Cleveland’s most infamous image is a tremendously powerful one. Some might say that it alone helped pushed through the Clean Water Act. The Cuyahoga River, flanked with many industrial uses for Cleveland’s manufacturing plants, was so polluted it caught fire.
The image alone was a great reminder of everything that’s wrong with the Rust Belt, but it’s also been seared into memory by Randy Newman’s song Burn On (forever ingrained in my mind from the opening credits of Major League).
Cleveland city of light city of magic
Cleveland city of light you’re calling me
Cleveland, even now I can remember
‘Cause the Cuyahoga River
Goes smokin’ through my dreams
Burn on, big river, burn on
Burn on, big river, burn on
Now the Lord can make you tumble
And the Lord can make you turn
And the Lord can make you overflow
But the Lord can’t make you burn
The mythology around the fire almost became more important than the fire itself. The Cuyahoga symbolized rampant pollution, the decline of industrial America, and neglect for the cities that it called home.
All of these make it remarkable that the Cuyahoga is now the symbol of a completely new struggle of urban pollution. Aaron Renn (The Urbanophile) notes how the last acts of compliance with the Clean Water Act will hamstring aging cities.
The first is a great New York Times piece on the rebirth of the Cuyahoga River. You may recall that this river famously caught on fire 40 years ago. Today, it is a totally different story.
The first time Gene Roberts fell into the Cuyahoga River, he worried he might die. The year was 1963, and the river was still an open sewer for industrial waste. Walking home, Mr. Roberts smelled so bad that his friends ran to stay upwind of him. Recently, Mr. Roberts returned to the river carrying his fly-fishing rod. In 20 minutes, he caught six smallmouth bass. “It’s a miracle,” said Mr. Roberts, 58. “The river has come back to life.”
On Monday, people who have worked for years to clean the Cuyahoga will celebrate at its banks. “It’s just remarkable,” said Steve Tuckerman, the Cuyahoga River specialist for the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “I never thought I would see in my lifetime, let alone in my career, such an amazing comeback of a river.”
America has cleaned up its waters greatly since the Clean Water Act. Still, the turnaround of the Cuyahoga is amazing. Once one of America’s worst polluted industrial rivers, now you can fish there. Contrast that with, say, the Indiana Harbor Canal, which remains unsafe according to every measure the EPA tracks.
Anytime you can go from the burning river pictured above to catching six smallmouth bass in a matter of minutes, you’ve made significant progress.
But this article holds a cautionary note, not just for Cleveland, but for almost every older American city. Despite remarkable progress in creating a river you can fish in, Cleveland is still facing $5 billion in future costs to fully comply with the Clean Water Act. That’s not a mis-print. It really is $5 billion.
Cleveland is far from alone. Indianapolis faces $3.5 billion in costs. Cincinnati in excess of $3 billion. And so it goes. In city after city the largest public works project by far is some sort of sewer remediation project, often involiving so-called “deep tunnels”, to eliminate combined sewer overflows.
This is not constrained to the Midwest, either. DC has serious combined sewer overflow problems as well. Pretty much every city of a certain age has to deal with these problems. They’re serious issues that need to be dealt with, but we quickly run into a problem of unintended consequences.
This may clean up the water to some extent but will have offsetting environmental harms that could be worse. First, many suburban areas already have separate sanitary sewers and effective stormwater management. Thus they may not have to incur any significant compliance cost in the future. With central cities like Indianapolis forced into tripling or more their already high rates, suburban districts like Carmel, Fishers, and Noblesville look even more attractive financially. Thus, sprawl is encouraged. This leads to more automobile usage and air pollution which is actually a greater danger to human health than CSO overflows, to say nothing of CO2 emissions.
I am a supporter of clean water. I believe in it. I think the Clean Water Act was a good thing and the Cuyahoga River cleanup illustrates why. But the last ten percent is the hardest to get. Looking at the cost/benefit from a purely local point of view, is there any way Cleveland will get $5 billion worth of improved public health, economic, or recreational benefits out of this project? It is extremely unlikely. And what is the opportunity cost? Huge. Think of what you could do with $5 billion. Cleveland could solve its abandoned home problem, renew a huge chunk of its infrastructure, build more transit, invest it back in lower taxes and fees, and much more – all things that could make a huge difference in that city.
Chris Bradford also chimes in on the subject:
Cleveland can’t go anywhere, but its residents can…
Renn suggests that the federal government assume the cost of replacing ancient sewer systems. That might be the only solution. The federal government has no incentive to weigh costs and benefits accurately when it can simply issue a mandate. And the moral hazard risk is smaller than one might think: the city’s main “crime” is being old enough to need a new sewer system.
Guarding against strategic behavior by a city is tricky anyway since, again, its residents can simply move when things get bad. Rather than stick central cities with crippling legacy costs, it makes more sense for the federal government to issue reasonable regulations and pick up the tab for unforeseen costs.
Several of Renn’s commenters make great points about sensible regulations cities could enact, as well as ideas they should pursue – such as encouraging green roofs, adding greenery to parks and public space, encouraging rain gardens and bioswales – each of which can be enacted at a scale suitable to a city – rather than a $5 billion deathblow. The case for Federal help is awfully strong – particularly when noting (as Chris Bradford does) the propensity of the feds for totally ignoring the cost-benefit implications of their regulations.
This isn’t exactly something new. Unintended consequences are unfortunately all too common. Discovering Urbanism noted several weeks ago the potential for stormwater regulations to undermine a holistic understanding of what makes for a sustainable community. All too often, these well-intentioned regulations (seriously, who’s against clean water?) end up leading to some bad decisions because they focus their interests far too narrowly. Likewise, the remedies to the problems can cripple existing cities with great infill development potential, pushing more development to the suburbs.
Putting these issues into the larger context is a must. And given the large costs involved, Federal assistance is likely the only realistic option. That’s not to absolve cities of their responsibility – small scale projects and efforts to reduce runoff and improve infrastructure are vital. The Feds need partners in these enterprises, not just people grabbing the cash.