An 18-Year Fix

Toledo Waterways Initiative is closing in on completion of a half-billion-dollar sewer improvement program.
An 18-Year Fix
Construction manager Rich McQuade (left) speaks with Julie Cousino, program administrator with the Toledo Waterways Initiative, at the bottom of the Ottawa River Storage Facility.

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The city of Toledo has many claims to fame. It’s home to the iconic Jeep, the granddaddy of sport utility vehicles. It’s also home to the Mud Hens — the equally iconic minor league baseball team celebrated by Cpl. Klinger in the classic TV show M*A*S*H.

Against such popular cultural touchpoints, the Toledo Waterways Initiative may seem positively mundane. But when it comes to the ongoing work to rejuvenate the nation’s environmental protection infrastructure, the 18-year initiative estimated at more than $500 million could be among the most ambitious and successful programs to date.

“As we go through and finish out, I’m very proud to be able to say we’re on schedule and on budget,” says Julie Cousino, who since 2014 has been program administrator for the Toledo Waterways Initiative within the Toledo Department of Public Utilities.

The story isn’t over yet. The assortment of projects still on the to-do list runs through 2020. By then the city will have completed an enormous rehabilitation of its most problematic sanitary and combined sewer collections and treatment systems. Along the way it has tested some new approaches, strived to finance the project responsibly, met countless federal deadlines, and even developed a sophisticated set of strategies to help the public understand why the time, energy and expense will make their lives better.

It has also made essential contributions to the city’s quality of life and its business climate, Cousino points out. The city prides itself on the amenities of the nearby Maumee and Ottawa rivers and Swan Creek, and ensuring they are clean and safe preserves a favorite source of recreation and natural beauty.

And more to the point, the TWI continues to accomplish its bottom-line objective: eliminating sanitary sewer discharges and reducing combined sewer discharges to a minimum.

The keys to success? Cousino points to a number of strong management practices in response to the strict standards imposed by federal regulators: Clear deadlines and benchmarks, and methodical planning to meet them; experience and professionalism inside the department and among its outside consultants and contractors; and cooperation and support from the same regulatory agencies that must ultimately hold the city to account.   

It doesn’t stop there, though.

“We’ve had tremendous support from the city council and the city administration,” Cousino says. “That’s a big reason for our success.”

And, she adds, backing from the public. “We’ve had great community support.”

Initiative history

The program’s roots are likely familiar to municipal sewer utility operators. The Toledo Waterways Initiative grew out of 11 years of litigation over sanitary and combined sewer system overflows into the nearby Maumee and Ottawa rivers and Swan Creek. The long court proceeding culminated in a 2002 consent decree that the city of Toledo signed with the U.S. EPA — one of hundreds that the federal government has obtained with cities nationwide to clean up pollution caused by aging sewer systems.

The repair and rehabilitation program, that the consent decree committed Toledo to undertake, was so large and expensive the city took it to a voter referendum for approval in July 2002.

The city implemented special sewer rates to pay off loans and partially fund the initiative, and it has had to raise those rates periodically as new projects are instituted and new loans secured to fund them. The last round of rate increases went before the Toledo City Council for approval in August 2014 and carries the project through 2020, setting increases of 7.1 percent per year from 2015 through 2019, concluding with a final hike of 7.9 percent in 2020. The debt is projected to be paid off in the mid-2030s.

Grants from various state and federal programs have also helped to pay for some of the work.

The consent decree imposed strict project deadlines, with hefty fines for failing to meet them. The initiative’s total number of projects exceeds 45. In moving to completion, the city has met every consent decree deadline so far — 138 as of this writing.

“We’re very proud of meeting those dates,” Cousino says. Another 28 deadlines are still on the calendar, and she’s confident the city will adhere to its perfect record. Professional pride is one incentive; so are the financial penalties for falling short.

Three-part agenda

The initiative has three broad components:

  • Improvements to Toledo’s Bay View Treatment Plant
  • Elimination of sanitary sewer discharges
  • Control and reduction in combined sanitary/storm sewer overflows

The wastewater plant improvements include doubling capacity to 400 mgd. That was the result of the construction of a wet-weather facility at the plant to accommodate the excess flow of stormwater from the combined sewers and from inflow and infiltration in the sanitary sewer system.

The wet-weather facility reconstruction included building a 232 mgd-capacity high-rate clarification facility, a 25-million-gallon equalization basin, and a new effluent pump station.

Adding the high-rate clarification system was part of a test to see if the chemical treatment system could be an efficient alternative to the plant’s longstanding biological treatment process. As part of the consent decree, the city is testing treated water for pathogens to compare the effectiveness of the chemical treatment with that of the standard biological treatment. The comparison study has a requirement of 10 qualifying rain events.

The plant renovations produced swift results. “Since we completed that construction in 2006, we have not had any bypasses of untreated sewage at the plant,” Cousino says.
Sanitary sewer discharges

Eliminating sanitary sewer discharges required identifying and rebuilding locations throughout the collections system where discharges take place.

“With the consent decree we were required to eliminate all known sanitary sewer discharges,” Cousino explains. The list started with 10; by 2014 they had all been eliminated. But the city has since found that the job wasn’t over: There were two more sanitary sewer overflow points that hadn’t been identified before.

“Any time you discover a new sanitary sewer overflow, you are required to eliminate it,” she adds. The TWI is now addressing the two newly discovered discharge points.

Beyond simply closing off the sanitary sewer discharges, a variety of approaches have been employed for the projects. Some entailed building underground concrete basins or storage tunnels to hold excess flow until it could be sent to the treatment plant.

In other instances, sewer lines were replaced or separated from combined sanitary/storm lines. Still other lines were rehabilitated with CIPP to eliminate stormwater inflow & infiltration that burdened the system.

CSO improvements

As with eliminating sanitary sewer discharges, reducing combined sewer overflows has first required identifying the CSO discharge points.

The 100 square miles of area that is served by the city’s sewer collections system includes 17 square miles served by combined storm/sanitary sewers.

Before the initiative, “we had 32 permitted combined sewer overflow discharge points,” says Cousino. “Some of them discharged 34 times per year on average.”

The EPA consent decree required the city to eliminate eight of those entirely. So far seven of the eight have been taken out: Three that discharge into the Maumee River, three into the Ottawa River, and one into Swan Creek. The eighth, another Maumee River discharge location, is scheduled to be removed in 2019.

Toledo must also reduce the frequency of overflows at the remaining combined sewer outfalls. Instead of 34 discharges a year on average, the consent decree requires the city to discharge a mere fraction of that — no more than two overflows in five years at one location, for instance, or three a year at another. Overflows are measured over a five-year period, allowing for fluctuations so long as the required average is met.

“We use several approaches to reduce combined sewer overflows,” Cousino says. “We’ve done sewer separation, we’ve done sewer separation with flow reduction, we’ve done storage basins, we’ve done storage pipelines. We’ve also performed optimization of our existing storage tunnels, and we have two projects coming up that will construct regulator modifications.”

Combined sewer separation projects have included some in which the combined line was restricted to sanitary sewer use and a new, separate storm sewer was installed. In other instances, the reverse happened: new sanitary sewer lines were installed while the combined line was shifted to entirely stormwater flow.

Currently the initiative is working through a list of 25 projects that must be completed in order for the system to meet the CSO control standard set in the consent decree, Cousino says.

Along the way, the need for supplemental projects has cropped up from time to time. In one case, a crew showed up to clean a segment of sewer line and found it so deteriorated it needed to be replaced. That project wasn’t part of the original list, but the work was done nonetheless.

Of the 25 CSO-related projects, 18 have reached substantial completion, two are in the middle of construction, and five are in various preconstruction stages.

Altogether, 35 million gallons of capacity for combined sewer storage has been completed (including 19 million gallons prior to the TWI with the construction of CSO storage tunnels), 43 million gallons of capacity is under construction, and another 17 million gallons is on the drawing board. When finished, the city will have added a total of 95 million gallons of combined sewer storage capacity to the system.

With just four years left until that last deadline in 2020, Cousino is confident that the work will finish on time.

“When that construction is complete, we will have eliminated 650 million gallons of untreated sewage annually from entering our area waterways,” Cousino says. “That’s an 80 percent total reduction in waste overflow.

“I think that’s something to be proud of.”

Professional and community support

The massive Toledo Waterways Initiative owes an important measure of its success to teamwork, says TWI’s program administrator, Julie Cousino.

Consulting engineers Black & Veatch have provided high-level construction management skills to most of the projects that make up the initiative, Cousino says. State and federal regulators have offered cooperation and support as the city strives to meet the terms of the legal consent decree that set the overall program, as well as the individual projects, in motion.

But community outreach has been a key as well. Business associations and neighborhood groups have been on board, participating through advisory committees to the project.

And the initiative has looked for ways to turn some big projects into win-win affairs that could provide community amenities. For example, a 36-million-gallon storage basin that helps keep polluted storm and sewer water out of the Ottawa River was built at a park.

TWI teamed up with neighborhood leaders to spruce up the park with a new shelter, a lighted baseball diamond and replacement playground equipment.

Communication is central, Cousino says. The program’s website keeps visitors to the page updated on project progress and details. As a result, community support for the effort is widespread, she points out.


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