Akron’s Sewer Project, Explained

by Emily Dressler

You may know it as the CSO project or, more simply, “the sewer project.” Maybe you know it by its official name, “Akron Waterways Renewed!”, with its exclamation mark adding a level of forced cheer.

During the last couple of years, Akron Waterways Renewed! has hosted popular trolley tours of sewer-related construction sites. The sewer project has a mascot: a blue heron named Eco. There was a day-drinking party when Rosie the tunnel-boring machine completed her 6,240-foot journey under Akron streets in summer 2018. Since we couldn’t all be underground with her, a live feed showed her progress as she emerged near West Exchange Street to greet the pleasant light of day. Thirsty Dog even made a limited release lager, Rosie Digs Akron.

Akron’s recent efforts — and success — in garnering excitement about sewers have not gone unnoticed by the wastewater community. In September 2018, the Ohio Water Environment Association awarded a public image award to Akron and the Akron Waterways Renewed! team in recognition of their achievements in getting Akronites excited about sewers.

But that excitement comes at a cost. Akronites have been paying increasingly higher sewer bills for years now, and we’ll have to do it for years to come. Businesses have dealt with disruptions from sewer-related construction, and according to the Akron Beacon Journal, five homeowners on Mustill and Cuyahoga Streets have dealt with structural damage allegedly resulting from the massive tunnel boring machine digging nearby.   

It all hinges on one promise: Eventually, we will have cleaner waterways.

Sewer work in Akron has been necessary since the 1920s, when we built sewers that overflow and dump untreated sewage into our waterways during heavy rain or “wet weather” events. For about 50 years, no one raised much of a stink.

In 1972, the federal Clean Water Act required cities to stop polluting the waterways, but still no one raised much of a stink.

Then in 2009, the EPA sued the City of Akron because it was violating the Clean Water Act. It turns out we were the ones raising a stink by dumping shit into the river.

Many more stinks later, in 2015, the city officially kicked off Akron Waterways Renewed!, a long-awaited overhaul of the city’s combined sewer system.

What is a “combined sewer overflow?”

When we talk about the sewer project at totally normal parties with totally normal people, many discussions somehow skirt the issue of sewage. Even the official title, Akron Waterways Renewed!, emphasizes the end result of clean waterways and leaves out the poop. But you can’t talk about clean waterways without talking about the sewage, treated and untreated, that we have been dumping into the waterways since Akron’s founding in 1825.

We are lucky that we do not need to think too much about the logistics behind flushing a toilet or getting clean water from a faucet. We simply trust these things to happen correctly. Part of this trust lies in our utilities bureau, which Akron Councilmember-at-Large Jeff Fusco describes as “world-class.” Fusco says Akron has received numerous awards over the years from groups like the Ohio EPA and American Water Works Association.

In order to rack up all those awards, a bunch of folks behind the scenes treat our water. And it starts in the bathroom.

When you flush a toilet or dump something down a drain, it creates a mixture of water and waste called sanitary sewage. The sanitary sewage leaves your home through an underground sanitary sewer pipe.

The Water Reclamation Facility. Photo: Rosalie Murphy.

In some parts of Akron, those sanitary sewer pipes run alongside separate storm sewage pipes as both types snake their way toward the Water Reclamation Facility on Akron-Peninsula Road. A storm sewage pipe carries surface runoff water, which forms when soil, pavement, rooftops or other impervious surfaces cannot absorb stormwater quickly enough. Instead of draining, the stormwater runs in streams toward the storm sewers. For instance, a lot of that January snow, which was followed by rain and unseasonably high temperatures, may have turned into surface runoff.

In other parts of Akron, sanitary sewer pipes and storm sewage pipes flow together into a single “combined sewer.” Sewers built after 1923 require human waste and stormwater to be kept separate. But about 25 percent, or 159 miles, of Akron’s sewers are combined.

During “dry weather,” all the sewage flows to the Water Reclamation Facility and undergoes some industrial sorting. The Water Reclamation Facility sends solid waste via underground pipes to the Renewable Energy Facility (REF) on Riverview Road, which you may know as the formerly smelly stretch of the Towpath just north of the Merriman Valley. The REF treats the sanitary and storm sewage in a complex process that removes grit, sediment and bacteria so that it can be safely dumped in the Cuyahoga River.

The Renewable Energy Facility. Photo: Rosalie Murphy.

Cuyahoga River water feeds three reservoirs. The Akron Water Supply Bureau treats that reservoir water again, then sends it through our taps.

Combined sewers are fine when the weather in Akron is perfect. But during a heavy rain or snow event, they are not. This is when a combined sewer turns into a combined sewer overflow.

And CSOs are the crux of the problem.

When there’s too much sewage, the Water Reclamation Facility cannot handle all the excess at once, so the combined sewer runneth over and sends untreated overflow sewage from 34 overflow relief points in Akron along the Cuyahoga River, Little Cuyahoga and the Ohio & Erie Canal — the same rivers that supply our drinking water.

You know what they say: No two sewers are alike. Some combined sewers overflow every time it rains. Others overflow only during heavy rain. There is no official rainfall measurement that defines “heavy rain” versus “regular rain.”

In the 1990s, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that the CSO dumped 2 billion gallons of untreated sewage water per year into our waterways. Two billion gallons might sound like a drop in the bucket to you, but this many gallons would fill more than 3,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Overflows are troubling, of course, because releasing untreated sewage into our waterways is harmful for people and wildlife. But it might be reassuring to remember that modern toilets use a lot of water. The sanitary sewage in the combined pipe is heavily diluted by water.

When overflow sewage goes into the river, yes, there is urine and feces in there, along with whatever else gets flushed down toilets and dumped down drains, but there is more water than anything.

In the last six months of 2018, the CSO dumped 993 million gallons of untreated sewage water, according to City of Akron semi-annual reports. This is slightly less than the overflow amounts from the 1990s. (Akron is required to submit semi-annual reports to the EPA as part of the Federal Consent Decree.)

The Akron Waterways Renewed! website monitors overflow statuses for the 34 overflow relief points. For a real-time update, take a walk along the Cuyahoga River, Little Cuyahoga River or Ohio & Erie Canal and look for the small blue and white CSO signs that identify the overflow relief spots.

The small pipe at left is a CSO overflow relief point. Photo: Rosalie Murphy.

Eliminating sewage overflow is an obvious solution to eliminating one source of bacteria and pathogens, although it won’t end pollution in our rivers by itself. Elaine Marsh, president of the nonprofit environmental group Friends of the Crooked River, says that even though the CSO repairs are an obvious solution to improving the water quality, “environmental change is led by policy.”

Although a CSO seems like it could be a uniquely sad and depressing type of Akron problem, it is not. At least 15 other Ohio communities have CSOs. Throughout the U.S., there are at least 700 CSOs, according to Akron Waterways Renewed!. Each is undergoing, or has already completed, federally mandated repair work.

The emotional response in Akron, however, may be a uniquely Akron response. In Seattle, Graham Johnson, a reporter with KIRO-TV, says that city’s “CSO projects don’t really seem to register with the public, certainly on no emotional level that I’ve seen.” I guess that means we win?

According to Fusco, Akron’s efforts — and EPA requirements — are more substantial than those in other cities, however. Other cities are not required to completely eliminate overflow events.

Other cities have also not dealt with a decades-long fight between longtime former mayor Don Plusquellic and Federal Judge John Adams in the Northern District Court of Ohio.

Why has this taken so long?

In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon and the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency issued the Clean Water Act, which instructed all U.S. cities to make efforts to keep and maintain clean waterways. Those efforts include no-brainers such as stopping the practice of sending raw sewage into a river that feeds directly to drinking water.

In 1987, the federal government eliminated federal funding for EPA-mandated projects under the Clean Water Act. Akron claimed, according to ABJ reports from the time, that the price of fixing the sewers was simply too high for a city the size of Akron to afford. So we did nothing. But it was okay, the city said, because we had a permit from the Ohio EPA that allowed us to keep polluting the rivers while we worked on a cheaper solution.

In 2002, Akron submitted a $376 million plan to the Ohio EPA that would have reduced but not eliminated overflows. It was approved. City officials said that projected sewer rate increases would be unreasonable for most Akron residents, but they submitted the plan anyway.

Later in 2002, the federal EPA decided that state EPAs did not have the negotiating authority to accept or reject plans, and the federal EPA rejected our plan. That meant Akron was now violating federal law.

By 2004, we no longer had a permit from the Ohio EPA that allowed us to dump our overflow sewage into the river. We had been violating the Clean Water Act prior to the permit, but now those violations would have more severe consequences.

A 2018 sewer tour. Photo: Shane Wynn.

Various sewer-related repair projects reduced overflows slightly in the 2000s, but the city and the EPA had still not settled on an official agreement.

In 2009, the EPA sued Akron for noncompliance with the Clean Water Act. Akron applied for federal funding to complete the federally mandated project and was denied. We were up shit’s creek without a paddle.

Later that year, Akron, the Ohio EPA and the U.S. EPA reached an agreement to fix the sewers, known in court as the Consent Decree. The Consent Decree contains the terms of the Long-Term Control Plan (LTCP), the guiding document in our sewer repair journey. Neither name sounds as enthusiastic as Akron Waterways Renewed!, which is what the Long-Term Control Plan ultimately became.

A consent decree is a legal document submitted in court instead of admitting guilt or liability. With Akron’s Consent Decree, we weren’t saying we were guilty of violating the Clean Water Act, but we did suggest some ideas for how we could meet some of those guidelines, perhaps making us less guilty, even though we weren’t guilty anyway. Our ideas included reducing overflow events to a single-digit number per year.

The Consent Decree proposal was more expensive than the $376 million project proposed in 2002, but basically included the same details.

The city filed the Consent Decree in 2009 in Ohio’s Northern District Court with Judge John Adams. Judge Adams heard the case in January 2011 at the John F. Seiberling Federal Building on South Main Street. He rejected the Consent Decree on the grounds that it did not do enough to stop pollution or meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act.

If we were up shit’s creek without a paddle in 2009, then by 2011, we were up there without a boat.

A few months later, Akron, the Ohio EPA and the U.S. EPA filed a revised Consent Decree that included a Revised Long-Term Control Plan outlining the parameters for eliminating all untreated overflows. The revised Consent Decree requires the city to pay a civil fine of $500,000, and it will subject the city (which is to say, taxpayers) to more fines if we do not fix the CSO in compliance with the Clean Water Act by 2027.

This plan had a price tag close to $1.4 billion. It was pending in Judge Adams’s courtroom for two years.

Between 2009 and 2013, the city continued sewer construction projects, just not under the direction of an official sewer repair document. A storage basin that opened in 2011 reduced the number of CSO overflow spots by three.

In 2013, the Obama administration allowed cities undergoing federally mandated sewer repair work to submit an Integrated Plan which allows for sustainable, or green infrastructure, solutions. (Thanks, Obama!)

If there is one thing that Akron does well, it’s innovation. The city submitted an Integrated Plan that modifies the revised Long-Term Control Plan, implements green infrastructure and saves about $300 million from the overall price.

In 2014, Judge Adams, along with a choir of miracle angels, accepted our revised consent decree/long-term control plan/integrated plan. We needed a catchier name, though, something with an exclamation mark. So, in 2015, we officially started the Akron Waterways Renewed! Project. It had a projected price tag of $1.4 billion.

In a 2015 published letter from Plusquellic to Adams, Plusquellic wrote that no other city was required to eliminate 100 percent of overflow events. Plusquellic claimed that Adams was “repeatedly demonstrating [his] personal bias towards” him, and by hindering the city’s progress on the sewer work, had cost taxpayers a lot more money.

Plusquellic’s claim that Akron was being treated in a manner inconsistent with other cities is not without merit. According to the Integrated Plan, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in Cleveland — which discharges water to the same receiving river as Akron does — is allowed at least two overflow events a year. Seattle, a city with a population more than three times the size of Akron, is allowed one overflow event a year. Both are operating under federal consent decrees.

A 2018 sewer tour. Photo: Shane Wynn.

‘A multigenerational sewer project’

For the price of approximately $1.4 billion, work completed by Akron Waterways Renewed! will eliminate untreated overflows in a typical year by 2027.

Akron residents, as well as our neighbors in Bath, Copley, Coventry, Cuyahoga Falls, Fairlawn, Mogadore, Springfield and Tallmadge, will foot the bill, and we will continue to do so at least until the project is complete. In fact, city officials have referred to this as a “multigenerational sewer project” that “generations of sewer customers” will pay for. “Generations of sewer customers” has, so far, not taken off as a good way to refer to new generations.

Normally, a project with such a high price tag and long timeline would boast about the piles of money it will eventually save residents. This isn’t that kind of project. If you care about the environment (and even if you don’t), the benefits of an environmental improvement project are priceless, but they aren’t going to save you money. The cost-benefit analysis of clean water is a bit abstract.

At times, clean waterways might seem like a small comfort. However, Elaine Marsh from the Friends of the Crooked River says that Akron is built around our waterways, and keeping them clean is central to our economy.

Fusco adds that “it takes courage to vote for something like this.” City council, not residents, votes to approve sewer rate increases.

Currently, 83 percent of residential sewer bills and 15 percent of residential water bills fund the Akron Waterways Renewed! project. My sewer bill averages $55 a month. In 2009, my neighbors say their sewer bills averaged $23 a month. For some Akronites, high sewer rates, a polluted river and the feeling that we are paying for previous generations’ mistakes are all we have ever known. But at least we are fixing it for generations of sewer customers to come.

The Little Cuyahoga River near a CSO relief point. Photo: Rosalie Murphy.

In order to cover the price of the Akron Waterways Renewed! project over time, sewer bills will increase again. The city has promised there will be no increases until 2020. After that, increases are scheduled to be gradual so that residents aren’t paying a massive chunk of money all at once. Some of the city’s loans from the EPA are zero-interest with long repayment periods, which is helpful — especially for Akronites trying to make payments mortgages and student loans, which are definitely not zero-interest.

During Fusco’s six-month term as interim mayor in 2015, he obtained EPA approval for additional green infrastructure. Green infrastructure includes low-cost ventures like creating community gardens and wetlands designed to improve drainage and manage stormwater. Some street construction projects have used pervious concrete, rather than impervious concrete, which improves surface runoff drainage instead of directing such water to a storm sewer.

Green infrastructure elements have also been added to gray, or concrete, infrastructure projects. For instance, a combined sewer in Middlebury was separated into two sewers in 2017. According to Patrick Gsellman, the program manager at Akron Waterways Renewed!, that project was considered green because it used a stormwater wetland — basically an upgraded version of a residential rain garden, which provides a shallow marshy area with drainage — to treat the discharge from the newly separated storm sewer.

Separating combined sewers seems like it would be an obvious solution, but it is too impractical and expensive to carry out across the board. Only five combined sewers will be separated during Akron Waterways Renewed!.

A 2018 sewer tour. Photo: Shane Wynn.

The largest portions of the sewer project are not as green. The Ohio Canal Interceptor Tunnel (OCIT) is a 27-foot diameter concrete tunnel that spans 6,240 feet underground and can hold 25 million gallons of overflow sewage. During a heavy rain or snow event, nine combined sewers will empty into the canal interceptor tunnel at three different locations instead of overflowing into the waterways. You have likely seen construction related to the OCIT around the Mustill Store, Rand and Dart Avenues by Glendale Cemetery and by West Exchange and West Cedar Streets. The interceptor tunnel stores the combined sewage until the Water Reclamation Facility is able to treat it.

To dig this tunnel, a specially made tunnel boring machine — our aforementioned Rosie — came to Akron in October 2017 and started digging. Rosie burrowed underground until Aug. 29, 2018. If you remember those signs around downtown a few years back warning of Blasting Zones, those controlled blasts helped Rosie dig that tunnel.

According to Pat Gsellman, the entire project is currently at 69 percent completion, with portions coming in under budget and ahead of schedule. The city had asked the EPA for an extended completion deadline of 2040, but the EPA denied the request. Gsellman confirms that the project is on track for 2027.

We are almost five years into Akron Waterways Renewed!. Let’s hope we can keep our current level of excitement — forced or otherwise — for eight years to come.

Emily Dressler has been writing about Akron bathrooms and related miscellany since 2015.