Op-ed: Next Executive has opportunity to make Cuyahoga County a leader on water issues

Crystal M.C. Davis of Alliance for the Great Lakes advocates for strong action from Cuyahoga County’s next chief executive to ensure that clean, safe, affordable drinking water is available to all.
A quiet morning view of Lake Erie from Wendy Park. (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane/Alliance for the Great Lakes)

The month of September is a marker for many things — the unofficial end of summer, the start of the new school year, and (for better or worse) the kick-off of pumpkin spice season. But, more than anything, this time of year marks the final countdown to Election Day, when campaigns are kicking into high gear and lawn signs are as ubiquitous as Spirit Halloween stores. 

As the Vice President of Policy and Strategic Engagement at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, one of the questions I am going to have top of mind when I step into the voting booth this November is how the candidates plan to address the challenges our city and state faces when it comes to our most precious resource: water.

As I pointed out in a piece in The Plain Dealer last year in the run-up to the Cleveland mayoral election, it’s a travesty that Clevelanders and many northeast Ohioans live within miles of one of the world’s richest freshwater resources, yet many residents still don’t have access to clean, safe, affordable drinking water. Sharp water rate increases in recent years have put an undue burden on residents during an already difficult time, with low-income folks feeling these impacts most acutely and disproportionately.

In addition to the struggles with water affordability, northeast Ohio also continues to grapple with the health impacts that lead pipes have on residents. In the Cleveland area alone it’s estimated that between 59 and 89 percent of water pipes are potentially made of lead – and while there has been some small progress like replacing lead service lines to daycares, those represent only a tiny fraction of the lead pipes in the city. And to make matters worse, Lake Erie, which provides drinking water to more than 11 million people, is suffering the ongoing effects of toxic algal blooms caused by agricultural runoff pollution. 

While we Ohioans have no shortage of high-profile races to focus on, including the Ohio governor’s race and important congressional races, there is one race you should be following that is likely to have a big impact on our daily lives and addressing these pressing water issues in our communities: the race for Cuyahoga County Executive.

This year marks the first time in eight years that the County Executive seat has been up for grabs because current Executive Armond Budish declined to seek a third term. The two candidates vying for the position—Chris Ronayne, a Democrat and former planning director for the city of Cleveland, and Lee Weingart, a Republican who previously served as Cuyahoga County Commissioner from 1995 to 1997—have a formidable task ahead of them: The County Executive office serves as a direct line to the 1.2 million residents of the county and is entrusted with responsibly managing the county’s budget of over $1.5 billion. Critically, they also serve as a convener, bringing together the 59 mayors and hundreds of local organizations that make up Cuyahoga County to harness the power of the region to lead on developing innovative solutions to our biggest problems. That’s why I’m hopeful that the new County Executive will usher in a period of change and offer innovative solutions to finally tackle the water challenges our county faces and to improve the lives of the folks that live here. 

Last year, in an effort to catalyze an urgent response to our water crisis, over 30 community organizations representing thousands of Clevelanders from across the city’s diverse neighborhoods joined together with the Alliance for the Great Lakes to develop the Cleveland Comprehensive Environmental Policy Platform. The plan includes detailed policy recommendations aimed at addressing our city’s water affordability crisis and helping to ensure water equity, such as banning water shutoffs when a resident is unable to pay, improving water quality through long-needed infrastructure upgrades, reducing contaminants and lead exposure in drinking water, and ensuring that Cleveland’s existing codified ordinances addressing stormwater runoff and drinking and recreational water are consistently enforced.

The next County Executive has an immense amount of power to implement inclusive and equitable solutions like these. Not only can they move forward with specific reforms under their purview, they have the opportunity to work collaboratively with all stakeholders of the county to find ways to address water equity and access issues.

For example: the County Executive appoints someone to a seat on the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District board, which is charged with stewardship of the region’s water resources. In addition to developing its own programs, the County Executive also has the authority to develop complementary resources to support mayors and other elected leaders throughout the county with things like technical assistance, and to craft specialized programs which will improve community education about water issues and help streamline communications between the county government and cities within the county. Outside of drinking water, the county has an important role to play in implementing the Cleveland Harbor Eastern Embayment Resilience Study plan, which is increasing public access to the lakefront for underserved neighborhoods, particularly in Cleveland proper.

With this in mind, as the candidates for County Executive campaign this fall, here are a few of the questions I hope to hear addressed:

  1. Do you commit to banning residential water shutoffs by 2025?
  2. What steps will you take to make sure that residents can afford their bills?
  3. Will you support the creation of a new grant program to provide low-income homeowners with funding for replacement of lead service lines and fixtures in their homes? Will you make in-home water testing more available to residents?
  4. How will you work collaboratively with all stakeholders in the county to address water policy issues?
  5. How will you ensure that diversity, equity, inclusion and justice are centered in the work of the county?

Clevelanders will remember that the County Executive role was established in direct response to the scandal wrought by former County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora’s indictment on federal corruption charges in an effort to restore a sense of trust and accountability between voters and the leaders charged with protecting their interests and well-being. The next County Executive bears great responsibility to get things done and to do so with integrity, transparency, and input from key stakeholders. They should also expect to be held accountable when they don’t.

Given that the charter also explicitly calls for “an improved focus on equity for all our communities and citizens,” I can think of no better way to evaluate the candidates than closely examining how each of them will choose to tackle our county’s complex and pressing water issues. I’ll be watching closely this fall, and I urge my fellow Clevelanders to do the same. 

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