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Episode 6: The Price of Progress

On the final episode of Backed Up: it's the crucial moment in any mystery - the "denouement" to bring together all the clues, rip off the mask and reveal Old Man Jenkins was the real monster all along! 

But real life is much more complicated. It's time to stop hunting for the "bad guy" and instead focus on where Cincinnati can go from here.

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:

  • OPERS = Ohio Public Employee Retirement System
  • CRS = Cincinnati Retirement System
  • GCWW = Greater Cincinnati Water Works
  • SMU = Stormwater Management Utility
  • EPA = Environmental Protection Agency
  • ORSANCO = Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission
  • CUFA = Communities United for Action
  • MSD/MSDGC = Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati
  • CSO = Combined Sewer Overflow
  • SBU = Sewer Backup
  • EPA = Environmental Protection Agency

Other information and resources in this episode:

See more photos and videos at wvxu.org/backedup

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:

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.

Ella Rowen: This is backed up from Cincinnati Public Radio. I'm Ella Rowen

Becca Costello: And I'm Becca Costello. This is the last official episode of Backed Up. If you've made it this far, you really are our number one fans.

Ella Rowen: Number one fans of a number two podcast, am I right? Shout out to confuse enthuse on Instagram who gave us that delightful joke.

Becca Costello: This is the crucial moment in any mystery, the denouement to bring together all the clues, rip off the mask and reveal old man Jenkins was the real monster all along!

Ella Rowen: We've been keeping track of the suspects on our mystery bulletin board here. Let's have a look at the lineup, shall we?There's the 1968 agreement that brought the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County together, but didn't clearly spell out who is really in charge.

Marilyn Wall: There's really nobody in charge when everybody's in charge.

Becca Costello: That's where the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati comes in. And a lot of people blame them directly.

Florence Miller: They're all villains.

Wanda Moncree Ball: So I think it's the system that's the villain.

Ella Rowen: We know the rain is what causes all of this to happen in the first place.

Reese Johnson: When it rains here, that makes my job a lot harder.

Becca Costello: But this isn't a humanity versus nature thing. The rain, by itself, wouldn't even cause problems without a couple of other suspects: climate change and impervious surfaces.

Lauren Casey: The implications of climate change are going to happen to all of us.

Ella Rowen: Last but not least, our top suspect: money.

Denise Driehaus: No money came from the feds. When they gave us the decree, they didn't say, here's some money to help out.

Ella Rowen: Well, here they are, the suspects all lined up. Now time for the big reveal?

Becca Costello: Sorry, but we don't have that kind of tidy resolution for you. Scooby Doo taught us there's always a bad guy, and it only takes a 30 minute episode to unravel the mystery and bring the villain to justice. But of course, that's not how reality works. It's a lot more complicated and nuanced. We couldn't even cover everything in six episodes.

Ella Rowen: We started solving the mysteries of the sewers almost a year ago, and we had hundreds of questions. Why does raw sewage get dumped into waterways and get backed up into basements? If everyone knew this was happening a century ago, why hasn't it stopped yet?

Becca Costello: We answered those questions and more in the first five episodes of Backed Up. But can we really answer whose fault is it? I'm not sure that's even the right question to ask. We know now it's not any one person or thing that puts raw sewage into rivers and basements. And playing the blame game doesn't seem very constructive.

Ella Rowen: The mystery solving has been really fun, but I think it's time to stop looking for the bad guy and start figuring out where we go from here. Today, we're taking the suspects down from the bulletin board and making room for some solutions. Is there a better way to operate the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati without all the political turmoil? Is funding going to stonewall progress forever? And how many references to our favorite movies and TV shows can we cram into this final episode?

[Futurama] You guys realize you live in a sewer, right? Perhaps, but perhaps your civilization is merely the sewer of an even greater society above you.

Becca Costello: The stakes are pretty high, even if you've never had a sewer backup in your own home, or had to cancel a kayaking trip because of a sewage overflow because we're all paying for this.

Ella Rowen: Since 2004, MSD has paid about $28 million to homeowners in settlement agreements to repay them for damages.

Becca Costello: When you include things like the cost of cleaning up properties after a sewer backup and preventing sewer backups, MSD has spent about $160 million over the past 20 years.

Ella Rowen: And when you say MSD paid $160 million, you mean WE paid $160 million right?

Becca Costello: Yep, because that money comes from ratepayers.

Ella Rowen: Okay let's just tackle this thing one question at a time. First, has any other community figured out how to fix all of this? Cincinnati is not alone in this boat. Actually, we're in great company,

(Newscast audio): But even home wasn't safe for many basement apartments in Brooklyn when sewer systems backed up and poured out of people's toilets and tubs.

(Newscast audio): San Francisco is the only coastal city in California that treats both sewage and storm water in the same system of pipes and treatment facilities

(Newscast audio): As Paris prepares to host the 2024 Olympic Games, it's taking on a big challenge: cleaning up the Seine River.

(Newscast audio): Now this sewer is designed to stop sewage from flowing from the old Victorian sewer into the Thames, as it does 50 or 60 times a year.

(Joe Lycett): How have we got to the point where we're all like, oh yeah, there's loads of sh*t everywhere in the waters, fine? How have we got to that point where everyone seems to be chill with that?

Becca Costello: Combined sewers are super common in Europe. According to the United Kingdom's Environment Agency, all the sewage utilities in England are combined with stormwater.

Ella Rowen: About 700 communities in the United States have combined sewer systems and experience combined sewer overflow. Most are in the northeast and around the Great Lakes.

Becca Costello: Let's take a look at Minneapolis, which started separating its combined sewer system way back in the 1960s. In the mid 80s, officials accelerated the plan to finish within 10 years.

Ella Rowen: Today, only 0.2% of the Minneapolis sewer system is still combined. As of 2018 they're not even considered a combined sewer system anymore. They were able to terminate their CSO permits with the EPA.

Becca Costello: The Minneapolis plan cost about $330 million from 1985 to 1995. That would be less than a billion dollars today. Officials there say it saved billions of dollars by avoiding the cost of building bigger treatment plants and storage.

Ella Rowen: Cincinnati has done a bit of sewer separation, but only in specific circumstances. We never set out to separate the systems entirely. And even if MSD had started separating pipes back when Minneapolis did, it would have cost a lot more here.

Becca Costello: Minneapolis had to build 190 miles of new storm pipes and 12 miles of new sanitary sewage pipe. The MSD system today has 863 miles of combined sewer that would need to be separated -- about four and a half times more.

Ella Rowen: So could Cincinnati have done this? We posed that question to historian and retired MSD worker Jack Rennekamp.

Becca Costello: Could the city or the county or MSD have done anything differently to end up in a place other than where we are today?

Jack Rennekamp: So there was always the possibility of doing things differently. And would have, would it have changed our lives and the way we exist today? And that's a curiosity that always intrigues me, both as a historian and as a science fiction and fantasy enthusiast, is to say, what if, if we had made these changes earlier in our timeline, what would it be like today, and how would that have benefited us today?

Becca Costello: I love a good what if question. What if, instead of the 1968 agreement, officials back then figured out a different way to handle sewage in Greater Cincinnati, a way of working together that didn't involve so much political tug of war.

Stephanie Summerow Dumas: Why did you think you had the authority to do that? I'm just going to be straight. Why did you think you were able to do that?

Becca Costello: It seems like the solution would be so simple. MSD is a county Sewer District. So why does the city of Cincinnati even need to be involved? Absolutely no city tax dollars support MSD, because all its funding comes from the ratepayers.

Ella Rowen: So yeah, why wouldn't the city just hand off the whole thing to the county and let it be someone else's problem?

Becca Costello: Well there's almost no chance of that happening, because it would be a disaster for the city budget. It weirdly has to do with something very unsewer-like: employee retirement programs.

Ella Rowen: This is kind of a sidebar, but everything related to managing MSD hinges on this, so stick with us.

Becca Costello: Most public workers in Ohio are part of a statewide pension called the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System, or OPERS. I think this is my favorite acronym. Ohioans really do say ope all the time.

Ella Rowen: Cincinnati is the only city in Ohio with its own retirement system.

Diana Christy: Hey, she's gonna be interested in you, because she thinks you're the chosen one, but I am the chosen one.

Becca Costello: The history of the Cincinnati Retirement System, or CRS, is actually pretty cool. It was created in 1931, before OPERS and Social Security. Way to be ahead of the curve Cincinnati!

Ella Rowen: But now that special status puts the city in a really tough spot because of this very ominous sounding thing called an unfunded liability. It means there's not going to be enough money in the system to support all of the workers eligible to get benefits.

(Newscast audio): The city's unfunded pension liability was put at $862 million.

(Newscast audio): We've been talking about this for decades. It's been a cloud that's been hanging over this city budget for such a long time.

Becca Costello: So how does all this relate to MSD? Well, a big chunk of the retirement system is MSD employees paying a percentage of their salaries into the fund.

Denise Driehaus: If you were to remove those 600 employees from the retirement system, that's a big chunk of individuals, and that in my words, tanks the system, right, it's not healthy, it's not a good thing for CRS.

Ella Rowen: That's Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus explaining why the city can't just give the whole sewer system to the county and be done with it.

Becca Costello: Way back in episode two, we talked about how the city and county finally came to an agreement to separate amicably. Denise helped negotiate that plan.

Denise Driehaus: The city runs the system, but we create the policy to inform how they run it, and so when we don't have a direct line to the director, some of the engineers, some of the attorneys, just becomes cumbersome. And so it was this balance of reasonable rates, keeping the employees in CRS and then providing a system where we had some direct communication with the people that were making the calls over at MSD.

Ella Rowen: So the city and the county proposed a plan to create a five member citizen board to handle major policy decisions for MSD, including hiring the director.

Becca Costello: All MSD employees would be working for Hamilton County instead of the city of Cincinnati, but crucially, would stay in the Cincinnati Retirement System, at least in the short term.

Ella Rowen: City and county officials went to OPERS and said, Hey, can you take over the entire Cincinnati retirement system instead of just the MSD employees?

Becca Costello: Everybody knew OPERS would probably say no, because absorbing CRS would mean taking on that giant unfunded liability. So Denise says they factored that in when asking Oprah's to take over the city's whole pension fund.

Denise Driehaus: We pitched that but said you don't have to take CRS right away. Look at their financials. Look at, you know, how they're doing their fiscal stability. And just take a look every five years at whether or not you think it's a good idea to absorb CRS into OPERS. It's your call. You make the decision. The only obligation is to take a look every five years. So that that was what we were asking them to do.

Becca Costello: And what was the response?

Denise Driehaus: Well, after about a year's time of us calling and badgering them for a decision, eventually they said they were not interested in that. Which was very disappointing, after all the work we had put into it and an agreement between the city and the county, which was not easy to achieve.

Ella Rowen: This is where the whole deal fell apart. And the retirement fund issue is why finding a better management situation for MSD is so difficult.

Becca Costello: But there is option that wasn't available back in 1968 and it could be a solution now.

Ella Rowen: Interestingly, it came up in a totally unrelated news story this year.

(Newscast audio): $439 million: that's the deficit projected in the city's operating budget over the next decade. The plan to cut that deficit now addressed in a 77 page report.

Becca Costello: A group called the Futures Commission recently put out a report recommending ways to stabilize the city budget. Mayor Aftab Pureval created the commission, which included business, community, and labor union leaders.

Ella Rowen: One of the challenges they looked at is the retirement system's unfunded liability problem.

Becca Costello: Their solution? Make Greater Cincinnati Water Works a Regional Water District. This would not be privatizing the water utility, but it would mean creating a new public entity that would buy all the GCWW assets and expand service throughout the area.

Ella Rowen: Cincinnati would use the revenue as a one time boost for the retirement system, reducing the unfunded liability enough for OPERS to be willing to take it over.

Becca Costello: A regional water utility would be regulated by Ohio Revised Code Section 6119 -- that's the same section of state law that governs the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. Those are the folks up in Cleveland managing both sewer and stormwater.

Ella Rowen: And it just so happens to be the kind of regional system that MSD director Diana Christy thinks might be a good fit for Cincinnati.

Diana Christy: We have limitations because of what county sewer districts are limited by. And if we were under a different governance structure, like a 6119, we could develop something that you know is more suited to what we need here in Greater Cincinnati. It's not necessarily for me to explore it, but it is a, what I think should be the long term goal. I think it is the best way for us to really work toward these type of solutions that we're going to need.

Becca Costello: It's not just the governance between the city and the county that would change. A Regional District like this could include stormwater too, just like up in Cleveland.

Ella Rowen: This means the area could cover two birds with one umbrella, or something like that, by simplifying how we address sewer and stormwater,

Eric Saylor: Stormwater as a whole across the county is, at times very fragmented.

Becca Costello: Eric Saylor is the director of Cincinnati's stormwater management utility. He says the fragmented system of stormwater management is one of the area's biggest challenges.

Eric Saylor: We don't have one singular entity governing everyone, overseeing that work, and you have a lot of different pieces. And so every municipality is really focused upon its municipality and its infrastructure.

Ella Rowen: Even though most of Hamilton County is part of MSDs sanitary sewer system, each individual community is still responsible for their own storm water management. But water doesn't recognize political boundaries.

Eric Saylor: We in the city of Cincinnati are at the bottom of the watershed, and we are right at the edge of the Ohio River, and so all that water comes to us, and then we in the city must deal with that.

Becca Costello: So when a town upstream builds a giant new parking lot right by the Mill Creek, all that impervious surface sends a ton of new storm water into the creek, which flows south towards Cincinnati.

Ella Rowen: That happens on a more individual scale, too.

Eric Saylor: And we've seen situations like that where we would get a call from a customer, and it would be a bit of a head scratcher to us, because we'd never had problems in that area before. That there was more water in the creek than there used to be, they felt, and it was coming up onto their private property a little bit more. And so we just put our boots on and walked, kept walking up that creek and walked and walked and walked and found out that another municipality had put in a new development, and they had increased water into the creek, and now our customers were having some difficulties that they hadn't had before. And so that just speaks to me of the need to have better communication and collaboration so you're not harming or you're not negatively impacting another community and their customers.

Becca Costello: Eric says Cincinnati doesn't have any authority over development in neighboring communities, even if what happens there has a big impact here.

Eric Saylor: Maybe sometime down the road, if the the area decided it wanted to move to a sort of a county wide Storm Water and Sewer District that you know that has come up in conversations now and then over the course of my career.

Becca Costello: Establishing a Regional District is a lengthy process through the county court system, and anyone within the service area would have the right to object to the plan.

Becca Costello: You said, that's come up in conversation at times throughout your career here locally, and obviously it hasn't happened. So there are reasons that hasn't gone forward. Do you think that that's a possibility, or is there too much resistance? You think to be realistic?

Eric Saylor: I would consider myself to be an optimist and a realist, and so I'm hopeful that that would be the case, that we could, at the very least move more towards an open forum and have more collaboration discussions, and if, whether or not it becomes that entity or not, I don't know.

Ella Rowen: The process would be even more complicated if you throw in drinking water by regionalizing Greater Cincinnati Water Works like the Futures Commission has recommended. That would require a public vote of Cincinnati residents.

Becca Costello: Basically, this is a possible solution, but it would take years and a lot of cooperation between dozens of municipalities,

Ella Rowen: But in the meantime, we are seeing these groups work together more often. County Commissioner Denise Driehaus says she organized a meeting about six months ago.

Denise Driehaus: So we brought the engineer in, and MSD was there, stormwater was there, and we had this really interesting conversation about, oh, we're all kind of solving for the same thing, and there's federal money available to help solve these issues. And so instead of the city going for a grant and the county goes for a grant and the engineer, why don't we do this together? It helps our chances, by the way, because the federal government loves it when there's that kind of collaboration and it keeps us from competing with one another.

Ella Rowen: Federal grants will be really important for the future of sewer and storm water management, but even if Cincinnati and Hamilton County avoid competing against each other for those dollars, they'll still be competing against other communities with the same kinds of problems.

Becca Costello: There's another snag too. Even with unlimited money, MSD, would have a hard time spending it.

Denise Driehaus: Right now, many of the projects that are related to the consent decree are behind schedule. They do not have the capacity to get more projects out on time, even if we did raise rates. There is a challenge with workforce, and there is a challenge with supply chain, a lot of it post covid. We hear this in every sector, but I've heard Diana Christy say more than once, the project is delayed because we couldn't get the materials for the project.

Ella Rowen: That's only expected to get worse over the next few years, with a bunch of giant projects happening in Cincinnati soon, the construction of a companion bridge to the Brent Spence, a replacement for the Western Hills viaduct, and renovating the Cincinnati Convention Center. Cool, cool,

Becca Costello: Cool cool cool cool cool. So, is there any good news? More on Backed Up after this.

Becca Costello: Did you know I sometimes talk about local issues other than the sewer system? Shocking, I know! If you appreciate local journalism like this podcast, you should check out the other great work of the WVXU news team. You can sign up for The Daily View, a newsletter of top stories every weekday morning. And our local news is always free, never ever behind a paywall, at wvxu.org.

Ella Rowen: If you're not a regular listener to Cincinnati Public Radio, you might be surprised to learn we're nonprofit. That means we need support from our audience to operate. So if you want to support more local journalism like Backed Up, consider donating at wvxu.org.

Becca Costello: So far this episode, things have looked pretty bleak. Cities all over the world are dumping raw sewage all over the place. Nobody has a magic wand to fix it, and all the solutions cost so much money.

Ella Rowen: Let's shift gears and put some more optimistic questions up on the bulletin board. What does success look like, and how will we know when MSD is in compliance with the Clean Water Act?

Becca Costello: Well there's never been an expectation that combined sewer overflows will go away completely. Compliance is more about having controls in place to make it very rare.

Ella Rowen: Lots of communities are under a federal consent decree for combined sewer overflows. And each consent decree is unique. They're kind of like snowflakes in that way. Each consent decree was negotiated by local officials and the EPA and has its own goals for compliance.

Diana Christy: The overall objective is to reduce combined sewer overflows in terms of how much we reduce them. Those are set based on the CSOs themselves.

Becca Costello: In this context, CSO means the actual pipe that dumps untreated sewage and stormwater during heavy rain. Right now, MSD has 201 overflow points permitted by the EPA. That means the Feds know about them, and MSD has to report how often overflows happen.

Ella Rowen: Success for MSD means eliminating some of these overflow points altogether, but it could also mean reducing how often a certain CSO overflows, or reducing how much overflow goes through that pipe.

Diana Christy: The overall approach has always been a tide to affordability.

Becca Costello: The EPA gives cities flexibility and meeting requirements, especially cities that are financially disadvantaged.

Diana Christy: Wherease we do not have an end date, we have to schedule each phase of the work based on what is affordable for the community, for our ratepayers, based on the projects and the scope of work.

Becca Costello: So here's what happens next. The county just recently submitted Phase 2B of the consent decree to federal regulators. This is the next step in reducing combined sewer overflows.

Ella Rowen: The proposal is to build a high rate treatment facility at the Little Miami Wastewater Treatment Plant. It's basically a supplemental facility that only operates during wet weather, taking on the extra storm water that the existing treatment plant can't handle.

Becca Costello: This phase of work is expected to cost about $1.8 billion and that means rates will have to go up an estimated four and a half percent every year between 2025 and 2035

Ella Rowen: And that won't even be the end of the consent decree. There are still more projects to complete

Becca Costello: In 2009 MSD was dumping about 14 billion gallons of combined sewage and stormwater every year. Now that's down to between six and seven billion gallons a year, depending on the weather. Phase 2B is expected to reduce that by another one and a half billion gallons.

Ella Rowen: MSD and other groups are measuring the effect on the Mill Creek and the Ohio River.

Becca Costello: 25 years ago, American Rivers named The Mill Creek the most endangered urban river in North America. Pollution from combined sewer overflows added to industrial waste being dumped straight into the creek.

(Mill Creek Alliance video): Pollution until the early 1980s killed almost all life in the stream. It was a dumping ground, not habitable for creatures big or small.

Ella Rowen: This is a video from the Mill Creek Alliance, a nonprofit working to restore the Mill Creek.

(Mill Creek Alliance video): Our goal since 1997 has been to make the stream a community asset instead of a regional embarrassment, by doing millions of dollars of stream and habitat restoration projects and working alongside government agencies like the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati.

Becca Costello: Depending on the time of year and amount of recent rainfall, the Mill Creek is usually safe for kayaking or canoeing, but none of the creek is considered safe for waiting or swimming yet.

Ella Rowen: The latest report from ORSANCO says bacteria in the Ohio River has improved a lot. Wait is ORSANCO a new acronym?

Becca Costello: Yeah, actually, I think it's our last acronym, except it doesn't really follow the usual acronym rules. ORSANCO is the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, which monitors water quality along the entire 981 mile river.

Ella Rowen: ORSANCO says bacteria in the Ohio River decreased significantly between 2001 and 2015, and they're studying more recent years too. If there hasn't been a heavy rainstorm recently, it's usually safe for recreation like boating or even swimming.

Becca Costello: But there are lots of ways to pollute waterways, and this podcast only covers one of them. The Ohio River is also endangered by pollution from toxic chemical discharges coal ash and mine drainage.

Ella Rowen: Another metric for MSD to consider is sewer backups.

Diana Christy: The addition of the sewer backup program into our consent decree was really the result of the Sierra Club's involvement in the decree, and it is something that is different than most other communities.

Ella Rowen: Sewer backups aren't part of most consent decrees because they don't actually violate the Clean Water Act. So it's kind of a big deal that in Cincinnati, MSD spends so much time and money helping homeowners who have a sewer backup.

Becca Costello: In this case, there aren't specific metrics to meet in the consent decree, but surely there are fewer sewer backups now, after 20 years of work to improve the combined sewer system, right?

Ella Rowen: It's hard to track progress on this. It's not as simple as counting the number of backup reports and hoping it goes down every year.

Becca Costello: For one thing, it's entirely dependent on the weather. One year might have several big rainstorms that overwhelm the system, and the next year might only have one or two. 2023 for example, was a really dry year, and MSD got the fewest number of requests for a sewer backup investigation than any other year since 2004.

Ella Rowen: But MSD also relies on homeowners reporting their sewer backup, so more SBU reports might actually be a good thing, because it means more people know they can go to MSD for help.

Becca Costello: Part of the consent decree is trying to prevent sewer backups, not just cleaning up after they happen.

Ella Rowen: Big projects like the Lick Run Greenway and high rate treatment plants help with this in some neighborhoods, but there are also ways to keep an individual home from backing up.

Becca Costello: MSD will pay to install a prevention device on a home if it's had at least two eligible backups within a five year period. That means the sewer backup has to have been caused by incapacity in the sewer system, not a private problem like a tree root or a grease clog.

Ella Rowen: The average cost per home is almost $50,000. In the last 20 years, MSD has installed sewer backup prevention devices in about 1400 homes.

Becca Costello: Obviously it's really encouraging to talk about the progress, but there's still a long way to go. And public officials have a lot of important work to pay attention to: poverty, a housing crisis. Heck, even our potholes. And there's danger of kicking the can too far down the road. But Cincinnati is lucky to have a group of people keeping public officials on track. Very vocally.

(CUFA singing): Dashing through the poop

Ella Rowen: Communities United For Action and the local chapter of the Sierra Club have been the most active on this issue. Here's Wanda Moncree Ball.

Wanda Moncree Ball: You know, we have a reputation of being a bunch of little old women that are bullies. Have you heard that? They do. They say we're bullies, you know, because we're persistent, but we're supposed to be persistent, and we have the time to be persistent because we're retired. That has been one of the biggest challenges, trying to to have people that are in my circle become rebels, try to fight this thing. My cousin said, Well, you're just passionate, you know, I said, Okay, you know, how do I make you passionate? Because there's, there's power numbers and strength in numbers.

Becca Costello: We as a community also need to pay attention to who this impacts the most. Some neighborhoods have more severe flooding because of the topography and how streets and buildings are designed. And those neighborhoods, by the way, are all across the socioeconomic spectrum.

Ella Rowen: But even if a sewer backup or neighborhood flood could happen to anyone, not everyone is in a financial position to deal with it.

Valorie Aquino: We are living in complex systems, and all that means is there's more and more layers of things to think about.

Becca Costello: That's Valerie Aquino, working for the city of Cincinnati on increasing resilience to extreme weather events. Her position is funded by a grant from FUSE, a national nonprofit that works with local governments on racial equity.

Valorie Aquino: Everyone can increase their resilience. So resilience is basically just being able to recover from a shock. You know, along Beekman corridor, I went to some Communities United For Action CUFA meetings, and most of the membership there are fixed income, they're retired, or they're at that age when they should be. So you can imagine that if back to back storms are hitting them -- which they had from like 2018 to 2021 there were like six big storm events -- if they're getting that back to back, what's that resiliency threshold? So I'm looking at that kind of resiliency threshold and making sure that that's equitably distributed or supported.

Ella Rowen: Valorie is part of the team that worked on the grant application we talked about in episode three, up to $20 million from FEMA to build more resilient infrastructure.

Valorie Aquino: And that's going to be looking at different project scopings along Beekman Corridor to help with kind of identifying hazards we may not know about or hazards that you anticipate seeing, but maybe we don't see, especially within chronically disadvantaged neighborhoods who are experiencing cumulative health risks.

Becca Costello: It takes a village to fix a sewer system. MSD has a few big goals for improving how the sewer utility operates.

Ella Rowen: Last episode we talked about the customer assistance program, which gives some low income seniors a discount on their sewer bills. MSD estimates about 19,000 people are eligible for the discount, but only about 17% of them are actually enrolled.

Becca Costello: According to the National Council on Aging, this is really common for programs like this, and not just for utilities.

Ella Rowen: The group says older adults may not know how to apply, or may assume the process is complicated, and many believe other people need more help than they do.

Becca Costello: MSD director Diana Christy says the district aims to reach 25% enrollment for eligible customers by the end of 2024 that would be about 1500 more people.

Ella Rowen: A lot of the goals center around better communication with elected officials, with other public agencies and with the public.

Becca Costello: MSD has made changes in the last few months to how they tell the public that a combined sewer overflow is happening so that people can avoid coming into contact with the contaminated water for at least 72 hours.

Ella Rowen: This is totally separate from sewer backups. MSD has no way of knowing where those happen until they're reported by homeowners.

Becca Costello: But when it comes to untreated sewage flowing into public waterways, MSD can track exactly when each overflow pipe is active and for how long.

Ella Rowen: There are signs posted at each combined sewer overflow point, and MSD used to send vague emails anytime an overflow was likely to happen.

Becca Costello: They basically said, any time it rains, anywhere in Hamilton County, stay away from creeks and rivers. But even if sewage is overflowing into the Ohio River, that doesn't necessarily mean canoeing on the Mill Creek is a bad idea.

Ella Rowen: Now, instead of an email, MSD has a real time interactive map that shows exactly what's happening at all 200 overflow points.

Becca Costello: So if you have plans to spend time out on the mill creek or the Ohio River, you can check the map to see if there's been an overflow. And if you're like me, and your free time is more often spent on the couch watching Star Trek, you don't need to check the map anyway.

Ella Rowen: Where do all of us fit into this? Anyone listening to this podcast can do something about water quality. We all have responsibility for what we flush down the toilet.

Becca Costello: Remember the three Ps: pee, poo and paper, but only toilet paper of course. That means no grease or oil, no condoms, tampons, cotton swabs.

Ella Rowen: And remember: FLUSHABLE WIPES ARE A FANTASY AND A MYTH.

Becca Costello: If you live in a single family home, you could move your downspout so it directs storm water into your yard or a rain barrel instead of going into the combined sewer system.

Ella Rowen: If you live in Cincinnati, you'll need permission from the city to do this, and that's probably true for other communities, so make sure you do your research first.

Becca Costello: You can also think about ways you might be polluting stormwater as it heads to streams and rivers. Here's Cincinnati stormwater management utility director Eric Saylor again.

Eric Saylor: Don't throw trash into the streets because it could end up in the creek. Don't overuse pesticides and herbicides on your lawn. Try to minimize the amount of salt that you use. All of that has a negative impact on the water quality piece of our world and the stormwater world. And I think people are as a whole, are more cognizant of that, and hopefully they'll continue to move in that direction.

Ella Rowen: These things won't solve all of our problems, but the more of us trying, the better.

Becca Costello: Basically, just go out there and be good humans.

Ella Rowen: All right, here we are finally arrived at the denouement. We don't have a villain to unmask, but we still have a lot to think about.

Becca Costello: Former MSD employee and historian Jack Rennekamp says we have to look backward to understand the future.

Jack Rennekamp: History is always with us. It's something that develops and advances and progresses. So those terms and concepts that were in use in 1968 are still in use in 2023 but they have different layers that have been placed upon them. As Shrek said in one of the movies, you know, he's like an onion. You have to peel back the layers. That's the same thing you have to do with history. You have to peel back the layers, and especially local sanitary sewer history, and see, okay, what did this mean, and does it still have relevance for today? The answer is usually yes, it does, but it's interpreted within a different context, because there are different applications now, there are different requirements, the laws are different and the benefits are different. Things that MSD is doing today are very similar to what they did at the creation but it just has a different resonance to it.

Becca Costello: Before this podcast, I was shocked to find out it takes more than 650 people working at MSD, just for me to be able to flush my toilet. We learned so much about how incredibly difficult and complicated it is just to get rid of our poop.

Reese Johnson: We couldn't live in community without an effective sewer system. As gross as it is, we need that to live in community.

Ella Rowen: That's MSD water engineer Reese Johnson, backed by popular demand,

Reese Johnson: And so I found my professional calling in water, and more specifically, in wastewater or rainwater, and it falls and mixes together, because that's a place where we as humans have an impact on the environment and potentially on each other, and that's where as an engineer, I feel I can, I can use my skills to help us as a as a civilization, as a community.

Ella Rowen: I, for one, will never again take sewage infrastructure for granted.

Becca Costello: And to some extent, I think we have to admit that indoor plumbing is expensive

Jack Rennekamp: Solutions that exist in the future will involve investing hundreds of millions of dollars, but that's the price of progress. But that's also the price of existence in a modern world that you have to pay. Go back to thinking about a day without sewers. What would you do? If you don't want to have sewers, then we better start digging privy pits in our backyards.

Becca Costello: Much as Shrek might have had.

Jack Rennekamp: Exactly.

Becca Costello: Listen, I've used an actual outhouse before, just like Shrek, and I'm pretty grateful that's not my everyday experience.

Ella Rowen: MSD Director Diana Christy is pretty protective of the hundreds of people who keep that system running for the rest of us.

Diana Christy: MSD is a public entity made up of public employees who do the job they do because they have a sense of service to their community, and they come in and they do their job every day in a way that is the best they can do. The system we have, we're maintaining it, we're managing it the best way we can, and we're doing it very well.

Becca Costello: MSD has a whole page on its website for honors and awards. You'll see things there like the Lick Run Greenway and the smart sewers. But there's also recognition for less flashy accomplishments, like wastewater treatment plants with 100% permit compliance over several years. That's not to say there aren't still real concerns or ways MSD needs to improve.

Diana Christy: I think everyone's trying to do the best with what they have. And this challenge isn't unique to Cincinnati, but, you know, we're continuing to find new ways to tackle it and work together.

Ella Rowen: And this is just one complicated system crucial to the life we're used to living. It feels very fragile sometimes.

Becca Costello: I think my biggest takeaway is that the world feels overwhelming and complex, but we CAN understand complicated stuff like this. And the more we understand, the better we can contribute to making the world work better for all of us.

Ella Rowen: So I guess case closed, we're turning in our magnifying glasses and our corn cob pipes?

Becca Costello: I don't think the mysteries of water are ever really solved. We just have to follow the stream wherever it takes.

Ella Rowen: Okay but for real, though?

Becca Costello: Yeah, let's get this bulletin board out of my office please.

Becca Costello: 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.

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

Becca Costello: A lot of people helped put this podcast together: Leslie Smith, Tana Weingartner, Jenn Merritt, Ronny Salerno, Zach Carreon, Marshall Versbsky, Stephen Baum, Assia Micheaux-Johnson, Brittany Mayti, and Kevin Reynolds.

Ella Rowen: 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.

Becca Costello: We interviewed a few people that we didn't have time to include. So thank you to Matthew Fitzsimmons, Holly Christmann, Steve Kennett, Professor Francis de los Reyes, Devonna Marshall, Brad Blankenship and lots of folks at the Mill Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Ella Rowen: Go to wvxu.org/backed up to find a transcript of this episode and a link to a very cool digital exhibit about the history of Cincinnati sewers from our friends at the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library.

Becca Costello: And I just have to say I am getting emotional about finishing up this last episode, because it's been really incredible to work on this with you, and I could not have done it without you. And I'm really proud of what we were able to put together, and I really glad that you're my friend.

Ella Rowen: I knew you were gonna say something, so I also wrote something. Hold on. I feel very lucky to have had this opportunity to work with Becca, who is one of the kindest, most patient people I know. Working with Becca was a breeze, even on the hardest days. We share a sense of humor, and we both love Cincinnati, and I think that kept us going through all this. And I'm so glad that you're my friend.

Becca Costello: Now I am crying.

Ella Rowen: And thank you to all of you for listening!

Becca Costello: Thank you for listening and for sticking with us to the very end, like toilet paper stuck on your shoe.

*beep*

Becca Costello: Well, if they let us anywhere near these things. I know my way around WWTPCPTEHRT. So get me in there.

Ella Rowen: I'm gonna ask the crick what it thinks about our new podcast Backed Up. (sounds of water running). Okay, I am smelling. I am smelling things.

*beep*

Ella Rowen: I frickin love this town. I love this stinky sewer town. Stinky sewer city.

Becca Costello: That's the new — that's what we should call it. Stinky sewer city.

Ella Rowen: The Big S. 

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.