Sewer district grants send green infrastructure dollars to Cleveland neighborhoods

The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District offers reimbursement grants of up to $250,000 to green infrastructure projects that help manage excess stormwater. Proponents say the projects can add greenery and defray construction costs.
Waterloo Arts recently utilized a green infrastructure grant from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District to build a green roof at their headquarters. (Photo by Adam Dew)

Amy Callahan, executive director of the Waterloo Arts nonprofit, understands that Collinwood is not exactly known for its resplendent greenery. Outside the odd grass-covered lot, the East Side Cleveland neighborhood is your typical concrete jungle.

To help change the landscape – as well as reduce the stormwater flowing into the region’s combined-sewer system – Waterloo Arts recently utilized a green infrastructure grant from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD). The $232,435 award funded a new vegetative roof system at the nonprofit’s headquarters, along with an underground cistern to harvest stormwater runoff from the redesigned roof.

“The project prolongs the life of the roof, because it’s covered with plants that protect the entire roof layer,” said Callahan. “It’s also providing food for pollinators.”

Reducing stormwater runoff

Green roofs are just one facet of environmental infrastructure NEORSD is spreading throughout its combined-sewer service region. Bioretention areas, permeable pavement, and rainwater harvesting are also aimed at transforming the face of Cleveland’s neighborhoods one grant at a time.

These projects reduce the potential for flooding and eroded stream banks that can happen when sewers are overwhelmed during heavy storms. Stormwater-related impacts of pollution and waterborne illness can also be alleviated when water management features are reintroduced into the region’s built environments.  

 “We’re trying to mimic the natural processes lost because of urbanization,” said Christopher Hartman, a stormwater technical specialist with NEORSD. “It’s about recreating those processes that filter and source stormwater.”

Grants are available in cities with combined sewers, a system that carries both storm and sanitary sewage through the same pipe. During heavy storms, the volume of wastewater can exceed system capacity, leading to discharge into nearby streams and rivers. Cities in NEORSD’s service area with combined sewers include parts of Cleveland, Lakewood, Brooklyn, Newburgh Heights, Cuyahoga Heights, Garfield Heights, Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, and East Cleveland, and all of Linndale.

A typical bioretention area – also known as a bioretention cell or rain garden – uses soil, plants, and microbes to treat runoff. Shallow depressions are filled with soil, mulch, and dense vegetation, capturing runoff absorbed into plants or drained into groundwater.

Three bioretention cells planned as part of a Shaker Heights traffic calming project, for example, will collect runoff from the roadway and adjacent properties. The green development – recently awarded a $221,000 grant by NEORSD – is also set to reduce traffic speed and volume by narrowing traffic lanes at Scottsdale Boulevard and Chelton Road.

A typical rainwater harvesting system, meanwhile, collects and stores rainwater in barrels as well as more sophisticated structures such as pumps, tanks, and purification systems. New cisterns at the City of Cleveland’s animal control department divert rainwater from the roof for irrigation and animal control vehicle washing, according to NEORSD. 

How funding works

Last year, the sewer district awarded $1.5 million in infrastructure grants, matching that figure this year with the 12 projects slated for 2022. Since the program’s 2014 inception, NEORSD has allocated $10.7 million to projects that have captured 32.5 million gallons of total annual stormwater runoff. Alongside these efforts, the sewer district has spent billions of dollars on seven storage tunnels to mitigate issues around combined-sewer overflow. 

Grant funding for infrastructure programming derives from sanitary sewer fees collected by NEORSD. While the grant program began with funding small-scale stormwater ventures, like a 2,000-gallon cistern in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood, it has since evolved into “bigger and badder” developments capping out at $250,000 for individual grants, said Hartman. 

Funds are open to member communities as well as government entities, nonprofit organizations, and businesses partnering with communities in combined-sewer areas.  Applicants must maintain approved projects and generate revenue for their upkeep, with grants offered as reimbursements for construction and maintenance work already achieved. Participants can also apply for multiple reimbursement requests should the need arise.

“The people installing the projects are expected to help them remain in place,” said 

Jessica Cotton, NEORSD’s grant program administrator. “They should have funding in line, and the capabilities of carrying out design and construction.”

Participants may receive additional time or small funding extensions should their projects encounter supply chain issues or other unforeseen circumstances.

Typically, grantees must fund their own projects, and then grants act as reimbursements. However, grant candidates can manage upfront construction costs by making a design-only request for a grant. Successful applicants then have a year to raise money for physical development with the reassurance that their outlay will be reimbursed after construction. The application process lasts from July through mid-September, with funding authorization decided before year’s end. Cotton said NEORSD receives between 15-20 applications annually and generally accepts 10-12 each year.

The green wall at the cafe at Waterloo Arts is watered by rainwater harvested through green infrastructure funded by a Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District grant. (Photo by Amy Callahan)

A boon for small nonprofits

Callahan of Waterloo Arts started the grant process in fall 2020, receiving a funding extension to complete a fence reinstallation and a few other minor details around the organization’s green infrastructure project. 

Phase one of the plan transformed a second-story roof into a green roof system, with runoff collected by a cistern in an adjacent alley. As a small nonprofit, Waterloo had struggled to obtain capital funding for a roof replacement. Considering the grant required raising money for project expenses, Callahan worried about coming up with enough funding to qualify.

“Foundations were giving out general operational funding because of COVID,” said Callahan. “Through that, we had enough flexibility at the bank to help pay for this. We were also lucky the upper roof only needed modular trays without structural support. That’s one of the hurdles that can get addressed in terms of making this a more accessible grant for smaller organizations.”

The next phase of the Waterloo project involved a vertical “green wall” with different types of plants or greenery attached. Located in the building’s café, the wall features built-in irrigation and utilizes biophilic design, a system integrating natural materials into man-made environments. 

“With fewer projects going to small nonprofits like ours, this [grant] is an important example for people on how it can be done,” Callahan said. “It’s helping us get the word out about a fun project that people are interested in.” 

Sewer district officials are currently considering alternative and supplemental funding to offset the need for upfront capital from project participants. In the meantime, they are excited to manage stormwater at its source, while continuing to integrate green infrastructure on a neighborhood scale.  

“It’s a mindset change, too,” said Hartman, the stormwater specialist. “Green infrastructure is a new concept for our area. Not only does it address stormwater issues, it can provide habitats or bring shade to parts of Cleveland with depleted canopy cover. It’s about getting people to buy in or be aware of green infrastructure.”

This article is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.

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