As Toledoans were urgently reminded this month, clean water is one of our region’s most valuable resources — and one that many of us take for granted.
Many years ago, it was common practice to relieve overloaded sewers by discharging overflows directly into our waterways during heavy rains.
Some portions of Toledo remain that way to this day. The volume and frequency of these overflows are unacceptable.
In 2002, the city settled an 11-year-old lawsuit brought by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by signing a consent decree requiring a reduction in water pollution from sewer overflows. Many other communities have reached similar agreements.
Our agreement provided an 18-year time line to design, engineer, and build more than 40 projects to collect, store, and transport sewage for treatment before it reaches our waterways. Even then, we knew the Toledo Waterways Initiative (TWI) would cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Also in 2002, voters supported the consent decree and the sewer rate increases needed to pay for the largest construction program in the history of Toledo. With about six years to go, the $521 million program is two-thirds complete.
Several of the largest projects ahead include the Ottawa River storage facility, the downtown storage basin, the International Park storage pipeline, and the Swan Creek north tunnel extension. (For more information, go to toledowaterwaysinitiative.com.)
The Department of Public Utilities has submitted to City Council a proposed sewer rate increase that is designed to fulfill the city’s responsibilities. Rates for total sewer charges would increase annually by 7.1 percent for five years starting next January, with an increase of 7.9 percent in January, 2020.
These increases provide funding only to support design, engineering, construction, and debt payment for the remaining obligations under the consent decree. We understand no one wants to pay more; we worked very hard to come up with a rate structure that would take both the needs of our ratepayers and our commitment to the EPA into account.
Improving our waterways brings great value to our region. In addition to cleaner water, improved wildlife habitat, and increased public enjoyment of local rivers and streams, there are also infrastructure benefits.
The Ottawa River storage facility is designed to reduce the incidence of sewage backups in basements. Another benefit is the restoration of city parks after construction. Joe E. Brown Park in North Toledo will get a new, lighted baseball diamond and other amenities to replace current facilities.
Some roads have been and will be rebuilt as a result of TWI’s construction operations. The program supports the equivalent of about 500 full-time jobs each year.
To put Toledo’s $521 million consent decree into perspective, consider the costs of other Ohio cities’ agreements: Cincinnati, $3.2 billion; Cleveland, $3 billion; Columbus, $2.5 billion, and Akron, $1.4 billion.
As council members consider the rate increase, we believe four points are key:
■ The consent decree is a federally mandated program that must be funded.
■ Approval of higher rates now is needed to secure low-interest loans that will finance the remaining projects.
■ The city may not begin construction of the final required projects until the supporting rate structures are in place.
■ The first deadline is quickly approaching for the largest project of all — the Ottawa River storage facility, at an estimated cost of $88.2 million.
The City of Toledo has lived up to all of its requirements under the consent decree. We appreciate the support of ratepayers and elected officials — support that has helped us meet every milestone since TWI began.
Edward A. Moore is director of the Toledo Department of Public Utilities.