Cleveland's sewer system faces major improvements

Cleveland's sewer system faces major improvements

by Mason King

Guy Sheaffer and his wife, Sheila Cooley, volunteer to comb Cleveland's waterways for refuse like tires, shopping bags and plastic six-pack rings. But on a beach cleanup in 2007 along Lake Erie in Edgewater State Park, they were shocked to find dozens of plastic tampon applicator tubes. "It was just gross," Sheaffer says. "They were all over the beach."

Sheaffer says a ranger identified the likely culprit: Cleveland's system of combined sewers, in which storm water mixes with residential and industrial waste and escapes into waterways.

As many Americans face the scarcity of water, northeast Ohioans are struggling with overflowing storm water and other waste, plus the demands they place on underground infrastructure.

Heavy rains can overload sewer lines as the muck travels to Cleveland treatment plants. The overflowing sewage and rainwater gush into the city's rivers and Lake Erie at 126 "outfall" locations - bringing E. coli bacteria and anything else flushed down a toilet. Two Cleveland beaches - Villa Angela State Park and Euclid Creek State Park - ranked among the 10 worst in the nation in 2007 in E. coli counts, according to a report by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District is planning a massive construction program of sewer tunnels and pump stations to handle the overflow. The $3.6 billion project is expected to send sewer rates soaring.

Residential rates already are set to increase 9 percent in 2010 and again in 2011. That's when the district's board of trustees will vote on new rates for 2012 to 2016. District officials have estimated annual rate hikes of at least 15 to 18 percent through 2016. "You need to brace yourself," says Jean Chapman, spokeswoman for the district. "It's a huge increase over time."

Assuming 15 percent increases from 2012 to 2016, the average quarterly sewer bill would jump from $92.87 this year to about $223 in 2016 for Clevelanders. In the 60 surrounding communities, the average tab would more than double from $102.25 today to about $241 in 2016.

Those rates would just begin to pay for the project, which the district expects to take 30 years. The Environmental Protection Agency, which mandated the overflow fixes, has pushed for a 20-year timeline, which district officials believe would be too costly for customers, Chapman says. The EPA and district currently are negotiating over elements of the plan.

Sewer bills are based on water use, and water rates themselves are in the midst of a four-year hike. As a consequence, area consumers are more conscious of conserving water and saving money than they were five years ago, says Dennis Schlekie, owner of A- rated Approved Plumbing Co. in Broadview Heights. "Everybody is watching their utility bills now," Schlekie says.

Common devices for limiting water use in the home include water-saving toilets and low-flow showerheads and faucets, which now are required by state code with new installations, Schlekie says. A third of his customers now request low-flow devices even when old fixtures don't need to be repaired or replaced.

He also checks customers' water pressure to ensure it doesn't exceed the code mandate of 80 pounds per square inch. "If you have higher water pressure, you tend to use more water," he says.

In addition to skyrocketing sewer rates, Clevelanders face the taint of unsafe beaches. About 5 billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater overflow into rivers and Lake Erie every year.

Tainted beachwater can expose beachgoers to illnesses including gastroenteritis and hepatitis. Local officials typically post signs to warn swimmers when beachwater samples test high for bacteria, or when high levels are expected.

Overflow is an economic development issue as well as a health hazard, says Amy Gomberg, program director for Environment Ohio, an advocacy group. "It's hard to convince tourists to come to a city where sewage overflows on our beaches," Gomberg says. "It's not exactly a draw."

As canoeing enthusiasts, Sheaffer and his wife are sensitive to water quality and conservation, and have installed water-saving fixtures in their home. "The less you use, the less you pay," Sheaffer says. "And it's a good idea not to use more than you need."

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