Green infrastructure advocates get hands dirty (Crain’s Cleveland Business)

Each year, billions of gallons of raw, untreated sewage spill into Lake Erie and nearby rivers. A conglomerate of environmentally conscious Northeast Ohio organizations are not willing to go with that flow.

Instead, several parties from the public and nonprofit sectors want to assist the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District in reducing the overflow of muck that contaminates the region’s water system every time runoff enters the sewer system’s pipes during rain storms.

As part of a settlement reached last December with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the sewer district must make $3 billion in infrastructure improvements over the next 25 years to reduce the release of raw sewage into local waterways to 494 million gallons per year from the current 4.5 billion gallons annually. Part of that plan includes capturing 44 million gallons a year through green infrastructure projects that store or redistribute the storm water.

The sewer district already is conducting a feasibility study that seeks to identify optimal pockets of vacant land in Northeast Ohio that could be transformed into green infrastructure projects, such as wetlands or rain gardens — depressions that feature plants, gravel and sand capable of absorbing excess water. The study is scheduled for completion in December.

The sewer district has eight years to make $42 million in green infrastructure upgrades under the settlement with the EPA.

“It involves a lot of coordination with a lot of other partners,” said Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells, the sewer district’s manager of watershed programs.

Because of various vacant land reuse initiatives in development or under way, sewer district officials can tap resources that wouldn’t be at their disposal if agencies such as the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corp. or the nonprofit Neighborhood Progress Inc. had not been tackling over the last couple years the region’s vacant land issue.

“There’s been a great deal of work done on specific projects that repurpose vacant land, and the sewer district has been a part of that,” said Chris Warren, chief of regional development for the city of Cleveland.

Narrowing down the field

Sewer district officials say they are looking at factors such as soil condition and the amount of contiguous vacant land as they assess potential locations for green infrastructure projects.

Gus Frangos, president and general counsel of the Cuyahoga County Land Reutilization Corp., said the county’s land bank is working with the sewer district to identify potential sites.

The process goes beyond just mapping, he said.

“We have software that pulls property and tax records and other information from all kinds of databases” about vacant plots and surrounding properties, Mr. Frangos said. “We can help them be a lot more strategic about their plans.”

City officials in Cleveland, meanwhile, also are working with the sewer district to help identify optimal spots for green projects. The city has about 16,000 vacant parcels available in its land bank.

“We hope to help them identify 12 to 15 potential sites by late summer, then narrow it down from there,” Mr. Warren said.

Bobbi Reichtell, senior vice president for programs at Neighborhood Progress, said she sees the sewer district’s green infrastructure investments as larger-scale models of what several entrepreneurs have been doing as part of the community development group’s vacant land reuse plan — ReImagining a More Sustainable Cleveland — the backers of which include about 30 regional partner organizations.

Neighborhood Progress and the city of Cleveland since the start of last year have financed 57 pilot projects, including urban farms and rain gardens, that are putting vacant land to reuse. Thirty-six projects are complete, and the other 21 are scheduled for completion by June 15, Ms. Reichtell said.

The sewer district is testing similar waters.

It announced last Wednesday, April 13, it will issue at least five grants of about $10,000 each for small-scale green storm water demonstration projects.

Function, and form, too

Meanwhile, to facilitate the sewer district’s larger plans, Neighborhood Progress established in March a ReImagining Cleveland Coordinating Committee that will serve as the sewer district’s advisers while its green infrastructure program proceeds.

Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative also is collaborating with the sewer district on making sure its green infrastructure projects are functional, said Terry Schwarz, director.

“These will be neighborhood amenities, like urban wetlands or parks, that attract other investments,” Ms. Schwarz said. “We’re not talking about a retention pond behind a fence. And these projects don’t preclude residential and commercial development.”

After the sewer district’s feasibility study is complete and potential parcels of land for green infrastructure projects have been identified, Ms. Schwarz said, land reuse stakeholders will need to form even more partnerships.

“Once the mapping is done, we need to engage the community development groups and the rest of the private sector,” she said.

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