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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
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Because of the city’s now-outdated Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO)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
In addition, industrial polluters with pre-Clean Water Act legacies
left long stretches of the creek filled with more foul smells than
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
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
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
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
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. 2
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