The Ripple Effect

Massive efforts—and subtle ones—are transforming the muck of the Mill Creek.

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On a brilliant June morning, Stanley Hedeen, author of The Mill Creek: An Unnatural History of an Urban Stream, meets me where Queen City Avenue dead ends into the Mill Creek in South Fairmount. A few hundred feet south, the Western Hills Viaduct hulks across the valley. Swifts arc above us as we speak over the wail of freight wheels from the Queensgate Yard.

We stand at the Lick Run outfall, the reinforced concrete mouth of a tunnel nearly 20 feet wide. It is baffled, grated, and fitted with flues, and it looks like something from Lost. A faint mist hangs in its mouth and it emits a funk of old fish and loam, with faint notes of sewage. Water seeps from cracks beneath a sewer cap in the 45-degree concrete escarpment. I ask Hedeen whether we might be seeing a CSO.

“It could just be from rainwater trapped behind the concrete,” he says. “But it hasn’t rained in a while.”

I know something about CSOs—combined sewer overflows. I’m a bike commuter, and riding to work along the Mill Creek Greenway Trail this spring after a heavy rain, I came upon a sight that almost made me skid out: nasty-looking water surging from a sewer cap and spilling into the waterway. 

A combined sewer overflow is just that. You’ve got your stormwater sewer and you’ve got your wastewater sewer. Ideally, ne’er the twain shall meet. Stormwater sewers direct their load where nature intended: to the river. Wastewater sewers carry their contents to the treatment plant. But during heavy flow events—a rainstorm, say—CSOs allow wastewater to overflow into stormwater sewers, to keep old pipes from breaking and streets and basements from flooding. When that happens, the CSO at the Lick Run outfall is a torrent of stormwater and raw sewage mixed together and dumping directly into the Mill Creek. Bad news for water quality and for everyone living downriver.

The Lick Run outfall is the biggest combined sewer overflow in Hamilton County, and possibly the worst in the country. In an average year, it disgorges about 1.7 billion gallons of raw sewage mixed with stormwater—and it’s just one of many points of pollution for the Mill Creek.

As an ecologist teaching at Xavier University, Hedeen came to see the Mill Creek’s plight as a failure by society to care for a vital natural resource. He hoped writing its history could provide insight into how we can make it well again. “I care about the creek because my culture is responsible for its degraded condition,” Hedeen e-mails me after our meeting. “Saving the creek will be an important indicator that local citizens are living more sustainable lives.”

The Mill Creek has been on the minds of environmentalists like Hedeen for years, and there have been strides toward addressing its woes. Now, under a mandate from the federal EPA, Ohio EPA, and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission that requires a remedy to the combined sewer overflow situation throughout the watershed, those efforts are about to take some big steps forward. The Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) must reduce the volume of CSOs in the Lower Mill Creek by up to 2 billion gallons by 2018 and ultimately, 85 percent overall—a Herculean task. Project Groundwork, as it is called, has a $3.2 billion price tag, making it one of the largest public works projects Cincinnati has ever seen. MSD’s drawing board includes an array of eco-friendly, sustainable features, including green roofs, rain gardens, and man-made wetlands. They’re all calculated to improve water quality in the creek, and they have the potential to improve our lives in ways you never would have imagined had anything to do with stormwater management. And since the Mill Creek watershed is populated by close to half a million people, that means a whole lot of us will be part of the next chapter in the history of this urban stream.

 

The reason there’s so much water sluicing through a tunnel like the Lick Run outfall is us: Our waste-producing homes and industries, the runoff from our paved roads and parking lots. MSD is exploring two possible ways to solve the Lick Run problem. The traditional solution calls for adding capacity—that is, a bigger buried tunnel and upgraded wastewater treatment facilities. But this solution also means paying to convey and treat water that doesn’t need to go down the drain in the first place. The alternative solution would be to maintain separate systems for wastewater and stormwater and decrease runoff at its source so that there’s no need to combine the two. Wastewater would still follow buried pipes to treatment facilities, while stormwater would be “daylighted”—removed from the underground system to flow on the surface. In South Fairmount, that would mean daylighting Lick Run—the creek where early-19th century settlers washed and fished, and where late-19th century industries discharged their waste. Pollution forced its diversion underground generations ago, through the tunnel where Hedeen and I stood. 

MSD’s tentative master plan for Lick Run involves recreating the stream between Queen City and Westwood Avenues, bringing it to the surface from a spot just west of Quebec Avenue and flowing all the way to the Mill Creek. The area bordering its banks would be redeveloped as green space, with exercise paths, playgrounds, and parks alongside it and trees, rain gardens, and man-made wetlands that would take advantage of natural stream ecology and improve the quality of life in the down-on-its heels neighborhood, too.

Stormwater projects with side benefits are nothing new. Winton Lake—the centerpiece of Winton Woods Park—began as a flood control project. And the daylighting of Arcadia Creek in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where flooding impeded development, spawned a development boom in that city. Of course, due to the mandate, plans extend well beyond Lick Run in South Fairmount. According to MaryLynn Lodor, environmental programs manager for MSD, the search is on for more opportunities to daylight and restore streams—the West Fork Mill Creek, for instance, which flows out of Mt. Airy Forest and connects to the Mill Creek through a graffiti-scrawled concrete culvert big enough to drive your car up. And they’re looking for areas that will benefit from “green infrastructure,” such as rain gardens and surface water retention ponds—projects that keep stormwater out of sewers. The intention is to do it in a way that adds long-term value to communities. “Our first priority is solving our CSO problem,” Lodor says, “but we are also addressing the flood plain issues to identify potential opportunities for green space naturalization and recreational uses.”

OK, so you’re probably thinking Great, here come the orange cones. But when the dust finally settles, what can we expect this to actually look like?

 

To get an idea of the shape of things to come, I join a group touring the upper Mill Creek watershed with folks from the Ohio EPA. We meet Jennifer Eismeier, executive director of the nonprofit Mill Creek Watershed Council of Communities (MCWCC), and Warren High, senior biologist with AMEC, a firm contracted to engineer projects like Twin Creek Preserve in Sharonville, which is where the tour begins.

The Twin Creek Preserve is just northeast of the junction of I-75 and I-275. Funded by Ohio EPA, coordinated by MCWCC, designed and built by AMEC, the project began in 2007 as a sketch on the hood of High’s car as he surveyed the spot—then an old cornfield where the East Fork Mill Creek, the main-stem Mill Creek, and Beaver Run merge. It was flood-prone then—so much so, High tells us as we cross a tree-lined berm, that neighboring businesses had to lasso their dumpsters in heavy rains. As a confluence of three streams, the site is a critical junction for the health of the overall watershed. To turn it into something more than a semi-annual washout, the MCWCC worked with sponsors, land donors, the MSD, Butler County Water and Sewer Department, Norfolk-Southern Railway Company, General Mills, Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation District, and OKI Regional Council of Governments to redevelop it.

High and his team sculpted 2,100 feet of stream into curving, natural forms and created five acres of wetland. White tubes dot the landscape, each harboring a persimmon, paw paw, pin oak, or other native sapling. At another site, High has healthy young ash trees that have outgrown their (now biodegraded) tubes. This illustrates how long he’s been planting trees along restored streams. “This pre-dates ash borer,” he says. “We would never plant ash now.” The goal, he says, is to quickly create a riparian wetland forest that will allow indigenous vegetation to out-compete invasive species and provide a tree canopy over the creek that will cool the water.

High points out the deliberately engineered “sinuosity” of this restored section of creek: he has created oxbows, vernal pools, and riffles (man-made rapids) that slow and aerate the water and provide habitat for aquatic creatures. Nearby, benches and picnic tables invite visitors to relax in earshot of the splashing stream. And other members of the community find ways to take pleasure in his work. He points out the buried nub of a tree tube, nibbled to the ground, plastic and all. “Every time I plant a tree,” High says, “a beaver, deer, or mouse comes along and eats it.”

As I ride with Eismeier to several other upper Mill Creek watershed restoration sites, she tells me about MCWCC’s role. “We’re trying to re-vision the Mill Creek as an asset, period,” she says. “It’s something that’s worth investing in. It’s the resource that built Greater Cincinnati and it’s the thing that is going to separate Cincinnati as an urban area worth living in.”

We visit a pond in West Chester, beside a roller rink and a Liz Claiborne warehouse, created when developers carted off dirt to raise their properties above the flood plain. High has left the man-made pond and added another—an intermediate basin which helps replenish groundwater and retain stormwater. Everywhere he points to recent work by volunteers, such as the Boy Scout–installed nest boxes for waterfowl. We eat lunch by a verdant wetland, then visit a stream where smallmouth bass, whose presence indicates high water quality, now live. As our entourage pulls away, a pop can flies out of the Ohio EPA van. Tires screech and a staffer hops out to retrieve it. From inside the van someone shouts, “That’s an infraction!”

 

Sift through articles about efforts to make the Mill Creek well again and one name recurs: Robin Corathers, head of the nonprofit Mill Creek Restoration Project (MCRP). MCRP focuses on inner city neighborhoods where pollution and economic disparities are the worst. Corathers sees her work as inseparable from improving quality of life in those neighborhoods.

“It’s no small coincidence that this corridor that has been blighted and polluted has neighborhoods that are some of the most economically depressed in the city,” she says. “We hope that people who live in Mill Creek neighborhoods will see this as a way to improve their health and their families’ health.”

I catch up with Corathers at the June dedication of the Mill Creek Greenway Trail—a recreational path that runs along the creek in Northside. At the west end of Salway Park, beside the Old Timber Inn, chairs wait beneath a white tent. It looks like an old-time revival. Dignitaries and kids—some of the hundreds involved in MCRP’s classroom programs—already swell the crowd. The dedication starts on schedule with an announcement from Rick Magder, Executive Director of Groundwork USA, a New York–based agency that advocates for a nationwide network of nonprofits bent on improving the physical and social environments of neglected neighborhoods. Magder explains that MCRP will now become a Groundwork Trust; its new name will be Groundwork Cincinnati/Mill Creek. The new status comes with a grant of more than $100,000 from the National Park Service. 

The money will help support the Greenway Trail as well as youth employment (low-income teens are involved in stream restoration) and MCRP’s classroom education programs. Which, as Cincinnati Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ronan explains when she takes the podium, have been significant for CPS students. “It turns out you can learn a lot from a polluted industrial waterway,” Ronan says. “When you experience first-hand outdoor environmental education projects, you can learn about making a difference individually and collectively.”

During the friendly east-side-west-side banter among the politicians on hand,  the school kids are fidgeting. One of the boys next to me breaks another’s shoelace and I’m waiting for the retaliation when I realize the next speaker, Rick Lisi, President of the Ohio Audubon Society Cincinnati Chapter, taught me high school electronics—possibly one of the most polluting and hazardous shop classes of all time. But he brings the good news that the National Audubon Society and Toyota have awarded a $50,000 TogetherGreen Innovation Grant to the freshly re-christened Groundwork Cincinnati/Mill Creek to engage inner city youth in restoring a three-acre wetland along the river.

It’s time to cut the ribbon on the trail. Eight oversized scissors snip, someone snaps a photo and, en masse, we walk downstream along a waterway that, despite its urban course, remains primordial and wild, even pretty.

 

If you haven’t visited the Mill Creek lately, you should. As you ride your bike or walk to the yellow bridge on Mill Creek Road, where the Mill Creek Greenway trail currently ends, pause to take a closer look. Even if it’s one of those CSO-spewing days, the watershed is on the rebound. Consider this: a recent sample found 13 new species of fish not present in 1992, including Sand and Emerald shiners and three species of darter, a type of fish sensitive to pollution. But there’s still a long way to go.

If Groundwork Cincinnati/Mill Creek receives sufficient funding this year, the trail will soon extend across the creek, then turn south behind the imposing yellow stacks of the now defunct city incinerator, past the crumbling, half-demolished Consolidated Grain and Barge silos, and on toward the Ohio River. It’s a post-industrial vista, to be sure. But Cincinnati’s irrepressible greenness explodes along the shallow riverbed and up along the West Fork Mill Creek, which converges with the Mill Creek below this bridge, descending from Mt. Airy forest and the valley’s rim. Trees grow from the roof of the old incinerator. A northern water snake writhes from the water to sun itself on an algae-encrusted tire. A blue heron balances on a submerged shopping cart, contemplating the cost-to-benefit ratio of taking a stab at the ponderous, circling carp.

You could also survey the valley from the top of the Western Hills viaduct, which I highly recommend. It’s a rugged scene that can be awe-inspiring, and sometimes awful. To many, the Mill Creek continues to be just another spoiled waterway. Still, despite everything we’ve done, it never holds a grudge.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue.
Illustration by Josh Holinaty.

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