The Story of Water: From Lake to Home and Back Again

The story of water in Cleveland is our story.

Two hundred years ago, when Northeast Ohio was covered with thick forests and an outpost of the western frontier, Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River made it possible for early settlers to live here.

During the last two centuries, the abundance of fresh water fueled our city’s industrial growth. But as Northeast Ohio’s population swelled in the 1900s, our lakes and waterways became
dumping grounds for pollution.

By the late 1960s, we’d become known as the “Mistake on the Lake,” a city whose river caught fire due to incessant dumping – rather than being recognized for our accomplishments in business, philanthropy, manufacturing, arts and culture. Water had given birth to modern Cleveland, yet we’d sullied our region’s greatest natural resource.

Now Cleveland is writing its next chapter, and as our waters return from the brink of destruction, the story has evolved again. Lake Erie and our waterways face serious challenges from pollution, yet their quality has improved dramatically.

“Lake Erie is our most important natural resource, and that’s why cleaning it up has been so important. It can help attract people and investment,” says David Beach, director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

To turn the page on the environmental mistakes of the past, we have to understand where water comes from and where it goes. Such knowledge is critical to protecting Lake Erie, improving our natural environment and redeveloping our neighborhoods.

From Lake to Home

Many of us don’t know how water travels from Lake Erie to our homes. We simply turn on the tap and expect it to start flowing. Yet how water is delivered to us is complex; and reveals how lucky we are to live on one of the Great Lakes. These five vital bodies of water together hold more than 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.

To fully understand how water reaches our communities, we have to think of ourselves as living in a watershed – an area where rain and falling snow drain to a common point. And that point is Lake Erie, where all of our waterways flow.

The journey of water in Cleveland begins three miles off of our lakefront. Four intake facilities, also known as “cribs,” draw and pump water through large tunnels that lie deep beneath the lake bed (some were dug as far back as the 1800s). Once it reaches the shore, these treatment plants screen the water to remove fish and debris.

For Greater University Circle residents, the water is pumped uphill to the Baldwin Reservoir, a set of Victorian-era buildings at Fairhill Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The water is treated with aluminum sulfate or “alum,” a chemical that causes particles in the water to become sticky. As the water and alum mix, the particles sink to the bottom, allowing cleaner water to move on to the next stage of purification.

Just think of Baldwin as an enormous Brita water filter – while this process continues, water trickles through giant tanks that catch even more dirty particles.

Finally, the clean water is held in large storage areas and protective chemicals are added. A bleach-like chemical helps to kill bacteria, while fluoride protects our teeth.

“We’re here 24/7, and we test the water frequently to ensure that it meets federal EPA standards – it’s very high quality,” says Frank Woyma, plant manager at Baldwin.

Once the water leaves Baldwin, it flows through pipes to reach homes and businesses.

For residents, gravity does most of the work – which is one reason city residents pay less for water than residents in the suburbs.

From Lake to Home

Have you ever wondered where water goes after you brush your teeth or flush the toilet? Before it flows into Lake Erie, water enters the pipes of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) where here it is cleaned at a treatment plant. Then the clean water is sent to Lake Erie and the cycle begins again.

The sewer district plays an important role in cleaning the wastewater that runs down your drain and in managing the rainwater that flows off your driveway. While many newer suburbs have separate pipes for stormwater and wastewater, older cities like Cleveland have a combined sewer system. Therefore, both kinds of water are mixed together.

When it rains, a large amount of water enters these sewers, and can overwhelm the system. In order to minimize sewer backups and flooding during heavy rains, the combination of sewage and rain is allowed to overflow into Lake Erie and local waterways. These “untreated discharges,” as the sewer district calls them, have contributed to the pollution of our streams, rivers and Lake Erie.

To fix this problem and comply with the Clean Water Act (CWA) – a federal law regulating water quality – the sewer district has launched Project Clean Lake, a $3 billion effort to overhaul the region’s sewer system.

Project Clean Lake will create large tunnels that store excess water so it can be treated at the wastewater treatment plants. It will also reduce the amount of untreated discharges by four billion gallons, the district says.

Between 2012 and 2016, however, the average homeowner will see rate increases of about 13 percent, per year. For the past five years, annual rates have risen close to 9 percent. This means that the average monthly bill, now less than $40 per month, would increase to more than $50 each month by 2016.

“This is a collective response to a collective problem,” says Kyle Dreyfuss-Wells, manager of Watershed Programs for NEORSD. Everyone will pay more. Yet she stresses the project’s benefits, such as improvements to water quality in Lake Erie and Doan Brook, which runs through University Circle and Rockefeller Park.

Residents who use Lake Erie to fish and swim can also expect the sewer district’s upgrade to improve the quality of water in Cleveland’s parks such as Edgewater, says Dreyfuss-Wells.

Beach says that while the increased cost of sewer bills may be burdensome for many Cleveland residents, it is also an investment in Northeast Ohio’s future.

“I know people are struggling,” says Beach, “but this is the next step in improving our lake and waterways. It will create economic and health benefits for everyone.”

What You Can Do

Reduce your home water bill

Install low-flow faucet heads, replace old toilets, repair leaky faucets, take shorter showers and use your dishwasher or washing machine only for full loads.

In your yard

Plant drought-resistant shrubs, add a layer of mulch around plants, water your lawn only when it needs it and check for leaks on outside faucets.

How rain barrels work

Rain barrels collect water from your gutters and that water can be reused to irrigate plants and gardens. Organizations such as the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes offer workshops for $30, in the spring and summer that teach you how to assemble and install a rain barrel.

How rain gardens work

Homeowners can create rain gardens by disconnecting their downspouts from the sewer system, allowing rainwater to flow into designated gardens; or install gutter extensions, which can be purchased from a home improvement store.

Benefits of rain barrels and rain gardens

Residents who install rain barrels, build rain gardens or replace their concrete driveways with pervious pavers can earn a credit on the 2012 storm water fee. This will cost most residents $57 per year. However, this credit could reduce your bill by 25-75 percent, saving you an annual $14 – $43. The credits do not apply to Project Clean Lake, only to the stormwater fee.

For information about water conservation, visit the GreenCityBlueLake website at

Published in the Greater University Circle Neighborhood Voice, Feb. 2011 issue


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