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Water Resilient Cities Conference Offers Innovative Solutions to Water Infrastructure

By Jon Honeck, Senior Policy Fellow, and Colleen Durfee, Research Intern Greater Ohio Policy center recently attended Cleveland State University’s Water Resilient Cities conference. From April 21st to the 22nd professionals, practitioners, community development organizations, and academics gathered to discuss the current state of water infrastructure in the Great Lakes region. The innovations, needs, consequences, and potential growth of Great Lakes cities depend heavily on water infrastructure, its maintenance, modernization, and adaptation to more variable climate patterns. How do we protect our natural water bodies when faced with the desire for economic and community growth? The conversation between the themes of regional growth, natural resource protection, and looming effects of climate change is one of paramount importance when considering the future of the Great Lakes region.

The Water Innovation Keynote address was delivered by Hillary Brown, a Fellow at the American Institute of Architects and Professor at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at CUNY.  Dr. Brown showed numerous examples of cities around the world are creating innovative solutions to water infrastructure needs while lowering the carbon footprint of a treatment facility or sometimes parts of a city.  Some of the most innovative practices include on-site reuse of wastewater and stormwater in large buildings and mixed use districts.  These areas are taken “off the grid” in terms of their water use and save energy through decentralized treatment systems that do not have to move water long distances.  Other examples showed treatment facilities finding ways to maximize opportunities for co-generating energy:

  • In Japan, a water utility placed acres of solar panels in its adjacent reservoir, generating electricity for the facility but also lowering evaporation from the reservoir.  The water also helps to cool the solar panels.
  • In Lille, France, a utility is recovering biogas from wastewater and other organic waste to produce biogas for the municipal bus system.
  • In Oakland, CA, a utility has constructed a biodigestion facility that generates electricity from sewage;
  • In Vancouver, Canada, heat from wastewater is being used to heat a residential district.
  • In Mankato, MN, treated wastewater is being used for cooling a traditional power plant.

In order to fully promote these types of opportunities, Dr. Brown advocates for the inclusion of specific clean energy principles in the award formulas of state infrastructure banks or state drinking water or wastewater revolving funds.  These principles include: supporting mixed land use, mitigating CO2 production, incorporating green infrastructure, integrating social and energy benefits, and including climate adaptation measures.

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In the third panel session, Professor Richard Norton from the University of Michigan demonstrated the variability and vulnerability due to climate change and development patterns on Lake Michigan’s shores. He made an interesting point that like the world’s oceans, the Great Lakes will change water levels due to climate change. However, these changes have a very different timeline than those of saltwater coastlines and therefore are more difficult to track. There is no daily tide on lakeshores as there is on our salt-water coasts. The Great Lakes ebb and flow at a variability of several meters over the course of a decade, not several hours. This variability is fairly normal. It’s the severity of the high and low levels that are anticipated due the accumulated effects of drier summers and wetter, warmer, winters over long periods of time. For example, between 1980 and 2000, Lake Michigan gained over 200 feet of beach frontage. Many property owners see this as a gain in real estate but each municipality on lakeshores has different zoning ordinances and city codes regarding lakeshore development practices.

Dr. Norton showed an example of a property owner’s development decision that highlights the vulnerability of lake shore development and the conflicts that sometimes manifest between private property owners and city zoning officials and planners. It is difficult to dissuade someone from developing on their property when for the past several years they had access to hundreds of feet of lakeshore frontage. Dr. Norton showed satellite images of Lake Michigan’s shoreline from the 1930s, 1960s, and 2000s. They varied by hundreds of feet of beach frontage – about two meters change in lake depth. The property owner decided to build a multimillion-dollar home closer to the shoreline but against the city’s guidance. Years later, the shoreline rose and nearly ran right up against the outside walls of the home. The homeowner asked for permission to build a sea wall to protect his home against the rising water and the city denied it. Eventually, the home was lifted from its foundation and moved further back from the shoreline to avoid flooding. If the water level continued to rise as it very well might, the home would be almost completely under water. The take away from Dr. Norton’s presentation is that lakeshore coasts and their communities need to understand the variability and timeline of water levels for great lakes. Development along lake shorelines is very different from that of saltwater coastal areas and in the coming decades of higher variability, lakeshores will be even more vulnerable to severe rises and falls in the water lines.

GOPC is in the midst of a multi-year project on Ohio’s water and sewer infrastructure.  The Phase I report, released in Fall 2015, analyzed infrastructure needs and gaps, and our recent report on “green” infrastructure describes how cities in Ohio and around the country are using innovative and less costly approaches for stormwater control. Our current work focuses on identifying best practices in infrastructure financing that can be adapted to Ohio.   Some examples of financing tools include credit enhancements or loan guarantees for cities without debt capacity, state infrastructure banks or other methods to pool financing needs, additional state investments in revolving loan funds or grant programs, incentives for regionalization and shared services among water and sewer systems, improved funding for integrated watershed management, and public-private partnerships.