There is an engineering feat right under your feet. But you probably never thought about it.
“To put a massive tunnel boring machine underground and dig huge long tunnels beneath us while the rest of us are driving, walking, playing fetch with our dog, and for us to not even realize it, is amazing,” says Danny Neelon, community relations specialist with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD). “Underneath you is this massive wastewater capturing system that is keeping our lakes and rivers clean and helping to prevent flooding.”
This year, NEORSD, established in 1972 by the Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court, celebrates its 50th anniversary. Created to provide wastewater treatment and stormwater management, NEORSD serves more than 1 million Northeast Ohio residents every day in Cleveland and 61 communities.
The district began as the Cleveland Regional Sewer District, taking control of three existing wastewater treatment plants: Easterly (1922), Southerly (1928) and Westerly (1922). The name was changed to the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in 1979.
“A lot of money went into getting those early treatment plants upgraded to meet the challenges of the day,” says Frank Greenland, director of watershed programs and a 34-year employee of the district. “We also took on the responsibility for interceptor sewers, which are like sewer highways. There was a lot of interceptor construction going on in the late 70s and into the 2000s. The district owns 340 miles, while the communities we serve own more than 10 times that amount.”
Today, four interceptor areas, northwest, southwest, Heights/Hilltop and Cuyahoga Valley “provide more capacity to the system and prevent the basement flooding and sanitary sewer overflows that was pervasive in many areas,” according to Greenland.
During the past five decades, the NEORSD (an independent political subdivision of the state of Ohio) and some of the communities it serves have held varying and sometimes opposing opinions about costs, changes and jurisdiction. But the district continues to work with Northeast Ohioans to help them understand that. Ultimately, it is the NEORSD’s overreaching environmental role to safeguard the region’s most precious natural resource. As a result, alliances have been formed, says Neelon.
This year’s Clean Water Fest, held in September at the Environmental Maintenance Service Center in Cuyahoga Heights, was an important part of that outreach and transparency. It was also an effective way to celebrate the NEORSD’s 50th anniversary.
Neelon says the two most impactful NEORSD-related events affecting the region during the past 50 years have been the Project Clean Lake consent decree and Regional Stormwater Management Program, both adopted in 2010. Greenland notes that creating a regional district allowed NEORSD to deal with broad, regional problems that weren’t getting tackled.
Project Clean Lake is a 25-year, legally binding agreement between the district and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other offices. Its goal is to reduce the total volume of raw sewage discharges from 4.5 billion gallons to 494 million gallons annually. The project consists of building seven large storage tunnels, treatment plant enhancements and significant green infrastructure investment. The program is expected to be completed in 2036.
“Project Clean Lake is not the first program in the country to deal with combined sewer flow problems involving stormwater runoff and sanitary wastewater. Many other districts have dug deep tunnels,” says Neelon. “But the approach our district takes is not only to build tunnels that would capture water, but to do it in a fiscally responsible manner. We knew it was going to be a big, expensive project.”
As of January 2022, 67 of 80 planned Project Clean Lake projects have been completed. That has led to the elimination of about 1.7 billion gallons of overflow from discharging into the environment each year, according to the NEORSD. An additional 300 million gallons will be added to that reduction total by 2023.
The Regional Stormwater Management Program addresses factors that are primarily caused by the overwhelming of stormwater systems. Those problems can lead to erosion, flooding and sediment runoff that impact the lives of fish and other aquatic life.
“This project has really grown since 2010,” says Neelon.
“I only wish that the program would have started a lot earlier,” adds Greenland. “There were legal issues that were out of our control. We would have been ahead in making connections to stream networks, but we are making a difference. Now, we have 72 species of fish living in the Cuyahoga River, and many are pollution intolerant — a good sign. And we have nesting bald eagles along the Cuyahoga River. That’s amazing.”
In addition to those two major projects that have a “massive impact that the public sees,” Neelon believes “quiet, smaller pieces that are part of the larger picture” are also making a difference in the lives of Northeast Ohioans and their water needs and interactions.
“Five or 10 years down the road people will say, ‘Oh, the flooding here has been reduced,’ or ‘We haven’t had a flood in a long time,’ or ‘The water quality has really improved,’” he says.
The NEORSD also conducts other programs of which the public may not be aware. In 2020, for example, the district collected samples of wastewater for COVID-19 analysis, contributing to a statewide database to help scientists better track and understand the virus. In 2021, the first ever NEORSD Sustainability Plan was launched, with a focus on advancing its clean-water mission and greater employee involvement.
Greenland says a crisis is looming like a storm cloud and the area is facing major challenges that are now common.
“Whether you believe in climate change or not, we know statistically that more rainfall is falling on Northeast Ohio. Add to that the challenge that our infrastructure to handle all of that is old, and you have a crisis,” says Greenland. “In the newer communities, the sewers are not that old. But elsewhere, they can be even 100 years old, built under different standards, and deteriorating.”
Complicating matters is that between 40% and 50% of the total sewer system is located on private property.
“If you let something go on your house, like the roof or gutters, you’re going to pay a lot more down the line if you don’t invest in their upkeep. The same is true if we don’t support aging infrastructure. Also, the potential for flooding will increase and the potential for overflow by sewage to our waterbodies or surface will increase,” according to Greenland.
Neelon emphasizes that the NEORSD is “really one of, if not the only public utility that people interact with every day and that people’s actions really matter.”