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Using Large-scale Green Solutions to Reduce Overflows and Reinvigorate a Neighborhood

Cincinnati, OH, USA
Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati
In Collaboration With
Green Infrastructure Leadership Exchange

Cost

Initial:
100 Million USD

Project Status

Operational since 2021

Keywords

equity
Combined sewer overflows
inclusion
green infrastructure
stream daylighting

Challenges Addressed

Stormwater Management

Motivation

Sustainable city
Equitable city

Funding / Financing

General Fund/Existing Public Funds

Project Type

Project

At a Glance

The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) introduced a grey / green stormwater management and combined sewer overflow (CSO) project that eliminates nearly 400 million gallons of CSO in South Fairmont, an underserved and low-income neighborhood in the watershed.

Problem Addressed

Prior to the late 1800s, the Lick Run stream flowed naturally through the Lick Run valley to the Mill Creek, a tributary of the Ohio River. The area that drained to Lick Run — approximately 2,900 acres situated between Harrison Avenue, Ferguson Road, Glenway Avenue, and the Mill Creek — became known as the Lick Run watershed. While flowing to the stream, much of the rainwater soaked into the ground or was absorbed by plants.

Over time, more people moved into the watershed, pervious surfaces were paved, and the community underwent industrialization. In 1893, the Lick Run stream was enclosed and buried within a brick storm sewer that carried water and wastes out of the community and into the Mill Creek. With the introduction of toilets and indoor plumbing, sewage was discharged into the same sewer and the combined sewer system was born, ultimately polluting waterways like the Mill Creek all over the U.S. By the 1970s, wastewater treatment had addressed much of this problem, but a new challenge emerged - combined sewers, including the Lick Run sewer, began overflowing into waterways during heavy rains, unable to convey the large volumes of water to treatment plants. Known as a combined sewer overflow (CSO), this type of pollution adversely impacts people, recreation, fish, vegetation and anything downstream. By the early 21st century, millions of gallons of sewage and rainwater from the Lick Run watershed were overflowing into the Mill Creek each year.

The project initially emerged as a purely grey solution under a federal consent decree to reduce CSOs. In 2009, The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) convinced the EPA that a combined grey/green solution could meet all compliance goals and do so at a lower cost, about $200 million less than the initially proposed grey approach. The new approach was approved by the EPA in 2013, and MSD initiated project design, and construction soon after.

Keeping stormwater out of the combined sewer system results in a significant reduction of CSOs into the Mill Creek and also in the amount of wastewater treated at the Mill Creek treatment plant. The stormwater collected from the watershed is conveyed to the Lick Run Greenway, a bioengineered urban waterway that replaces the original Lick Run stream. The Greenway includes a headwaters, mile-long stream, and pond in the socio-economically vulnerable South Fairmount neighborhood. MSD hopes the project is a catalyst for boosting the community’s economy and revitalizing the neighborhood, while also managing the largest volume overflow in MSD’s service are and improving water quality in the Mill Creek.

City of Cincinnati used/is using green stormwater management and CSO reduction to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

In 2006, MSD began working on a Wet Weather plan that laid out the specific projects planned for phase 1 of the consent decree. The original solution for the lower portion of the Mill Creek watershed, which includes the Lick Run watershed, was a purely gray concept: a deep, underground storage tunnel that would intercept combined overflows before they reached the creek, provide some treatment, and then discharge the flows back into the Mill Creek. MSD introduced and proposed the idea of a green alternative that would not only meet the compliance goals at a reduced cost but also help revitalize a socio-economically disadvantaged community.

MSD deliberately selected and brought the project to the Fairmount neighborhood - a low-income, troubled area in Cincinnati that was once a thriving neighborhood. Beginning in 2009, MSD studied green infrastructure at length, partnering with a multitude of different local community organizations and entities. After the three-year study was complete, a new vision emerged: what if a sewer project could be more than just a sewer project. Could it fix an environmental problem while also reinvigorating a neighborhood, helping boost its economy, and providing opportunities for beautification and recreation? Prioritizing this project in South Fairmount was an excellent opportunity to make a difference while implementing a stormwater management solution.

Many studies examined the transient nature of the neighborhood, and the Lick Run Master Plan included a study of the neighborhood’s evolving demographics alongside a massive amount of community outreach and inclusion. Many workshops, heavily attended by community members, were conducted and substantial community input was provided on the project before the EPA approved it. Community participation in this project was greater than on any prior project to date.

The EPA approved the project in 2013 and construction ultimately commenced on 12 projects in the Lick Run watershed: four green infrastructure installations and 8 dedicated storm sewer projects.

Now that the project is almost completed, MSD is starting to roll out an Ambassador program, which provides further opportunities for community participation and inclusion. It sets goals for what the community collectively envision the area could and should be: safe, clean, welcoming, and a resource for outdoor and environment education for all. To that end, the MSD is recruiting volunteers and paid interns directly from the Fairmount community and beyond to help build the connection with the neighborhood and draw families to the park.

Outcomes

  1. MSD combined a grey/green solution to meet all compliance goals and do so at a lower cost, about $200 million less than the initially proposed grey approach.
  2. Community participation in this project was greater than on any prior project to date due to a study of the neighborhood’s evolving demographics and a massive amount of community outreach
  3. The sewer project is an environmental solution that is also reinvigorating a neighborhood, helping boost its economy, and providing opportunities for beautification and recreation
  4. Ambassador program sets goals for what the community collectively envisions the area could and should be: safe, clean, welcoming, & a resource for outdoor and environment education for all.
  5. Reduces combined sewer overflows.

Something Unique

This project is the first nationally to daylight a stream to combat sewer overflows rather than flooding. Limestone rock foundations from some area homes were used in the new Lick Run Greenway stream, thus retaining the history and heritage of the old neighborhood. This rock originally came from the historical Lick Run stream that flowed through the valley. Finally, a 2nd generation moon tree was cloned, and several baby moon trees were planted around the pond close to its original location.

Who Should Consider?

This project is widely applicable to any city/municipality dealing with CSOs, particularly for those implementing green infrastructure while prioritizing low-income communities and promoting inclusion.