Largely unseen and underground, sewer overflows demand millions of dollars of fixes

Underground, rapids of watery gray sludge rush into the plant and with surprising force hit the first filter: a conveyor belt that traps the largest junk — household trash, pop bottles, condoms, cigarettes, tampons — and uplifts it into the air.

Combined Sewer Overflow Explainer

Click here for the full image

Waste from more than 300,000 people living in Akron and some surrounding communities is transported here into the Water Reclamation Facility through a single pipe big enough to fit a pickup truck. On the outskirts of the city, the sprawling plant is tasked with purifying all of the sewage, using a wondrous mix of mechanics, natural biology and chemistry. But often, in events of heavy rain and flooding, the bacteria-laden waste doesn’t make it here — it spills into the Cuyahoga River.

Although the nearly century-old problem is largely invisible to Akron taxpayers, it will end up costing them hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of several decades. The city is one of nearly 800 nationwide — mostly in the Great Lakes and Northeast regions — that are grappling to prevent raw sewage from overflowing into their rivers as a result of antiquated sewer engineering.

Combined sewer overflows, “CSOs” as they’re known, are a symptom of a sewer system that collects both storm water drainage from streets and raw sewage from toilets in the same pipes. The main tunnels, which are designed to carry the wastewater to the treatment plant before it enters back into the river, can fill up during storms and overflow at 34 locations into the Cuyahoga River and Ohio Canal.

Overflows alone can cause instant violations of water pollution regulations set by the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clean Water Act of 1972. They account for beach closings, fishing restrictions and nearly a half-million cases of waterborne illnesses from 1985 to 2000, according to an EPA report.

“When we get rain, because the city of Akron has combined sewers, everything that hits the ground comes here,” said Thomas Sanderson, safety coordinator for Akron’s Water Pollution Control Division. The plant cleans an average of 60 to 70 million gallons of wastewater per day, but on some days in 2012, it saw nearly 300 million gallons. “It’s the way they built sewers back in the day,” he said, adding that at the time of the original sewers’ construction, it could probably adequately support Akron’s “pre-rubber” population, which tripled from 70,000 in 1910 to 210,000 in 1920. “It was the best technology at the time. Well, not so much anymore. There’s a lot of pollution and things that occur.”

Combined Sewer Overflow Pipe

Dam Removal

Although overflows in Akron are just 5 percent raw sewage — the rest is storm water — they have the ability to make the river unsafe, said Linda Oros, spokeswoman for Ohio EPA. “After a major rain event, it may not be advisable to swim in the river because a lot of bacteria has washed in,” Oros said. Overflows depend on a “sweet spot” of precipitation and snowmelt, she added, because too much rain will dilute a stream and therefore actually clean it of pollution.”

But as little as one-tenth an inch of rain could “cause an impact” in Akron, Oros said. “It depends on the weather a lot,” she said. “I don’t know if there’s any cut and dry formula.”

Fixing the problem

The problem has gained increasing attention from environmentalists and regulators since the U.S. E.P.A. first drafted a national CSO policy in 1994. The government tasked communities using CSOs with developing a “Long Term Control Plan” that would ultimately bring their waters into compliance with the Clean Water Act of 1970.

Akron was one of the first to submit its plan, said Patrick Gsellman, manager of the Environmental Division of the Akron Engineering Bureau for 15 years.

But the city has wrestled to begin its most sweeping construction projects, which include additional storage basins to catch overflows, more tunnels to carry waste to the treatment plant and, more recently, cheaper “green” projects that aim to keep urban rainwater out of the sewers.

The city first presented a 30-year plan in 2002 — federal regulators said it didn’t go far enough. Meanwhile, the cost of the plan skyrocketed and opportunities for federal funding disappeared.

In February, city council voted to raise sewer rates for Akron residents by about 70 percent to $60 a month for the average consumer. The city would have to double the rate to $120 in order to pay for all the city’s desired projects, Gsellman said.

From River to Faucet

In all, Akron’s current plan includes constructing seven sewer separation projects, two large tunnels, ten storage basins, and improvements at the Water Pollution Control Station. The projects will cost a total of $870 million and are slated to be done by 2028.

But because of unreliable funding, Gsellman said, the city is currently prioritizing some projects over others. Cost is dictating the balance between more storage tanks, tunnels and smaller treatment technologies.

“We’re a big enough city to have the problem, but not big enough to have the money to solve the problem,” Gsellman said.

The city has finished some parts of the plan, such as the $22 million Cuyahoga Street Facility that has captured 30 percent of the overflow since 2006. Local homes and businesses have constructed rain gardens and retention basins, and the city has added permeable asphalt that absorbs surface water instead of draining it into the sewer system.

“The whole sewer system is modeled, and the whole river system is modeled, and everything that we do is based on a typical year,” he explained. “But that’s what makes the green (technology) so attractive … obviously, if you can treat anything at the source, it’s almost always the most cost-effective way to treat it.”

In an instant

Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of sewage overflows is their volatility. Sanderson said “high flow events” — lots of rain or snowmelt — can affect both the sewage pipes and treatment plant in an instant. On a Thursday afternoon in late February, as rainfall accompanied the melting of several inches of snow, flow into the plant increased from 70 to 160 million gallons in two hours.

Sanderson, pointing to a still-inflated soccer ball floating in a purification pond well beyond the first filter, said it’s not uncommon for high velocities of water to force large debris through the system. None, he assured, makes it to the Cuyahoga.

Until the plan’s completion, the overflow locations are necessary, Sanderson said, to prevent sewage back-ups in homes as well as reduce strain on the treatment facility. The pipe into the treatment facility fills up at around 280 million gallons.

Gsellman expressed optimism at the river’s health and called its comeback “phenomenal.” “You ask anybody 20 years ago would you think the river would be in the condition that it’s in,” he said. “The river’s incredible right now.”

Daniel Moore