“Invisible Infrastructure”: How Aging Water Systems Impact Lake Erie’s Water Quality

We turn on the tap to get water, and we flush the toilet to send it away. But the “invisible infrastructure” behind these conveniences is a system that’s not only complex, but also problematic in a world where increasingly unpredictable weather patterns are straining our aging infrastructure. This article was produced in collaboration with the Cleveland Water Alliance in preparation for the 2021 Erie Hack competition. More information can be found at eriehack.io. Cover graphic by Ruth Chang for Midstory.

July 4, 1919 was Toledo, Ohio’s famous “day in the sun”: 114-degree heat beat down on the city’s Bay View Park, where the inaugural world heavyweight championship fight took place in what was then the world’s largest arena.

But another, perhaps less sensational but certainly historic “day in the sun” for Toledo would come a few years later, when the arena was torn down and the accompanying excitement surrounding Bay View Park had faded; after half a decade of discharging untreated wastewater directly into local waterways, the city began an overhaul of its wastewater infrastructure — on the very same site.

Slide through the images above to see the drastic ways Bay View Park changed in just a few years.

In 1922, the Bayview Wastewater Treatment Plant went into service, creating a central discharge point for wastewater. At the same time, the Ohio Department of Health mandated that water be treated prior to discharge, leading to the construction of primary treatment facilities at the plant. Sewage treatment wouldn’t actually begin until a decade later.

Fast forward a century, and as our region deals with aging water infrastructure and climate change-induced extreme rain events, as much as things have changed (the population has increased ninefold, for one), some things have not — issues with wastewater pollution being one of them. For example, in July of 2021, the neighboring city of Maumee self-reported to the Ohio EPA that for nearly 20 years, the city had illicitly dumped as much as 150 million unreported gallons of untreated wastewater a year into the Maumee River.

As unfortunate as the situation was, the estimated $100 million over 30 years to solve the infrastructure issue in Maumee is only a piece of the solution; Northwest Ohio — and regions across the Great Lakes’ perimeter — are struggling with aging water and wastewater infrastructure across the board, sometimes dealing with century-old, yellowed documents with handwritten notes and drawings of taps, pipes and other systems. 

“We have engineers and we have GIS analysts who are doing an incredible job of trying to translate all of that into a more modern electronic map…But it’s really hard to work from old tap records and things like that,” Marilyn DuFour, Environmental Specialist for the City of Toledo, said. 

City of Toledo water infrastructure documents, circa 1921. Image courtesy of the City of Toledo.
City of Toledo water infrastructure documents, circa 1960. Image courtesy of the City of Toledo.

Among the most problematic vestiges of 19th- and 20th-century water infrastructures are combined sewer systems. Constructed before 1900, the city of Toledo’s wastewater system originally combined stormwater and wastewater, funneling both directly out into local waterways. 

“We have infrastructure that’s been around for close to 100 years, and it hasn’t been properly maintained,” DuFour said. “In older communities, that distribution, or the sewer system, is combined, especially in older systems where the stormwater system and the sanitary sewer system are in the same pipe.”

Even though wastewater began to be funneled to Bay View, however, large rains cause overflow — which in turn can cause other problems and even funnel sewage back out into the waterways.

“When we have a significant rain event in a combined sewer area, those pipes have limited capacity and [can] be overwhelmed. And if we don’t have a place for that excess to go, it can overwhelm our plant, it can back up through our sewers, through our manholes, through people’s basements — and everything like that,” DuFour said.  

In 1987, Toledo received an EPA grant for its Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Abatement Program. Now, you can find tunnels beneath Superior Street, along Swan Creek under Hamilton and Buckingham Streets and along the south of Swan Creek, which store the combined wastewater during heavy rainfalls until it can be pumped to Bay View for treatment.

Combined Sewage Overflows in the Great Lakes Basin. Image courtesy of the EPA.

Even so, overflow from some areas continues to impact the health of Lake Erie.

“These overflows were actually put in to help as a release valve for this whole system to make sure that the mixed sewage and stormwater didn’t come up in people’s basements and things. But, at the same time, it is also one of our urban contributors to the harmful algal blooms because there are nutrients in that dilute sewage mixture,” she said.

The city of Perrysburg, neighbor to both Toledo and Maumee, has eliminated all of its combined sewers (the city of Toledo set a goal in 2002 to reduce the combined sewer overflows by 80%). But Lauren Rush, Stormwater Coordinator for the City of Perrysburg, said that even so, there are other negative contributors to the health of Lake Erie.

Stormwater, which is not treated, can also carry pollutants downriver from residential areas, including fertilizers. 

“I try to teach people treat the street like it’s a stream — any grass that gets on there, any leaves, any oil, anything like that, the next time it rains, it’s all gonna get washed into those storm drains and the catch basins in the road, and it’s gonna end up in the creek,” Rush said.

Another issue both Rush and DuFour pointed to was climate change — and that increasing frequency and unpredictability of severe weather events — can and does overwhelm current water and wastewater infrastructure.

This September, a massive, multi-day rain event left every county of Northwest Ohio under a flood watch.

“Things were pushed to the limit. That was a really big rain event that was at least three or four inches of rain here in town, and we didn’t even get the worst of it,” Rush said.

Climate change is also influencing how cities and specialists think about the future of water infrastructure.

“When we go out and look at outfalls, we are seeing those systems collapsed in places…the water is no longer trickling out of those pipes — it’s shooting out of them in some of these rain events, and that’s a lot of pressure on an old system,” DuFour said. “[Climate change is] going to definitely have an impact over time on the kinds of maintenance and repairs we’re going to be making in the future.”

All of this, however, is what DuFour calls “invisible infrastructure,” meaning that, most of the time, people don’t notice it. When they do, it’s usually not a good thing. 

“When your basement backs up with sewage or when your street floods, then this invisible infrastructure is visible, but I’m not sure we always even still see that [water infrastructure] is just this amazing piece that makes healthy living in a community — in a city — possible,” she said.

Everything’s connected, and it all begins and ends in Lake Erie. That’s right — stormwater and treated wastewater (and unfortunately sometimes untreated wastewater) all end up in Lake Erie, but that water from Lake Erie comes right back to our taps through a complex water treatment process that, in Toledo, takes place at Collins Park Water Treatment Plant. 

And when the algal bloom crisis of 2014 — an issue which remains until today — shut down Toledo’s drinking water for three days, people began to pay attention, including in Perrysburg, which receives water from the same intake as the city of Toledo. Rush has been with the city of Perrysburg for about five years, but was at the city of Toledo when the water crisis hit.

“It’s a lot easier to say, ‘Do you remember when we couldn’t drink our water? That is why these things that I’m telling you are important.’ It’s a great example to see how important our water is [that] we take for granted,” Rush said. “We have one of the biggest sources of freshwater anywhere. Why pollute it? Right? We should protect it. And it’s a lot easier for people to understand that when it personally affects them.”

But in their time in the field, DuFour and Rush have both seen increasing interest in improving not only grey infrastructure — like CSOs, holding tanks and pipelines — but also green infrastructure. They are involved in initiatives that plant rain gardens and native plants, as well as the Wild Toledo Prairie Initiative supported by the Toledo Zoo.

A rain garden at Queen of Apostles School in Toledo Ohio, an installation of Sacred Grounds as a part of the Rain Garden Initiative. By Samuel Chang for Midstory.

Implementing green infrastructure, however, presents both new challenges and new opportunities.

“The most significant constraint on that is a knowledge [and] a budget to properly maintain them. Because the maintenance is a totally different skill set than maintaining gray infrastructure,” DuFour said. “And I think in that constraint, there’s a whole lot of opportunity. I know a lot of people in our division and in public utilities are looking at […], ‘How can we employ people with this opportunity?’”

While each city has its own infrastructure, system and even remediation initiatives, DuFour and Rush acknowledged the importance of cooperation — individually, organizationally and even regionally.

“The Maumee River starts all the way in Fort Wayne, Indiana and comes all the way up in Michigan. You have boundary lines that don’t seem as hard once you actually talk to the people in those areas and in those positions,” Rush said. “It seems much more doable when you can work together.”

“We know that Lake Erie is just the most incredible resource,” DuFour said. “We’re all part of the problem. We all need to be part of the solution. And all of us have ways to do it. Some are big, and some are very small, but they all count and they all make our water quality better.” 

This article was produced in collaboration with the Cleveland Water Alliance in preparation for the 2021 Erie Hack competition. More information can be found below and at eriehack.io.

The Erie Hack event is a bi-annual competition to accelerate innovative solutions to Lake Erie’s most pressing challenges. 

Lake Erie currently faces many challenges that affect not only the wildlife and dependent ecosystems, but also the livelihood and well-being of those that live, play, and work near the lake and its watersheds. This multi-month innovation challenge is one of our most high-profile programs and brings together techies, creative thinkers, and entrepreneurs to develop solutions for problems such as water quality, infrastructure, and social awareness. Erie Hack will take place in the form of several engaging events — a hybrid of virtual and in-person gatherings — that will kicked off on September 16.

Anyone who is interested to participate should sign up on Erie Hack’s eventornado: https://eventornado.com/event/erie-hack#home 

For more information, check out Erie Hack’s website: eriehack.io and this informational sheet: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1RG6Up8SZDu0qVUfZNsdi-dLBdT0Q124Lk44LAu0MpAk/edit 

Want to learn more from professionals on the ground? Join Toledo’s virtual hack night on Thursday, September 30th from 6:00 – 7:00 PM. https://us06web.zoom.us/j/83766533803?pwd=MGFndTRibmk2WnlmZHpPYXdpQ2RnZz09

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