By Radhika Fox, Director, Value of Water Coalition

May 15, 2015

By: Radhika Fox, Former Director, Value of Water Coalition

The original article, How Far Cleveland Water Has Come, can be viewed on 

In 1969, the water situation in Cleveland was dire. The Cuyahoga River fires made Cleveland the symbol of our nation’s environmental woes. Forty-six years after images published by Time magazine and National Geographic of the river ablaze were seared into the nation’s collective consciousness, Cleveland should be applauded for the staggering progress you’ve made.

Back then, Cleveland was the poster child for our nation’s polluted waterways; now, it is a gleaming example of the positive transformation of a region through clean water investments.

Many entities have been a driving force behind the improvements to Greater Cleveland’s waterways, including the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District. For more than 40 years, the sewer district has been aggressive, progressive and smart with its investments in sewer infrastructure, reducing raw sewage overflows and other important measures that maintain and protect the lake’s integrity. The Plain Dealer’s editorial board recently pointed out that the NEORSD has managed to use Lake Erie in ways that are both inventive and sustainable, which is critical for the region’s future growth.

This week, NEORSD is taking members of the media and select local and state officials on a behind-the-scenes tour of Cleveland’s sewer system. The tour, dubbed “Follow the Flow,” tracks the journey wastewater takes through the sewer system, dewatering and treatment plants, to Lake Erie.

The tour is designed to coincide with Infrastructure Week 2015: Across the country, more than 70 groups are holding events in Washington, D.C., and in more than 20 states. Vice President Joe Biden, cabinet secretaries, mayors from major cities, and U.S. senators and representatives are participating alongside organizations that champion and steward our nation’s infrastructure.

The first things that typically come to mind when people hear the word “infrastructure” are roads and bridges, because that is what people see and experience firsthand every day. The age of our highway system and challenges of neglected bridges have been well-documented. And after a tough winter, pothole-filled roads definitely need their fair share of repairs.

But water infrastructure, which in many ways faces similar challenges as our highway system, largely goes unnoticed, despite the fact that water providers work 24/7/365 to deliver an essential service. That is why the “Follow the Flow” tour is so important — it connects people to the absolutely critical sewer system that Greater Cleveland relies on but is largely invisible, buried beneath the streets.

When water infrastructure does not function properly, water main breaks and leaks cause the loss of trillions of gallons of precious water every year nationwide. This country simply cannot afford to continue to support expanding communities on drinking water and sewer systems that were built a century ago without significant capital improvement projects.

NEORSD has joined the Value of Water coalition, a national coalition of water service providers and water-reliant businesses, for that very reason, and we are spreading the message about the need for investment and how communities thrive when they invest in clean, reliable water systems.

Other communities may not be as lucky as Greater Cleveland in terms of access to Lake Erie, but regardless of geography, other communities can learn from the infrastructure improvements NEORSD is making. Ninety-eight percent of water infrastructure projects are financed by local water and wastewater agencies. All customers in the community deserve credit for having the vision and willingness to devote the financial resources necessary to help Greater Cleveland thrive.

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District sees the bigger picture: Investment in water infrastructure is an investment in the future. During Infrastructure Week 2015, Greater Cleveland’s clean water transformation is an inspiration for the rest of the country.