Case Study 4: Stormwater Management through Green Infrastructure: Youngstown, Ohio

Case Study 4: Stormwater Management through Green Infrastructure: Youngstown, Ohio

Youngstown is a city in northeastern Ohio that has significantly depopulated due to suburban flight and the collapse of manufacturing. During 1960-2010, the city lost nearly 17% of its population every decade. The city’s current population is close to 65,000 residents, which is down 3% from the 2010 Census.  The Brookings Institution named it America’s fastest shrinking city.[1] Youngtown is majority-minority and the city’s median household income of $26,295 is less than half the national median of $57,652. Like other older cities in the Northeast and the Midwest, Youngstown has a combined sewer system to manage its stormwater.

An estimated 35 percent of US cities – 886 cities – are shrinking like Youngstown.  How do you improve water services and other infrastructure in places like these?

In 1997, a consent decree was initiated between the EPA, the State of Ohio, and the City of Youngstown for Clean Water Act violations, which was finalized in 2002. The consent decree includes a long-term control plan with significant infrastructure improvements in two phases. The first phase includes improvements to the city’s wastewater treatment plant, a 100 MGD wet weather flow facility, and laying a major sewer interceptor. This phase is expected to be completed by 2033 at a cost of $150 million. The phase I improvements alone would cost each resident of the city roughly $75-$180 annually for the next 30 years.[2]  The second phase includes building CSO storage capacity and identifying a green infrastructure plan, due by 2037 at a cost of $48 million. The city’s annual budget is about $64 million, of which $2.5 million is set aside for utilities and $4 million for capital outlay.[3]

A study commissioned by the city recommended an 8% annual increase in wastewater rates for the next five years (at the end of five years, rates would have risen nearly 50% from current rates) to offset $76 million in necessary upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant. Mayor Jamael Tito Brown has so far refused to raise rates. Additionally, the city is facing legal challenges from the State of Ohio regarding misuse of funds for water infrastructure improvement that were used by the previous mayor to support economic development projects. The Ohio Auditor of State has asked the city to return $3.1 million to the state, but the current mayor has refused. Youngstown’s conflict with the state has raised fears that the city could lose its independent governing status and be placed in receivership under a state-appointment fiscal manager.

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown (second from the left) participated in a roundtable hosted in Youngstown, OH by the Environmental Policy Innovation Center on August 21, 2019. Photo credit: Sridhar Vedachalam.

The exorbitant cost of the grey infrastructure plan led the city to investigate the feasibility of implementing green infrastructure as an alternative way to achieve CWA compliance. In 2016, the city hired Greenprint Partners to identify cheaper ways of achieving CWA compliance.  Greenprint Partners is a boutique consulting firm based in Chicago that specializes in building green infrastructure in disadvantaged neighborhoods to help cities achieve community-driven stormwater solutions. Based on Greenprint’s recommendations, the city may undertake a community-based public private partnership (CBP3) to implement GI installations. These projects are expected to not only address CSO volume, but also target a variety of other city priorities such as crime reduction, enhancing city pride, improving living conditions, economic development, job creation, and flood reduction.

As part of this effort, members of the Youngstown City Council and other key leaders undertook site visits to Pittsburgh and inspected the newly-installed GI structures in Youngstown. So far, the city has installed five GI structures, mostly as demonstration. But the city is actively engaging the citizens in the process of installing GI structures throughout the city. In Mill Creek Park, one of the largest metropolitan-owned parks within the city limits in the U.S. and Youngstown’s best natural resource, GI features (these were not funded by the city) such as porous parking lots and oxbows have reduced peak flows and incidences of flooding within the park.

Although there are many larger cities such as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia that have incorporated GI within their long-term control plans to address CSOs, there are very few such examples among smaller and declining cities. A prominent example relevant to Youngstown is Onondaga County, New York, which includes the city of Syracuse. The county’s “Save the Rain” program is one of EPA’s model communities for GI due to the sheer scale of projects and cooperation across various governmental, non-governmental, and private entities.[4] GI projects across the county (totaling 189 as of 2017) capture 96% of CSO volume — far ahead of the mandated goal of 95% capture by 2018 — and reduce total runoff by 123 million gallons annually. This distributed approach resulted in scrapping plans for three additional wastewater treatment plants that were required under the consent decree, saving an estimated $20 million in capital costs alone.[5]

 

[1] See https://www.hamptoninstitution.org/youngstown.html#_edn1

[2] The lower end of the estimate assumes 100% equity-financed infrastructure program. The higher end assumes a 100% debt-financed program and 3% interest rate.

[3] The City of Youngstown Finance Review 2018. Accessed at: https://youngstownohio.gov/sites/default/files/forms/COY_5YearForcast.pdf

[4] See program website: http://savetherain.us/

[5] Iannone, O. 2017. Syracuse is saving the rain. Planet Forward. Accessed at: https://www.planetforward.org/idea/syracuse-is-saving-the-rain