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Published: Friday, 9/17/2004

Workshop introduces plan for new sewer system

Sunset on Lake Erie. Perch fishing with Dad. Splashing in beachfront water. And watching a great blue heron take flight from a streamside bank.

It takes more than money to enjoy those outdoor activities: It takes good sewage treatment.

Face it: Sewage isn't sexy, whether you're talking about it in northwest Ohio or anyplace else in the country. To wit: Last night's workshop at the Main Toledo-Lucas County Public Library during which a campaign called the Toledo Waterways Initiative made its first formal attempt to bring the community into the planning process for a $450 million overhaul of the city's antiquated sewage system.

About 75 people attended, surpassing initiative director Bob Williams' expectations.

They were attentive and inquisitive, though some of them worked for the city of Toledo and other local agencies and might have been expected to be there as part of their jobs.

But a little perspective is in order: The sewer project, to be phased in over 15 years, is second only to the $821 million systemwide renovation project being undertaken by Toledo Public Schools. It's a lot of money, and the stakes are high.

First, there's the hit on pocketbooks. Sewer rates are being raised 9.75 percent each of the next two years. The degree to which improvements are made "will drive rates in the future," said Dave Kielmeyer, spokesman for Funk, Luetke, and Skunda, a Toledo marketing firm handling the campaign's public relations.

Second, there's the future of western Lake Erie's water-based recreation and tourism industry. Sewage spillover during heavy rains has long been cited as a major source of pollution - so big that the city spent 11 years in court challenging discharge requirements established by the U.S. and Ohio environmental protection agencies.

Two of the biggest aspects of the project are increasing capacity at the sewage treatment plant off Summit Street to help avoid more basement flooding, and curbing how much raw waste spills into streams when 32 remaining combined sewer overflows become overwhelmed.

The latter is viewed as a last frontier for water pollution cutbacks. Though the type of contaminants vary from source to source, city officials have said for years the sheer volume of raw sewage that overflows far exceeds anything industry is allowed to discharge into the lake or the streams flowing into it.

But Toledo isn't alone. A promotional video shown at last night's event said how more than 400 cities are under orders to upgrade their sewage systems. Toledo's waterways initiative stems from voter approval of an ordinance in 2002 to settle the longstanding dispute with regulators.

The city has 17 combined sewer overflows left to be addressed along the Maumee River, nine along Swan Creek, and six along the Ottawa River. Separating them or finding other alternatives to eliminate overflows will be the cornerstone of a draft plan due to be submitted to the U.S. EPA in March, Mr. Kielmeyer said.

But there are things that $450 million don't get you.

It doesn't clean up pollution that's been imbedded in the sediment of area streams for years - in some cases, decades. "It does not include remediation of the waterways. What it does is stop our contribution of pollution," Mr. Williams said.

And it doesn't stop pollution from upstream sources - sometimes miles beyond the city limits - that flows downstream, including the heavy runoff of farm chemicals into the Maumee, he said.

As one observer noted, that runoff is a double-whammy. It costs the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers millions of dollars each year to dredge in order to keep the Toledo shipping channel open. And much of that dredged material gets dumped into the open lake, an act which many public officials and scientists have said is another potential threat to the lake's ecology.

"I'm in agreement with you," Mr. Williams told the person in the audience who had raised that point. "But this project will not solve those issues."



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