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The clean water priority

David Beach  |  12/07/10 @ 3:20pm

On Dec. 2, the Board of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District voted to begin a $3 billion, 25-year program to reduce sewer overflows into local streams and Lake Erie. The program will be one of the last big initiatives to clean up the region's legacy of water pollution.

The combined sewer overflow (CSO) program is the result of a settlement with U.S. EPA, and it has stirred up debate about the cost burden it will impose on local rate payers, as sewer fees increase in the coming years to pay for the work. But the program can be a key part of moving Greater Cleveland toward a more sustainable future. At the Board meeting, I spoke to the Sewer District Board and encouraged them to imagine the possibilities if we make clean water a priority.

Here is what I said:

First of all, I want to acknowledge that the CSO program is a big deal, and I understand why many people are struggling with it. It's important to raise questions to make sure that we do what's best for the Greater Cleveland area. And it's especially important to consider the social equity issues related to how rising sewer fees will impact people on fixed incomes.

However, I would like to suggest a couple of ways to reframe the issue.

The politics of this situation tends to push us to adopt a very negative frame in which the CSO program is seen as a problem. So it's higher fees. It's an unfunded mandate. It's coming at a bad economic time. It's just something we are forced to deal with because the Feds are threatening to sue us. So we end up just trying to minimize the damage.

I don't like that frame. I don't think that it's helpful or productive.

There are at least two ways that we can reframe this. First, we need to realize that, in a larger sense, the choice is not between more or less spending. In most cases ? whether at the household level or the community level - we're going to spend our money on something - cable TV, cell phones, transportation projects, a new convention center, casino gambling - something.

The real choice is about priorities. Are we willing to make clean water a priority? Water is the basic ingredient of life. Our bodies are mostly water. I can't think of a higher priority for our society. We need to stand up for water as a top priority - especially here on the shore of Lake Erie, where we have the sacred responsibility to take care of the Great Lakes.

The second way to reframe the issue is to see the CSO program as an opportunity. If we do this right, it can be one of the best ways to invest in our community. History has proven that investments in clean water return all kinds of benefits - environmental, social, and economic. But the really exciting thing is how, at this critical moment in Cleveland's history, the District's CSO program can be a key part of the transformation of the city and the region.

Think about what we have here:

  • Abundant vacant land.
  • A ReImagining a Greater Cleveland planning process that is developing strategies to put vacant land into productive uses.
  • Emerging institutional capacity ? the District's CSO program and new stormwater program ? to design and build green infrastructure that can restore ecological functioning in urban settings.
  • Emerging capacity to assemble land for new purposes with the new county land bank.

If you put all this together, you can start bringing nature back into the city - rebuilding the city based on ecological principles and creating a new kind of 21st century green and sustainable city. We can do this better here than anywhere else. And it's something we can do ourselves. We don't have to wait for someone to help us. We don't have to wait for the global economy to somehow revive us. We can transform ourselves. It's an exciting opportunity.

The important thing now is not to blow it. The Sewer District has to step up with great engineering and ecological creativity to design the best possible solutions - world-class solutions that push the CSO program as far as possible into the direction of fewer big pipes underground and more above-ground and distributed green infrastructure solutions that have multiple benefits for the community. Then it has to manage projects in the most open, transparent, and cost-effective manner possible.

The rest of us have to be tough watchdogs. It's going to be hard to monitor a 25-year program, but we have to keep on it. We need to insist on the best. We deserve it.

In conclusion, I hope we can see the CSO program as a top priority - and as a great opportunity to invest in ourselves.

We can do it.

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