Regional Stormwater System, including streams, culverts and bridges, culverted streams, basins, and other major structures, like low head dams. Under the RSMP, the Sewer District is responsible for inspecting and maintaining those assets.

But, the focus is not only on existing infrastructure but new construction, as well, which will provide relief to multiple communities within each watershed. In total, 12 projects have been identified with most in the procurement and design stages.

“Many of the projects involve spillway and stream bank repair, stream bank stabilization, debris removal and the construction of new and upgrading of existing detention basins,” says Greenland. “This type of much-needed work has been delayed for years. Now, with the Regional Stormwater Program underway, we can begin to tackle these problems.”

The RSMP will be funded through impervious surface fees assessed to Sewer District customers via two classifications: Single Family Residential and Non-Single Family Residential. Those fees are based on an ERU, or Equivalent Residential Unit, which equals 3000 sq ft of impervious surface. The fee for a single ERU is $5.15 a month, or $61.80 a year. Properties smaller and larger than 3,000 sq ft will be charged proportionally.

“The Sewer District’s Geographic Information Systems Department digitized each property within our service area,” says Dreyfuss-Wells. “Customers can find their properties and associated fees on the Sewer District’s website.”

Encouraging stormwater management best practices is another component of the program.  Customers can receive a reduction in fees if they take measures to reduce the stormwater volume or minimize the pollutants flowing from their properties. Various credits can be obtained through a variety  of methods, including the use of on-site water storage, like rain barrels, and/or the installation of a rain garden, vegetative filter strips and pervious surfaces, just to name a few.

Plus, the Sewer District will provide a community-cost share, which means 25 percent of the revenue collected from each community will be available to that city or township for local stormwater projects. Funds are to be used to address current, or minimize new stormwater flooding, erosion or water quality problems, and will be paid to the community via a reimbursement.

“How we take care of our water resources impacts every facet of our lives. From public health to economic impact, as a community, we need to assure we do not take abundant water for granted,” says Dreyfuss-Wells. “At the end of the day, if we want clean and healthy fresh water, we have to manage our stormwater.”

Jeannie Smith is manager of community and media relations for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer (Sewer District). She is responsible for overseeing public education and outreach as well as managing the Sewer District’s media communications. In December 2015, she obtained a Master of Public Administration from Cleveland State University.

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