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Episode 4: Go With The Flow

So if MSD isn't responsible for stormwater...who is?

Backed Up looks into "green infrastructure" in Cincinnati, like the Lick Run Greenway, and why MSD doesn’t do more to keep stormwater out of the combined sewer system.

Check out the Backed Up digital exhibit through the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library to explore the history of the Cincinnati sewer system. Visit www.chpl.org/backed-up

Acronyms in this episode:

  • SMU = Stormwater Management Utility
  • LMPCR = Lower Mill Creek Partial Remedy
  • NEORSD = North East Ohio Regional Sewer District
  • MSD/MSDGC = Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati
  • CSO = Combined Sewer Overflow
  • EPA = Environmental Protection Agency

Other information and resources in this episode:

See more photos and videos at wvxu.org/backedup


Backed Up is transcribed using a combination of AI speech recognition and human editors. It may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Deb Leonard: So basically what we're looking at now -- this is the original Lick Run Sewer that was built in 1893. If you live in the Lick Run watershed, which is primarily South Fairmont, a little bit of Westwood, little bit of East and West Price Hill, when you flush the toilet, it ends up in this sewer.

Ella Rowen: We're close enough to Becca's house that we could be looking at --

Becca Costello: -- Oh yeah, my poop is in here, I'm sure.

Ella Rowen: This is Backed Up. I'm Ella Rowen.

Becca Costello: I'm Becca Costello. You know, not everybody gets the chance to see where their poop ends up after flushing the toilet.

Ella Rowen: I should have seen that as a possibility when we started on this case, but for some reason, it still surprised me.

Becca Costello: But a much bigger shock was finding out the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati is not responsible for storm water!

Ella Rowen: Last episode, we met a fiendish suspect in the case of untreated sewage getting dumped into our waterways. The rain it's what overwhelms the combined sewer system. But then we learned a shocking truth.

Becca Costello: I hear you say, MSD is not a stormwater utility, and that surprised me for some reason. What do you mean by that? Because it seems like I mean they deal with stormwater all the time, like -

Marilyn Wall: I know!

Becca Costello: So how are they not a stormwater utility?

Ella Rowen: I'm with you. This makes no sense to me. Honestly, I wouldn't have even thought we need a whole utility just for stormwater.

Becca Costello: But MSD's number one adversary is the rain. Like it seems like a given that the sewer system would be the one dealing with rain, right?

Ella Rowen: Another mystery to add to the board. Can you hand me the thumbtacks?

Becca Costello: Actually I think we need to order more.

Ella Rowen: Wait, we're out already?

Becca Costello: We used them all on acronyms.

Becca Costello: The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati, or MSD, collects all of our sewage and cleans it up. But MSD also collects and cleans a lot of stormwater, and that's because Cincinnati has a combined sewer system.

Ella Rowen: That means rain and sewage in the same pipes.

Archival Audio: This is the city of Cincinnati.

Ella Rowen: This is a video produced by the local Sierra Club chapter in the 1980s. Marilyn Wall brought it to us, still on a VHS tape.

Becca Costello: And on top of having incredible music, this little time capsule describes the problem we’re still dealing with today: how heavy rain overwhelms Cincinnati’s combined sewer system.

Archival Audio: A thunderstorm, or just heavy precipitation, produces a large discharge of materials. The strain of handling such a load causes a lot of waste to bypass treatment and go directly into the streams and subsequently the Ohio River.

Ella Rowen: In other words, rain is what can make the sewer system overflow, releasing billions of gallons of untreated sewage and storm water into local waterways.

Becca Costello: Eventually, the Sierra Club sued MSD because these overflows violate the federal Clean Water Act. That's how we ended up with the consent decree plan to fix these overflows, which MSD has been working on for decades.

Ella Rowen: This is why the “stormwater utility” thing is so confusing. Because MSD is responsible for mitigating these stormwater problems in their consent decree. How are they not a stormwater utility? Who IS in charge of stormwater?

Becca Costello: If there was an easy answer to these questions, we probably wouldn't need to treat this whole thing like a murder mystery, and Scooby Doo

Archival Audio: And I would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for you meddling kids!

Eric Saylor: We're here to serve. To serve the Queen City to the best of our abilities.

Becca Costello: Meet Eric Saylor, storm water management engineer for the Cincinnati Stormwater Management Utility. That’s SMU for all of you keeping track of the acronyms – which I’m SURE is everyone.

Ella Rowen: Stormwater Management Utility. Who knew that was a thing? This answers one of our big questions: SMU is the group in charge of stormwater in Cincinnati – Eric says they’re on high alert every time it rains.

Eric Saylor: I have told my wife and members of my staff more than once, I look forward to the day where I'm like, oh yes, it's gonna rain today. But I love to sit in my garage when it's raining outside and read a book. But sure, it brings a little bit of apprehension, too, depending on the weather forecast. One of the beauties of Cincinnati is the topography. You know, the seven hills -- it's called Little Rome sometimes. And what makes it beautiful is what makes my job challenging, because water just goes everywhere, down the hills and so forth, heading to the mighty Ohio.

Becca Costello: Those beautiful hills are a big reason we need a storm water utility. Here's the SMU mission statement: "SMU protects the lives and property of the citizens of Cincinnati by capturing, controlling and conveying stormwater runoff safely and efficiently in the city of Cincinnati."

Ella Rowen: So that’s what they do. The biggest example of SMU’s work is a huge dam where the Mill Creek meets the Ohio River.

Eric Saylor: When the Ohio River rises, it naturally wants to back up into its major tributaries and floods out. And with the Mill Creek berry dam, for instance -- which is the most critical piece of infrastructure that we operate on behalf of the city -- it protects about $3 billion of public and private infrastructure all the way up through the Mill Creek Valley.

Ella Rowen: But flooding happens on a much smaller scale too. About 15% of the city has totally separate storm sewers, and all of those are in Eric's department instead of MSDs. They also manage all the storm inlets above the ground that are connected into MSD's combined system.

Eric Saylor: And so if the MSD sewer's at capacity, there is nowhere for the stormwater to go. And so the inlets in the street that everybody drives by and sees will be full and the street will be flooding.

Becca Costello: That's not the only reason some parts of the city are chronic flood zones. The hilly landscape plays a huge role in this. Plus a lot of natural streams were put into pipes and buried underground as the city developed.

Eric Saylor: And so that water still wants to go where it wanted to go 100 years ago, but now it has all this this infrastructure that collects it, and then you've got to try to figure out how to get it out of there.

Becca Costello: It's a big challenge. And unlike MSD, which covers most of Hamilton County, the city's SMU only extends to the city limit.

Ella Rowen: Every other city, town, village and township has to deal with storm water on their own.

Ella Rowen: Okay, so back to the board. Rain is the big bad we're investigating right now. It can cause chaos in our neighborhoods with street flooding, and it's overwhelming our combined sewer system, causing gross poop water to flow into creeks and rivers.

Becca Costello: But even though stormwater causes both of these problems, there are different agencies responsible for dealing with it. Every individual community in the area has its own stormwater management utility of some kind.

Ella Rowen: And MSD director Diana Christy says stormwater is pretty much not their job.

Diana Christy: When stormwater enters MSD's sewer system, it becomes MSD's responsibility, in a sense. If we're talking about what to do with the stormwater that is causing erosion or landslides or getting into people's homes, MSD can't provide a solution for that. We can't use our ratepayer dollars to address those problems, because we don't have that area of responsibility, and it's really outside of our authority to use those funds in that manner.

Becca Costello: Part of the confusion about MSD saying they’re not a stormwater utility is that sometimes MSD DOES do stormwater management. We talked about one example in the last episode with the bioswale in North Fairmount.

Diana Christy I think that it has led to a lot of expectations that MSD can also address other problems that are related to stormwater, and especially some of these extreme storms we've had in recent years where we're getting these really intense rainfalls that cause a lot of damage and destruction of property. When in fact, MSD can't do anything about the stormwater that is not In its system already.

Becca Costello: Basically, MSD can pay for a stormwater management project if it will directly and obviously reduce how much raw sewage is dumped into waterways. But if a project is about the other consequences of stormwater, like flooding in streets and homes, it's outside their jurisdiction.

Becca Costello: Rain is causing all kinds of problems, and you've got MSD on one side trying to keep stormwater from overwhelming the system...

Ella Rowen: ...and you've got SMU on the other side trying to keep stormwater from flooding our neighborhoods.

Becca Costello: If only there was a way to solve both problems at once. Well, there

Ella Rowen: Well there is one solution for stormwater management that we keep hearing about, like from everyone:

[Many voices repeating] Green infrastructure; green infrastructure; green infrastructure; green infrastructure; green infrastructure; green infrastructure; green infrastructure; and green infrastructure.

Ella Rowen: Green Infrastructure is an umbrella term

Becca Costello: lol

Ella Rowen: for designing infrastructure with nature.

Archival Audio: (Kermit the Frog singing): It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.

Becca Costello: Green infrastructure is different from grey infrastructure. Climate meteorologist Lauren Casey explains it this way.

Lauren Casey: So gray infrastructure is the impervious surfaces, all the buildings, the roads, the sidewalks. Green Infrastructure is putting in place more urban green space. More grass, more soil, more plants, more trees, that have much higher absorptive properties than do impervious surfaces.

Ella Rowen: When we're talking about storm water, absorption is critical.

Lauren Casey: So when you compare the two, on average, if you have natural ground cover with no kind of infrastructure built on it at all, and you have a heavy rain event come down, you'll see about 10% of runoff, much larger amounts gets infiltrated into the soil. Whereas, if you have a high density urban environment, say, like a Cincinnati, where you're seeing infrastructure levels or high density levels over the landscape, the runoff jumps up to about 55% because the water just has nowhere to go, and the places that it does go are not good.

Becca Costello: Green infrastructure has become the standard for dealing with stormwater. And it seems like it might be our best shot at preventing backups and flooding in one go.

Ella Rowen: And you can't talk about green infrastructure without talking about the Lick Run Greenway right here in Cincinnati.

Ella Rowen: Cast your mind back to May of 2021, if you haven't completely blocked out that second year of the global pandem
Becca Costello: This was a very special time in my own life. I had just moved back to Cincinnati after about five years away. I was a couple months into my dream job working as a journalist for my hometown public radio station. I got an assignment to cover the grand opening of the Lick Run Greenway, but I had no idea this would turn out to be one of my canon events, the first spark of a life altering relationship with sewage infrastructure.

Ella Rowen: And look at you now.

Hot Ones: Look at us. Hey. Look at us. Look at us. Who would have thought? Not me.

Ella Rowen: In May of 2021, after years of planning and construction, everyone who's anyone from Cincinnati and Hamilton County celebrated the opening of the Lick Run Greenway.

John Cranley I'm really speechless. I mean, this is absolutely gorgeous.

Stephanie Summerow Dumas This is just so beautiful. Like to actually be here is just mind blowing. This

Diana Christy This is just a really exciting time for us at MSD. And I don't know if we've ever really celebrated our sewers like this before.

Ella Rowen That's MSD director Diana Christy leading the celebration of sewers. The Lick Run doesn't look anything like a sewer, though.

Becca Costello Yeah it looks like a park, because it is a park. There's a playground, nice basketball courts, a small picnic shelter and a paved path that follows a stream for over a mile.

Diana Christy The Lick Run Greenway is considered a national model by the EPA for sustainable stormwater management,

Ella Rowen A national model? Our Cincinnati? Who is she?

Diana Christy And it represents an outside the box environmental solution that will help us achieve compliance with our consent decree Clean Water Act mandates and dramatically improve water quality in the Mill Creek.

Ella Rowen The Lick Run used to be a natural creek flowing east along Queen City Avenue into the Mill Creek. As the neighborhood grew, the creek became a huge problem.

Becca Costello I've got another newspaper clipping for the bulletin board. The Cincinnati Enquirer wrote about the lick run in 1891. The headline reads, Lick Run Sewer -- completion of the work to be celebrated -- its immense importance to the residents of Lick Run Valley.

Ella Rowen Here's our friend and colleague, Marshall Verbsky, reading from the article.

Marshall Verbsky This creek generally has an apparently harmless appearance, yet in times of heavy rains, it becomes in a very short time, a mighty torrent threatening the destruction of property along its banks. But this was not the only evil of the creek. After every overflow, it left pools of water behind, which becoming stagnant, were good breeding places for many germs of sickness. To add to this danger, the people along the banks of the creek made it the dumping place for all their garbage and dirt.

Ella Rowen Not their dirt!

Becca Costello The article says residents demanded a sewer, so the city built a giant underground pipe for the stream, essentially burying it underground. The new sewer pipe solved a ton of problems for residents here. No more flooding, no more stench from using the creek as a garbage dump, no more breeding place for many germs of sickness.

Ella Rowen But the new pipe emptied out into the Mill Creek, just like the original Lick Run stream did. For a long time that meant raw sewage went straight into another body of water, untreated.

Archival Audio Good treatment of sewage gives us the added bonus of clean and pleasant rivers for our recreational use. Our rivers are the playground of Cincinnati and the home of a varied aquatic life and bird life. Inadequate treatment of sewage wastes endangers the delicate balance of these ecosystems, and can turn a pleasant stream into an open sewer.

Becca Costello Eventually, Cincinnati built treatment plants to clean up the sewage and storm water, but we already know that these combined sewer systems still have major issues when it rains.

Ella Rowen The Lick Run sewer became one of the worst culprits of water pollution, dumping as much as 800 million gallons of combined waste into the Mill Creek every year, less than two miles from joining the Ohio River.

Becca Costello Now, MSD is under a federal consent decree to reduce how much untreated sewage overflows into natural waterways. The Lick Run Greenway is the biggest and most expensive example of how Cincinnati implemented the first phase of that consent decree.

Ella Rowen It's a little ironic, actually. In the late 1800s the whole city celebrated burying the Lick Run underground. About 130 years later, we celebrated undoing that work by restoring the stream to its natural flow.

Stephanie Summerow Dumas The bottom line is, it's a win for the environment and also for MSD ratepayers. Thank you (applause)

Becca Costello But the Lick Run Greenway almost didn't happen. When regulators approved MSD's original consent decree in the early 2000s, the plan was to build a deep tunnel. This is more than just a bigger pipe – it’s a specific kind of gray infrastructure that’s VERY EFFECTIVE at controlling a lot of stormwater and sewage at once.

Ella Rowen The tunnel would have been around 16 miles long and 30 feet in diameter. So how did the plan for a deep tunnel turn into a park?

John Cranley I think it's important to think about Todd Portune and his memory and his commitment to this project, and Karen Ball. Let's give both of them for their decades of effort on this, this hard work.

Becca Costello Todd Portune was a public servant for years, including almost two decades as a Hamilton County Commissioner. He passed away in January 2020. The county administration building downtown is now named after him.

Ella Rowen Todd Portune worked to improve MSD more than pretty much any other public official, so it's no wonder why he got a round of applause at the opening of the lick run Greenway.

Becca Costello And the other person who's worked on this for decades? Karen Ball, once Todd Portune's chief of staff and now the county compliance coordinator for MSD.

Karen Ball My role in the county is to make sure that everything that is necessary for compliance with the consent decree is thoughtfully considered and goes through the right channels for decision making.

Ella Rowen Actually, Karen's connection to the Metropolitan Sewer District started when she was just a kid.

Karen Ball The reality is, my dad was the director of the district. He started off before he was an engineer in college as a ditch digger, worked his way up to the director's office, and served in that position from 1982 to 1985 when he passed away.

Becca Costello Karen's father, Donald Miller, started working at MSD not long after it was created in 1968 he witnessed the birth and early evolution of the Sewer District, before eventually taking the lead as MSD director.

Karen Ball But I remember my dad was reading the 1985 consent decree on our dining room table.

Becca Costello This is a little confusing, but this isn't the same consent decree we've been talking about. This was an earlier compliance contract that had to do with one of MSDs treatment plants.

Ella Rowen How many consent decrees does it take to fix a sewer system, am I right?

Karen Ball And it was huge. It was gigantic, and I asked him about it. He had his opinions that I won't share, but he was really upset about how much stormwater was getting into the system that they weren't considering as things were expanding out. He was passionate about it. He wanted this community to be everything it could be, and help people that he knew were going to be in trouble if we didn't do it right. I learned then that somebody had to pay attention to this stuff. I guess I didn't find anybody else along the way. So it became me.

Ella Rowen Karen helped put together the plan for the current consent decree, and now she helps make sure everything stays on track. She also helped convince the EPA regulators to let MSD change the consent decree plan related to the Lick Run.

Karen Ball The regulators preferred us to do a deep tunnel that was to run from Mill Creek Treatment Plant all the way up to Paddock Road, Ronald Reagan Highway in that area, and that was costed out to be $485 million in property acquisition alone. When the commissioners saw that just for property acquisition alone, it raised a lot of eyebrows.

Becca Costello So Hamilton County and MSD officials suggested a different solution: separating the stormwater from the sewage so it never needs to go to a treatment plant.

Ella Rowen Here's MSD director Diana Christy again.

Diana Christy The alternative approach, the Lick Run Project, was just actually part of a larger suite of projects that we refer to as the LMCPR, the lower Mill Creek Partial Remedy.

Becca Costello Damn, that might be the longest acronym we've had so far.

Ella Rowen Most stormwater doesn't need to be cleaned up at a treatment plant before being released back into the world. It's only after stormwater mixes with human sewage that it becomes too polluted to come into contact with.

Becca Costello So instead of building a deep tunnel big enough to hold all the polluted stormwater, why not just keep the stormwater from even being polluted? That's what the Lower Mill Creek Partial Remedy is designed to do, using green infrastructure.

Ella Rowen But the federal regulators were really skeptical. Here's Karen with the county.

Karen Ball An they said, well, we'll let you try this other thing over here, but if it doesn't work, then you'll have to do the tunnel.

Becca Costello Karen and other officials were determined to try. MSD director Diana Christie says one of the biggest reasons was cost.

Diana Christy So a deep tunnel was going to be very expensive. The geology of our region, with very significant bedrock that you'd be drilling into and tunneling for a significant number of miles.

Ella Rowen The LMCPR, including the lick run Greenway, ended up costing about $140 million way less than a deep tunnel would have cost.

Becca Costello And by all accounts, it's working really well. So far, we got to see it for the first time on a dry weather day.

Deb Leonard So basically, what we're looking at now this is the original lick run sewer that was built in 1893

Becca Costello That's Deb Leonard, our source from inside MSD, sneaking us important documents and clues. Actually, she's the MSD communications director. It's just not as mysterious to say she very helpfully responded to several public records requests and gave us a behind the scenes look at the lick run sewer.

Ella Rowen This is a big moment. We're about to go through a gate that says restricted, restricted area, authorized MSD personnel only. And us - metropolitan mystery solvers of Cincinnati.

Becca Costello Most of the sewer overflow points that go into streams and rivers are a little bigger than a manhole, but the Lick Run overflow is massive.

Ella Rowen Standing above the creek, you look down into a big concrete pit on the bank. At first glance, it kind of looks like a skate park with metal railing so you don't fall in.

Becca Costello The pit is about 25 feet deep and about that wide, a rusty, industrial looking ladder goes down into the brutalist abyss. When it rains a lot, the sewer pipe isn't big enough to hold all the storm water and sewage, so the pit takes on the extra water for a while.

Deb Leonard It serves as a basin, right? Like an open storage basin, we can hold the flows in here.

Ella Rowen But sometimes even the basin isn't big enough to handle all the dirty water. It's like filling up a water balloon. Eventually you reach the bursting point.

Deb Leonard Only when it gets up to the top level do we need to relieve pressure on the system, because that's when it would literally start backing up

Becca Costello When the basin fills up with sewage and storm water, a few big metal doors built into the walls open up, letting some of the contaminated water flow into the Mill Creek.

Ella Rowen There's a big white sign posted here warning people away.

Becca Costello So I want to read what the white sign says, yes. So notice CSO five. That's the one we're at now. Combined sewer overflow: untreated storm water and sewage may discharge during and after rainfall may contain harmful bacteria. And then there's this really cute little illustration of a pipe flowing out. There's some rain coming down, there's a dude in a boat, there's a fish on a hook, and somebody's swimming and then a big red line through it. Don't do any of these things.

Ella Rowen The basin used to overflow all of the time, like almost any time it rained. MSD has a video on their YouTube page of an overflow in 2015.

Becca Costello The water absolutely gushes out of the gates, dirty, nasty, untreated sewage water.

Ella Rowen But then MSD, brought the lick run stream back to life in 2021 now this scene looks a lot different. Becca and I went back during a storm a couple of months after Deb gave us the tour, and the big concrete basin was full to the brim.

Becca Costello You can see how full, how full it is that has filled with water. Remember when we were here before? You could see all the way down to the bottom, that's water.

Ella Rowen Oh my god, yeah, when we were here with Deb, wasn't this kind of like an abyss. Oh yeah.

Becca Costello Oh yeah, it was deep, deep down in

Ella Rowen It was full, but it wasn't overflowing. It doesn't need to do that anymore, because a couple 100 feet away is a pipe that carries only storm water.

Deb Leonard We diverted so much storm water, we're just not having overflows here. So it went from like, quarter inch rain to, you know, water flowing to like, you know. So it's really showing how successful it is. So every time it's a good rain, I get on our interactive map and look and see, is CSO five going off? Is CSO five going off? And it never is! So very exciting to see that like in practice.

Becca Costello It seems like everybody raves about the Lick Run Greenway. So we kind of hit the same question we had about smart sewers: why not just do this everywhere? Dig up all the creeks we buried a century ago and let nature do its thing!

Ella Rowen But of course, it's not as easy as it sounds.

Becca Costello It turns out one of Cincinnati's Ohio neighbors up north. Earth was the first to include green infrastructure in their consent decree to reduce combined sewer overflows.

30 Rock What hot spot's got the hippest groove? (Cleveland!) Where all the real gone daddies move? (Cleveland!) Dig that sweet Cuyahoga gloooow! What smells so good? Cleveland!

Ella Rowen The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District covers Cleveland and 62 surrounding communities. Kyle Dreyfus Wells is the CEO.

Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells Well so our consent decree, I think, is quite unique in terms of having this appendix related to green infrastructure. When we talk about green infrastructure, we're talking about storm water management as close to the source of the storm water as possible, which is restoring streams, giving streams access to their flood plains, protecting wetlands, anything you can do to basically knit that capacity back into the landscape.

Becca Costello The Northeast Ohio district does a lot of green infrastructure like this. There's even a grant fund with about $2 million a year that will help private property owners do green infrastructure projects to help keep storm water out of their combined sewer system.

Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells But I really I don't want to oversell green infrastructure in a combined sewer overflow control context. The green infrastructure in our consent decree is large scale sewer separation going to a large scale green infrastructure feature. So it's not really typical green infrastructure that you would think about. Because here's the other point to keep in mind, is that combined sewer overflow is a volume problem, so you need a volume solution, which is why we're talking about these deep tunnels that can hold three 60 million gallons of flow in a typical year.

Ella Rowen Yep, deep tunnels, the same solution that was originally in Cincinnati's consent decree, but replaced with the Lick Run Greenway.

Becca Costello The Northeast Ohio district's consent decree includes seven deep tunnels. Three are already operational. Two are under construction, and the last two are in design phases.

Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells So yes, we have green infrastructure in our consent decree, but the workhorse of CSO control are these seven deep tunnels. We have a lot of green infrastructure on the stormwater side, though, when you're talking about flooding, water quality, erosion.

Ella Rowen This is a major difference between the Northeast Ohio regional Sewer District and the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati in Cleveland, the same organization manages sewer and stormwater,

Becca Costello But we now know that in Cincinnati, stormwater is the jurisdiction of a bunch of other agencies, not MSD.

Ella Rowen Even if MSD had the authority to do more big projects like the Lick Run Greenway director Diana Christy says they probably couldn't.

Diana Christy Lick Run was really kind of the perfect place and perfect culmination of the topography of city of Cincinnati, with our really steep hillsides, and then really coming down to a corridor in a valley that had seen decades of decline. So you had about a mile of these blocks of abandoned or at least underutilized properties where we looked at that and said, you know, this could be transformational for a community, if we managed to use the hillsides, convey the stormwater, convey it into where there used to be an actual stream running through, and kind of turn this area into something that could be a benefit for the community, in addition to helping us remove storm water from the combined sewer system. But that doesn't exist necessarily in other parts of the city where we have similar problems.

Becca Costello In other words, green infrastructure isn't always cheaper...

Kermit the Frog (singing): It's not easy being green

Becca Costello ...and a lot of times nature alone can't do everything we need it to do. Even the Lick Run Greenway has some traditional gray infrastructure built in, like a new stormwater only pipe and a system that keeps the stream flowing on dry days.

Ella Rowen And even though all these stormwater utilities are working to prevent flooding, the rain is still the number one adversary for MSD's combined sewer system.

Karen Ball The reality is that stormwater gets into the sewer system. You can't stop it.

Ella Rowen That's Karen Ball again, MSD compliance coordinator for Hamilton County.

Karen Ball Anything that anybody else does in terms of controlling stormwater helps, and I think that's something that we all have to recognize that's going to help all of our bottom line when it comes to the rate increases, that'll have to be passed along to the customers.

Becca Costello Let's face it, nobody wants raw sewage to overflow into our creeks and rivers or to back up into our basements.

Ella Rowen And now we know there are actually a lot of different ways to fix the problem! But that doesn’t mean there’s enough cash to make it happen.

Becca Costello Stand aside rainwater – there’s a new suspect in town.

Karen Ball And there's just not a pot of money out there that we can go grab to bring to this community, so it has to be borne by the ratepayers of the district .The residential customers who are struggling already to pay their monthly bills, and looking at rate increases to pay for these projects -- it's something, yeah, they want, want it cleaned up, but, you know, don't raise my rates to do it.. So it's a real struggle to keep projects moving forward, improving water quality and keeping the rates as low as possible.

Becca Costello Next time on Backed Up.

Denise Driehaus The consent decree and the obligations of the consent decree are what looms large over the whole utility, because it is billions of dollars. And that is tied to rates.

Protest chanting: We can’t wait for fair sewer rates. We can’t wait for fair sewer rates

Wanda Moncree Ball: We were challenged with the term welfare, this is welfare. But you give welfare to corporate companies, you just don't call it that.

Backed Up is a Cincinnati Public Radio podcast, produced with support from PRX and made possible (in part) by a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Backed Up is reported and produced by Becca Costello and Ella Rowen, with support from Casey Kuhn.

Thanks to everyone who helped put this episode together and bring it to life: Assia Micheaux-Johnson, Tana Weingartner, Jenn Merritt, Ronny Salerno, Zack Carreon, Marshall Verbsky, Stephen Baum, Brittany Mayti, and Kevin Reynolds.

Super extra special thanks to Leslie Smith. Maryanne Zeleznik is our VP of News. Jenell Walton is our VP of content. Nicole Tiffany made our podcast cover art. Special thanks to Sam Ransohoff, Toni Carlson, Grace Abler, Stephanie Kuo, and Mike Russo.

Go to wvxu.org/backedup to find a transcript of this episode, plus lots of pictures and extra info – like a link to an amazing digital exhibit about the history of the sewer system from our friends at the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library!


Ella Rowen: You sound like the professor from Power Puff Girls.

Marshall Verbsky: Yeah! (in professor voice) Mix in sugar and spice and everything nice! (laughter)


Becca Costello: What if I fell into the sewer and the whole podcast became like an In Memoriam?


Ella Rowen: (singing) Sometimes I get those sewer blues. I hope there won’t be any rain clouds.


Ella Rowen: Can you hand me the thumbtacks?

Becca Costello: Can you read that again?

Ella Rowen: (laughing) yes (in dramatic voice) ACTING!

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.
Starting with WVXU as a weekend host, Ella was promoted to the engineering department full-time within her first six months. Some of her previous audio pursuits included location recording for commercials, independent podcasting, voice work on national ad campaigns, sound design and music composition. Her passion for audio was catalyzed at the age of 8 while watching WKRP in Cincinnati. After spending her childhood recording imaginary programs with friends and family, working in public radio now fulfills her lifelong dream.