Akron Slogs Ahead On Crucial Sewer Project

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The next time it rains….REALLY rains….think about just where all that extra water goes.

In Akron, that extra water flows through an antiquated sewer system built nearly a century ago.

It serves more than 300,000 people across Akron and 13 suburbs.

When too much water builds up, it overflows into many vital waterways across northeast Ohio.

On a cool sunny morning, Donna Webb leads me through a patch of trees and brush, over to where an old sewer tunnel empties out into the Little Cuyahoga River…about 3 miles from where it joins the Cuyahoga River. She points to a dark opening lined with bricks and moss.

“…right through there, it’s probably 9 feet in diameter," Webb says. "And it discharges any of the extra water during a storm into the Little Cuyahoga.”

Webb has been in Akron for 30 years. She’s living at the nearby Cascade Village, a mixed-income residential project. She says locals come and watch the Little Cuyahoga….

“…but they don’t really trust its cleanliness. And it should be a fabulous thing to have a little river next to your house.”

Residents have good reason for doubt. Akron’s sewer system is an early 20th century engineering relic.

It collects storm water and raw sewage waste together and sends them to a wastewater treatment plant, which is fine under mildly rainy conditions.

But after a heavy rain… the water can overwhelm the system and cause flooding. So it’s allowed to overflow into those big pipes and discharge, untreated, right into a nearby waterway like the Little Cuyahoga, and ultimately into Lake Erie. Not only does it smell awful, it can sicken or endanger fish, animals, and people who contact it.

Akron has a plan to redesign the system, spurred by an EPA lawsuit demanding that it remedy the problem.

But putting it into play has been nothing short of exasperating, says Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, because of the all the federal red tape involved.

“It’s a crime in my opinion, how they have treated local governments.”

Akron’s plan is in limbo pending word from U.S. District Judge John Adams, who must sign off on a consent decree – an engineering and financial plan to remedy the overflows.

It’s the second one submitted in four years - Adams rejected the first one in 2011, saying it did not address the court’s questions sufficiently.

Now it’s a waiting game as Adams considers the current proposal… and that frustrates Plusquellic.

“I have no idea how long he’s going to take. There still isn’t a decision," he grumbles. "But the consent decree, if it’s in place as it is now, sets forth a number of projects that we would have to complete. And that then dictates the cost of those projects, what we need to raise in rates to be able to pay for those.”

Under the plan, the upgrades would be completed by 2027 at a cost of about $870 million, and the city is moving ahead as if the consent decree will be eventually approved.

Several options have been floated to pay for it, none of them very good, says Akron City Councilman Bruce Kilby.

Raising sewer rates is one. Another is raising property taxes… or the income tax, which Kilby says would spread some of the burden to suburban residents.

“Because 40 percent of the people that pay city income tax don’t live in the city, so they’re more affluent people that live in the suburbs, who come here to work.”

Whether it’s raised rates, or raised taxes, or both…it doesn’t really matter to Elaine Marsh of the environmental group Friends of the Crooked River – another of my tour guides on the Little Cuyahoga.

Marsh points to a section of land that’ll eventually be turned into a storage basin under the sewer development plan.

These can hold up to 10 million gallons of untreated waste.

“Instead of sending this water directly into the river, it’ll be collected here and held until there is more capacity at the storage treatment plant, for treatment. It will be the beginning of many additional plans to further enhance the area.”

Marsh adds that there’s simply no argument that the upgrade must happen.

“It is not only our responsibility to ourselves, it is our responsibility to the future. We cannot dump raw, untreated sewage into our waterways!”

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