Columbus’s Blueprint For Clean Streams And Strong Neighborhoods

By: Summer Minger

National League Of Cities

Cathy SpainWritten by Cathy Spain
In the late 1970s, I was a research economist writing guidebooks for local officials about the affordability of new infrastructure to achieve national water quality standards. At the time, new wastewater treatment plants and deep tunnels were designed without enough consideration given to the financial burden of such projects on communities and their residents.

Fast forward 35 years: cities are still confronting the challenge of building expensive new infrastructure to keep their waterways clean and their drinking water safe with limited financial resources. One city is exploring an innovative way to tackle its sanitary sewer overflows and stormwater management problems in a way that it believes is cleaner and greener and will create jobs, provide new opportunities, and transform blight. That city is Columbus, Ohio.

I recently heard about Blueprint Columbus in a presentation by Mayor Michael Coleman on the National League of Cities’ website. He described the problem Columbus faces from sanitary sewer overflow (SSOs) – contamination of the local waterways, which is both a legal problem and a health hazard. SSOs are spills of raw sewage into basements or out of manholes and onto city streets and other property and into streams before it can reach a treatment facility. Some of the causes of SSOs are:

  • Groundwater infiltrating pipes
  • Rainfall or snowmelt infiltrating pipes (called inflow)
  • Sewer defects
  • Sewers and pumps strained by new development
  • Blocked, broken or cracked sewer lines
  • Excess water from yards and roofs

Like many cities, Columbus entered into a consent order to reduce its combined sewer overflows (CSOs) and SSOs.  Having spent .0 billion on treatment facilities and a deep tunnel to limit CSOs and with challenging stormwater regulations to be met, the city began to ask whether there was a better way to meet its clean water obligations.   Blueprint Columbia was the answer.  It is the city’s plan to control sanitary sewer overflows and stormwater runoff by spending money above ground and on green infrastructure rather, than relying on gray infrastructure such as another deep tunnel that is used infrequently.

The city decided to use the integrated planning process permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency – this allows municipalities to focus on solutions to their most critical water quality issues first and delay some of the more traditional planned projects. The approach is intended to support more sustainable and comprehensive solutions such as green infrastructure, promote efficiencies to address wastewater and stormwater issues, and support other quality of life attributes.

The goal of Blueprint Columbus is to divert water before it gets into the stormwater and sanitary sewer systems and consists of several key strategies:

  • An aggressive inflow and infiltration program will be implemented. This will prevent excess water from entering sanitary sewers from above-ground sources or seeping into the collection system from surrounding soil.  This will be done by sealing up the city sewers and lateral sewer lines that are privately owned.  The city will assess residents’ lateral lines to determine if they need to be lined and investigate drainage patterns from rooftops and driveways so the water can be diverted away from collection systems.
  • Stormwater will be captured for treatment with green infrastructure. Vacant and abandoned properties will be turned into parks and rain gardens—special gardens built to withstand extremes of moisture and nutrients found in stormwater. Porous pavement will be used for sidewalks, basketball courts, and other surfaces.

The city is in the process of developing its plan to address both stormwater and sewer overflow with the advice of a Community Advisory Panel. It is piloting certain projects and engaging the community to validate its approach, determine its acceptability and identify acceptable technologies.

Investing above ground rather than below ground has many community benefits. Money will stay in the local economy by building green rather than gray infrastructure. New jobs will be created for ongoing maintenance and neighborhoods will be revitalized as blight is removed and new parks are built. Oh yeah –  and the local waterways will be cleaner, too.

Mayor Coleman’s presentation about Blueprint Columbus occurred at the National League of Cities Big Ideas conference held in conjunction with the University of Chicago in April 2014.  It is available at http://www.nlc.org/big-ideas-for-cities/columbus-oh.  Visit the City’s website at http://columbus.gov/blueprint/ for more information.

Cathy Spain was an Advisor with the National League of Cities Service Line Warranty Program and President of The Spain Group.  She works with companies and nonprofits to design, analyze and promote local government programs. She’s held senior management, research and lobbying positions at the National League of Cities, Government Finance Officers Association, Public Risk Database Project, and New York State Assembly.