Once a dumping ground for the region's waste, the Mill Creek is now an example of innovation

Our region’s sole source aquifers provide rich opportunities for entrepreneurs and researchers. But you don’t have to go deep to discover that groundwater isn’t the only place in town for water innovation.

Local surface water not only feeds and recharges those sand and gravel aquifers, it acts as fertile territory for cutting-edge environmental projects and water-sustaining collaborations. The work on the Mill Creek is one such example.


CINCINNATI -- Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of collaborations come to life on the Mill Creek, the 28-mile ribbon of water that starts in Butler County, snakes through 37 political jurisdictions and empties into the Ohio River.

From Cincinnati’s early industrial days, the Mill Creek served as the dumping grounds for city residents’ and business waste, from animal carcasses to chemicals. As late as the 1960s, observers watched it change colors and bubble, depending on the day’s discharges.

Long and still best known for its 1997 designation as the most endangered urban river in North America by American Rivers, this year the Mill Creek doesn’t crack the nonprofit’s top 10 list .

“Twenty years ago, most people thought the Mill Creek was a hopeless cause,” said Robin Carothers, executive director of Groundwork Cincinnati , formerly the Mill Creek Restoration Project.

Because of the city’s now-outdated Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system, streams of raw sewage flow into the Mill Creek during heavy rainfalls.

In addition, industrial polluters with pre-Clean Water Act legacies left long stretches of the creek filled with more foul smells than life.

But public-private partnerships and unusual collaborators have quite literally brought new life to the old creek, said Carothers, whose work has centered on the Mill Creek for more than 20 years.

Consent Decree Sparks New Ideas

For 11 years, the city’s Metropolitan Sewer District has operated under a Consent Decree from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which cited MSD with Clean Water Act violations and outlined fines and investments needed to reduce sewer overflows and restore health to the Mill Creek.

The Consent Decree charged Cincinnati’s MSD to make more than $5 billion of investments in local environmental projects in addition to finding a way to reduce the amount of sewer overflow into the Mill Creek. This year, the EPA approved a cost-saving and innovative approach to limit water flowing into the lower Mill Creek by creating stormwater retention basins and bringing buried streams back to the surface in a process known as “daylighting .”

Cincinnati’s daylighting project has been highlighted in the New York Times and has attracted attention from other cities with CSOs looking for constructive solutions that not only improve water quality but restore blighted communities and offer recreational opportunities for residents. Regulators gave final approval to the $276 million project this summer.

Carothers focused on the progress she’s seen since her organization was founded in 1994. The start-up costs for her nonprofit consisted of $180,000 penalty paid by General Electric after the company violated the Clean Water Act (1972) by releasing chemicals into the Mill Creek.

“There has been incredible innovation in public thinking about what is possible and how the regeneration of our urban river is linked to public health, economic revitalization, transportation and other social benefits,” Carothers said. “It’s very exciting.”

She pointed to examples like Salway Park on Spring Grove Avenue in Northside, where a sloped parking lot, new planting of native species and edible plants are designed to keep stormwater from draining directly into the Mill Creek.

“Groundwork Cincinnati is restoring wetlands, stream banks and wildlife habitat,” Carothers said. Her group, funded by grants and individual donors, also takes lessons in green infrastructure and water quality monitoring to schools like the Academy of World Languages and Walnut Hills High School.

“Today, given all of the positive changes, people see the river as an important natural and economic asset. They walk along the Mill Creek Greenway Trail and see great blue herons and giant snapping turtles in the middle of the city.”

Building Constituencies Across Traditional Divides

While Groundwork Cincinnati focuses on the Lower Mill Creek, the Mill Creek Watershed Council of Communities encompasses every mile of the creek and every community that drains water into it.

Jennifer Eismeier, executive director of the Mill Creek Watershed Council of Communities, said the role of the council requires her to think strategically about what’s best for the health and well-being of the Mill Creek and all who interact with it.

“When we do project work, that often forces innovative, unique partnerships,” she said. Private landowners, politicians, funders, nonprofits and businesses create strange, but necessary, bedfellows. “Those public-private partnerships have been really important. We all really want improvement.”

That

project work includes flood mitigation along the Mill Creek, said Bruce Koehler, senior environmental planner at OKI and “self-annointed” commodore of the Mill Creek Yacht Club who regularly leads canoe excursions along the Mill Creek.

“Most people blame flooding on big storm events,” Koehler said. “It’s not just that storm.” A creek surrounded by acres of impervious concrete and rooftops is left imperiled by any rainfall, with water backing up into parking lots, basements and business doorways.

The council’s approach to flooding is multi-faceted.

“It’s the Watershed Council’s goal to look at all the angles of the problem,” Koehler said.

As a result, nine flood plain wetlands have been created just off the Mill Creek, including the 30-acre Twin Creek Preserve just off I-275. Twin Creek features a five-acre wetland that takes in overflow from the Creek and serves as a home for native species and wildlife.

The $2.1 million project encompassed a wide range of partners, from Cincinnati’s MSD, the city of Sharonville and the Ohio EPA to General Mills and Norfolk Southern.

“They never could develop that land,” Koehler said of the former owners of the Twin Creek property, “so they donated it to the city of Sharonville and they get a tax credit.”

Koehler, who sees water monitoring as a kind of recreational activity, stressed the importance of providing avenues for the public to experience the Creek for themselves. “You’re building a constituency for that stream,” he said, “a body of people who care about the stream’s health.”

Healthy Water, Healthy Communities

He added that the Mill Creek’s health is improving. In 1992, the Ohio EPA assessed the Creek at just one-third of the way toward attainment of water quality standards necessary for fishing, swimming, canoeing and sustaining aquatic life.

In 2011, a study by the Midwest Biodiversity Institute indicated the Creek had climbed to two-thirds of the way toward attaining those same standards.

Koehler credited the work of the Watershed Council and the MSD, but also the stream itself.

“The stream is self-healing if we stop assaulting it,” he said.

Eismeier, a Cincinnati native who took the council’s top job in 2011, said her experiences so far make her optimistic.

“I look around at the Mill Creek and its tributaries and think about where we could be,” she said. “We’re trying to maximize the use of resources we have around here. We absolutely cannot do it alone.”

Part politician and part environmentalist, Eismeier exudes an earnest confidence in the power of collective action targeting shared goals. And when it comes to our surface water supply, as manifested in the Mill Creek, she sees plenty of common ground.

“Businesses want, and we want, for the Mill Creek to be the kind of asset that draws the best and brightest,” she said. “The Mill Creek is part of quality of life. It’s part of us being competitive.”

This story is part of a five-day series, in collaboration with WVXU, examining the region's water technology potential, which could pump billions of dollars into the local economy each year. The series airs on WVXU and is being published on WCPO.com the week of Sept. 23 through Sept. 27.

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