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  • Peter Householter

Wash it All Away

Climate change has many effects on the Earth, but I have time only to discuss one in this article: sewage.

US elected officials and national sustainability scientists have touted the southwestern Ohio region as a “climate haven” because we have multiple water sources (the Great Miami Buried Aquifer and the Ohio River), ample woods and nature preserves, and natural communities preserved by local land trust organizations and parks. According to the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers), over 760 out of 44,825 square miles (around 1.7%) of Ohio’s land is impervious. Impervious surfaces prevent rainwater infiltration directly into the ground. In urban or suburban areas, infrastructure is installed (such as roadway drains) that efficiently transport rainwater to water bodies and away from our roads, sidewalks, and homes. The problem this presents is that pollutants such as sediment, chemicals, or trash accumulate on our impervious surfaces until a storm washes them away. However, as Carol and Mary explained in their article a few months ago “There is no away”. Cincinnati has a

combined sewer, meaning that stormwater and wastewater are combined in the sewer leading to wastewater treatment plants. Combined sewers often exist in older communities (such as Cincinnati) before water treatment existed, to carry water (storm and waste) directly to water bodies because it was cheaper to build a single system if everything was going to the same place anyway. In terms of numbers, around 40% of the Greater

Cincinnati Area sewer systems are part of a combined system.

In the early 1900s as Cincinnati built their first few water treatment plants, drains started to be rerouted from water bodies without constructing a separate system for wastewater. Many of Cincinnati and Ohio’s sewer systems are not capable of handling today’s increasingly unpredictable rainfall events. Back in the early 1900s, our systems were sized to handle 2- to 5- year storm events without surcharging, versus today’s standards where systems are designed for 10-year storm events. According to RiverNetwork, Cincinnati is in the top five metropolitan areas in the US for combined sewer overflows each year.

A surcharge (or overflowing of the sewers due to a large rainfall event) transports not just rainwater, but also all of the pollutants that accumulate on impervious surfaces, into our waterbodies, which among other effects, causes nitrification (see the Nitrification Cycle causing large-scale marine deaths).

In terms of direct effects from climate change, according to date from the Earth has observed a rise in temperature of on average 0.11° F per decade since 1850 (or 2° F total) with the warming rate more than tripling since 1982 (0.36° F per decade). This has contributed to a global rise of over 8 inches since 1880 and a rate of 0.14 in/year per year from 2006-2015 (due to ice sheet expansion and a lower density of water as it warms up).

Although our home has been regarded as a climate haven, floods present a major risk to our infrastructure and our lives. In February 2018, the Ohio River rose 8-feet above the “flood level” in Cincinnati, resulting in around 10,500 citizens without power and $44 million damages across 18 counties. In 2022, dozens lost their lives with hundreds others displaced from their homes due to major flooding.

After the flood depicted in Genesis 6, God established a covenant with Noah and his offspring (including us) that “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” I have interpreted this covenant to mean that God will never intentionally send disaster to the Earth again, but we may still bring it upon ourselves by disrupting the Earth’s natural processes. If humanity doesn’t reverse course soon, we may face another great flood. However, this time Noah’s ark can’t save us. We don’t get a second Earth.

As bleak as our future may seem, all hope is not lost.

The MSDGC (Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati) finished the Lick Run Greenway project in South Fairmount in 2021, a bioengineered surface stream and separated stormwater sewer which eliminates approximately 800 million gallons (out of the Greater Cincinnati’s 1.78 billion gallons, almost 50%) annually of combined sewer over-flow into the Mill Creek. According to MSDGC, “On the surface, the Lick Run Greenway looks like a park with a stream running through it”, but it has reduced pollution entering our waterways and helped to bring nine new fish species to the Mill Creek in the past decade. The Greenway works by capturing stormwater runoff from the Lick Run Watershed and conveying it directly to the Mill Creek. The project also consists of a large underground storm sewer for overflows from the Greenway itself. As a result, more water is infiltrating directly into the ground to help support life of all kinds, and directing wastewater and pollutants to our treatment plants. We cannot simply watch our lives wash away, along with our waste.

If this project interests you, here are some action steps you can take.

- Reach out to your local politician to advocate for funding for future endeavors like the Lick Run Greenway

- Start or help out with a community garden to grow your own food without pesticides or harmful chemicals, and promote biodiversity.

- Start a composting bin or send your food waste to organizations like Queen City Commons. The less waste the goes to our landfills, or ends up on the streets, the fewer pollutants that may enter our waterbodies through runoff.

- Participate in events hosted by collaborative organizations in Cincinnati like Green Umbrella.

- Take a nature walk to observe and listen to our beautiful planet.

- Pray, talk to God about your lamentations.


Integrated Water Management:

Lick Run Greenway Project


ASCE Infrastructure Report Card

Green Cincinnati Plan


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1 Comment

Feb 29

"I have interpreted this covenant to mean that God will never intentionally send disaster to the Earth again, but we may still bring it upon ourselves by disrupting the Earth’s natural processes."

What an impressive amount of research you've done, Peter. Thank you.

I don't know if this helps: we are lucky to have a wooded area at the end of our yard, and we own about 6 yards deep. My scraps are distributed there for the deer and rabbits, I suppose. No meat products, of course.

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