With one of the biggest events of 2016 rolling into town, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District saw an opportunity to showcase infrastructure. Here’s how the district greened up the city just in time for the Republican National Convention.

The Republican National Convention kicks off July 18 in Cleveland, the city’s first such event since 1936. That means about 50,000 visitors will be in town for the week — Republican National Committee staff, donors, lobbyists, journalists, delegates and alternates. The list goes on. Committee spokesman David O’Neil says it will be the second most credentialed event in the world in 2016, behind only the summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Suffice it to say, Cleveland is on display.

That’s why city officials have worked hard to ensure the completion of a $50 million renovation of the downtown Public Square. In the past two years, an intersection littered with four crumbling traffic islands has been transformed into a more cohesive civic space featuring larger green areas interrupted by only a single, narrow street. The final product was unveiled as part of a grand-opening ceremony a couple of weeks ago. And amongst the many improvements are some key upgrades to Cleveland’s sewer system, which will serve its residents long after convention visitors leave.

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“When the opportunity presented itself, we felt it was a great project to get involved with,” says John Gonzalez, manager of communications for Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, which oversees three wastewater treatment plants, over 420 miles of regional streams, and nearly 300 miles of sewer pipes that handle more than 90 billion gallons of wastewater annually. Its service territory encompasses the city of Cleveland and 61 other area municipalities.

NEORSD was one of several partners, both private and public, involved in the project. The district made a $3 million commitment and helped design the green infrastructure that will prevent 3 million gallons of stormwater annually from overburdening the sewer system.

“Originally, the runoff from Public Square was captured in catch basins and directed to the combined sewer system,” says Dave Ritter, a stormwater technical specialist with NEORSD. “During dry weather, flows went to the Easterly Wastewater Treatment Plant, and during large storm events it was designed to overflow directly to Lake Erie.”

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The new Public Square has a perimeter of canopy trees, planters and permeable pavers that creates an infiltration system with more than 200,000 cubic feet of soil volume. There’s also an underground rainwater harvesting system — capable of capturing about 1.6 million gallons annually — which will be used for on-site irrigation. When not needed, runoff is routed to a deeper underground chamber where it can infiltrate naturally into the site's sandy native soils. The chamber is well below the frost line and will function even throughout the winter.

The Republican National Convention largely drove the timing of the Public Square renovation, but Gonzalez says NEORSD is always looking for similar opportunities. The improvements help the district with its combined sewer overflow control program, Project Clean Lake, a 25-year initiative started in 2011 that aims to reduce combined sewer overflow discharges from 4.5 billion gallons annually to less than 500 million gallons. It’s part of a Clean Water Act consent decree.

“As opportunities come up, we carefully evaluate each one to determine the benefit to the customer and the region, and because of the consent decree, anytime we have a chance to reduce the flow to our combined sewer system, we think it’s certainly worth taking a look at,” Gonzalez says. “The Public Square project was one that when it presented itself, we were really excited about. It was a unique project going on right in the heart of a major metropolitan area. Those opportunities don’t come up very often.”

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Beyond controlling combined sewer overflows, Gonzalez says NEORSD is also focused on minimizing stormwater runoff.

“We want to keep as much water out of the combined and separate sewer systems as possible, so this project has an environmental benefit on both ends of that wet-weather management cycle,” he says.

The project also brings some nice possibilities for public relations events. Gonzalez says NEORSD’s $3 million commitment includes an opportunity to be involved in Public Square events, using them to increase public awareness about sustainability and stormwater management.

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“There’s a lot to be excited about now that it’s all been unveiled,” Gonzalez says. “The people with the Group Plan Commission (the ones in charge of the overall Public Square project) have a program manager who will oversee a lot of the opportunities and events going on at the site. Going forward, we’ll be involved to make sure there are some educational components included. With the combination of the improvements that help with sustainability and the chance to work in some educational messaging to the public, it was definitely worth getting involved.”

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