what's in your drinking water?

Submitted by Susan Miller on Fri, 12/18/2009 - 08:30.

photo courtesy of morguefile by kevinrosseel

Could Clean Water Help NEO's Economy to Rebound?

About 4 years ago, I became involved with the discussion of economic development in Northeast Ohio. I was coaxed from behind a safe counter at Stone Oven Bakery and Cafe by Betsey Merkel (a regular customer) to a "Tuesday at REI". There I met an interesting and diverse group of individuals who were concerned about the region's economy and many who had big ideas for improving it.

I had already begun my own thinking on the subject and it went something like this: What's NEO's most precious and unique asset? Water - specifically the Cuyahoga River (and it's tributaries) and Lake Erie. If we can clean that up, people will want to live and work here - people who live and work here will be healthier and smarter. (I know; it is long term like investing in education.)

So I began my self-guided education about our water woes. Yes, yes, I knew the river burned and I knew that the Clean Water Act was passed because of that stimulus, but I also knew from being involved with a summer rowing league that we had a long way to go toward a clean Cuyahoga. EPA is there to target big offenders, but what about the rest of what was flowing into that waterway? Then I discovered the Combined Sewer Overflow(CSO). I am no sewer or water expert (remember self taught), but I can google. So what I learned was that these issues, though they do not make it into the Plain Dealer routinely, if ever, are perhaps the most insidious (like lead poisoning) issues facing our region.

Think about it. When climate change forces folks to move inland from coastal regions and when folks in arid regions are looking for a place to live and work because they have drained aquifers, where will they want to be? In a place with clean water. I posted back in 2007 here on realneo: water cycle issues, more water, golf inquiry, (Cleveland Metroparks is dedicated to their golf - youngsters lucky enough to get a job caring for those manicured greens are put to work delivering atrazine to the greens - nice) talking %#@t and many more posts that get back to the issue of water.

I discovered work going on in Portland and a fascinating video on their Willamette River and efforts to bring it back from being a sewer. I discovered Toronto and their amazing watershed recovery efforts. Then, in 2007, I attended the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) held here in Cleveland. Boy was that fascinating! Water and sewer professionals from around the country talking about their problems and solutions!

I learned that we need to pick up pet excrement and stop with the fertilizers and pesticides and herbicides on lawns; that when we demolish a house there could be all sorts of nasty stuff eroding off the site that should be held in place and kept out of sewer grates (because what goes down the grate in the street goes directly to a waterway). I learned that we need to slow and hold storm water, new development needs to have an on-site storm water management plan. We need to disconnect our downspouts and plant more trees and vegetation and we need to STOP PAVING! 

I went with realneo colleague, Martha Eakin to visit Andrew Watterson on the issue (thinking that if Cleveland could get downspout disconnect going, other municipalities would follow). OK - now you can have a rain barrel or a rain garden (where in other cities like Boston, you have to be permitted to connect your downspout).

I sort of gave up after a while. Watterson and other environmentalists would see me coming and turn away - "here she comes with her downspout disconnect campaign!" No, no... I was gonna ask why Cleveland City Hall doesn't have a green roof.

I even wrote to the NYTimes and asked them to PLEASE cover this issue. I knew the PD would just laugh if I persisted - they had given an answer - "Good idea." But there had been no follow through. However, our infrastructure is failing and NEORSD knows it. They know it so well that we will be paying a bundle to upgrade our sewers. BUT we will not be able to assist on our own. So now we have a stormwater utility. Good. We will be charged for impermeable surface (CCF will have to pay a lot for example). But there are no incentives for such measures as rain barrels or downspout disconnects. In fact, in my town it is still illegal according to ordinance to disconnect your downspouts.

But the NYTimes did follow through - they have published a series of articles: Toxic Waters and yesterday NPR's Fresh Air covered the story: Overloaded Sewers Lead To 'Toxic Waters'

This is good. I feel like my personal clean water advocacy is gaining some traction.

Yeah! They recognized Philadelphia for it's efforts. I mentioned Chris Crockett in "more water".

Now if we can just change the ordinances to allow for downspout disconnects and stop the opportunity corridor (a massive waste of pavement!), dial ODOT back to Paul Alsenas' plan for one two way bridge that makes less runoff impact to the river. If we could do something with the dredge that doesn't not entail creating 200 more acres of landmass to service.

When I first began having these ideas, I met a guy named Ryan McKenzie (owner of CityWheels). We were talking about the very smart Circle Heights Bike Network (still stalled). I asked why we can't just do this NOW. He said these things move very slowly. He was/is right. But with regard to a clean glass of tap water, (you can click here to find out what we're drinking), we may need to get behind this issue and help our elected officials PICK UP THE FREAKIN' PACE!

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nice when your work pays off

Susan, getting this to go public is a very nice reward for your work, and we all benefit. The CSO is killing us, along with the above additions of chemicals, and the paving of the earth.

I had a sewer backup problem a few years ago, and got a professional out to deal with it. The clog was caused by our cleaning the gutters (stuff fell down inside). This plugged the sewer because they are freaking connected. I knew about the CSO, but many inner city homes have mutual storm and sewer line connections that just sweep it all out to...the drinking water source and shorelines.  What an enlightenment that was.

So, thank you Susan for pushing this issue to the forefront. Spring is not far from now. Good time to be planning for rain barrels and replacing lawns with native plants. Too bad inspectors still cite for yards growing native plants. Maybe an education at City Halls with plants and downspout disconnects should happen to get them up to speed.

tiny acts of conservation

You know that your sewer bill is based on your water bill, right? Water from the tap must go out the sewer, right? That is unless you collect it and use it for other things.

My nephew and his wife lived in a summer cottage in New Hampshire for two years. Yes, they lived there year round (brrrr....). Aside from heating issues in winter, the other problem was that, since the place was designed as a summer place, the septic tank installed was small. When they washed the dishes they collected the rinse water in a large bowl in the sink and periodically threw it out onto the lawn. Biodegradable no phosphate soap, of course. This helped them to manage capacity in that almost full septic tank. It wouldn't help here because your water in (you pay for that) is your sewer out (you pay for that), even if it isn't. It's still a useful option if there is a way to readily get that water onto plants in spring summer or fall. In winter - well we don't have a real winter now and days when the ground is not frozen it could work. But you still pay. You can, from time to time, use it to water your indoor plants.

Here's an easy way to reduce your water/sewer bill. Why flush the toilet with additional potable water (drinking water)? In my old house it takes a few minutes for warm water to flow through the pipes out the shower on the second floor. As I let the water run to a bearable temperature, I put a bucket in the tub to collect that water. When it is time to flush the toilet I lift off the lid on the tank and  replace the water with that collected in the buckets. I even leave the bucket in the shower with me sometimes so it can fill - a little soap won't hurt your toilet. I learned this from some smart Oberlin students.

Hence my water and sewer bills are slightly reduced. Less in and less out. Now granted this is tiny - a tiny act in response to the huge problem. But if we think that we don't need to conserve water because we're living by the Great Lakes and that supply is endless, well that is ridiculous. Thrift is thrift. So while the economy is in a shambles, how can we save? How can I drive less, mow less, fertilize without purchasing fertilizer, use less water, use less energy, grow my own food? These are questions we all need to be considering now as bank accounts and investments shrink. And water conservation is just one small part. It is when these things go to scale that they begin to make a difference.

It sucks that the city has imposed a garbage fee without providing an incentive. Cummins pay-as-you-throw idea was a better one per garbage fees if there must be garbage fees. But we are going to have to get to a place where there just isn't any more to have for us to consider what we do have. We have methane. Are we using that to produce energy? No. We have existing city streets. Are we maintaining them and making them safe for use? Not enough because somebody can't figure out how to drive from the interstate to University Circle. We have docks and a port. Are we considering how to best use our port to its maximum capacity? No, we're planning to build a new Crocker Park on port land. We've got roofs - are we planting on them to slow storm water and improve air quality? No. We are investing in urban gardening and that is a tiny step. It's bigger than my water catchment process. It is a good step in the right direction if done well. This environmental/economic challenge is not gonna be solved with one big silver bullet. It's gonna take a trillion points of conservation - many many white blood cells rushing to the infection.

What tiny things can we each do to help protect NEO? Post your ideas here, there and elsewhere. Talk about them with friends and acquaintances. Spread the education.

Speaking of that, check out this site: http://clevelandsummit.ning.com/. It's a newbie among us. Now compare the amount of activity there and the level of discussion there to the first month of activity here at realneo. That site currently has 416 users. Realneo has approximately 1500 active users. There's GCBL - don't know how many users they have, but it's plenty. So why, I wonder, do we not use what we've got? My Mom always said, "waste not want not". It is a valuable lesson hour after hour, day after day.