Blueprint Columbus aims to solve sewer issues in the Hilltop

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By Christine Bryant
Staff Writer

Hilltop residents will have the opportunity at two upcoming meetings to learn more about a program designed to solve sanitary sewer overflow problems in the area.

Blueprint Columbus, a city-wide initiative, is an effort to stop rainwater from entering the sanitary sewer system through redirection and infrastructure improvements.

Throughout the city, pipes in the system have begun showing signs of their aging. When heavy rain occurs, the sanitary sewer system fills up beyond its capacity, producing overflow into rivers or back-ups into basements. Program leaders also say foundation drains that connect directly to the sanitary sewer have contributed to the problem.

City leaders have identified the entire Hilltop area as a priority for Blueprint, with the Hilltop divided into four project areas. Westgate, identified as “Hilltop 1” in the project, will be one of the next areas of focus for green infrastructure improvements.

“While backups can occur for a variety of reasons, most do occur during heavy rainfall events when the sanitary sewer system becomes overloaded with excess rainwater entering the sewer system through cracks and leaky joints,” said Leslie Westerfelt, spokesperson for the city’s Department of Public Utilities and Blueprint program. “Under Blueprint, we expect to see more than a 99 percent reduction in back-ups occurring from the problem of excess rainwater entering the system.”

Project leaders have divided Westgate into two sub-project areas, Palmetto-Westgate and Eureka Fremont. Upcoming meetings in each of the areas will provide residents with the opportunity to learn more about the infrastructure improvements planned to stop rainwater from entering the sanitary sewer system.

The meetings will take place:
• 6 to 7:30 p.m., Oct. 9, Parkview Methodist Church, 344 S. Algonquin Ave.
• 6 to 7:30 p.m., Oct. 10, Burroughs Elementary School, 551 S. Richardson Ave.

Addressing the source

Key to the initiative is the goal of using green infrastructure instead of building larger sanitary sewer tunnels to meet the challenges of complying with both stormwater regulations and the elimination of sewer overflows.

“The primary benefit of Blueprint over traditional solutions of building bigger tunnels is that Blueprint will address the problem at its source, by stopping the rainwater from getting into our system in the first place,” Westerfelt said. “Building large tunnels would essentially build new infrastructure to compensate for the problems with our existing residential infrastructure – which would continue to degrade over time.”

Westerfelt, who also is a Westgate resident, said four pillars – green infrastructure, lateral lining, roof water redirection and sump pumps – provide solutions that meet these challenges.

The Hilltop 1 project area will incorporate all four of these pillars, she said.

“Neighborhoods differ mostly in what types of green infrastructure are implemented,” she said. “The locations, design and type of green infrastructure – rain gardens vs. pervious pavement, etc. – are determined by a neighborhood’s existing infrastructure and needs.”

Investing locally

Westerfelt says the alternative, building larger overflow tunnels, would require specialized equipment and processes, causing expenditures for that project to largely flow straight out of Columbus.

“Blueprint is able to keep that money closer to home, by using smaller local or regional contractors, suppliers, nurseries, etc.,” she said. “Maintenance of the green infrastructure, which will be the responsibility of the city, will create long-term employment opportunities in Columbus.”

Westerfelt said the city expects to spend close to $120 million on the Hilltop portion of the project, though she says there will be no direct cost to residents.

“Costs to perform this work will be paid from the city’s sewer utility fund, which is funded by sewer bills from all rate payers,” she said.

The Hilltop also will see additional benefits from these green infrastructure changes, Westerfelt said.

“Blueprint has unique opportunities to turn vacant parcels of land, which may currently be neighborhood blights, into green spaces that become neighborhood amenities,” she said.

“These locations, depending on the site conditions, are excellent opportunities for neighborhoods to collaborate with Blueprint on installing some neighborhood art or sharing the space for a community garden.”

These sites also can be used for green infrastructure and environmental education for nearby schools, she said.

Aside from these private property benefits, Westerfelt says residents may see an increase in pollinators through rain gardens that use native plantings, and some areas of the Hilltop that already see extreme flooding will have their storm sewers upsized to help water drain faster in extreme rain events.

“Some of that work is already under way,” she said.

Blueprint Columbus completed the first project area, in Clintonville, this past spring.

Though Westerfelt says it is too early to truly assess outcomes, The Ohio State University is conducting an evaluation study to determine the impact of green infrastructure on water quality, biodiversity or the impact to bugs and birds, home values and neighborhood quality of life.

In fact, Clintonville residents report seeing an increase in birds and butterflies visiting their neighborhoods, she said.

“We will share these results with the public as they become available,” she said.

Looking ahead

For the Hilltop 1 area, organizers expect to begin construction in early 2021, Westerfelt said.

“Right now, we are in our design phase, where the engineers are evaluating green infrastructure solutions for the neighborhoods,” she said.

At the public meetings next month, residents can learn about how this green infrastructure works, hear about what the engineers are proposing for the area and provide feedback, she said.

“The team will take this feedback and evaluate any necessary modifications to the plan,” she said. “We will share final plans with the neighborhood before completion, and will hold a pre-construction public meeting to review specific construction processes and impacts before shovels go into the ground.”

Over the next few weeks, Westerfelt said teams will be out marking green infrastructure locations in the field so that residents can see how their neighborhoods will be impacted.

For more information on Blueprint Columbus, go to columbus.gov/blueprint.

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