Working to find actionable solutions to the nation's key challenges.

How Partnerships Can Help Fix America’s Water Infrastructure

Avon Lake, Ohio

Challenges: relatively small population; loss of major employer; expensive wastewater regulations

Background 

Located on the northern Ohio shores of Lake Erie, the City of Avon Lake has a population of approximately 24,000 people. The city operates a community water system and treatment works. The joint utility is managed by a board independent of the city council. In addition to the retail service it provides for its 24,000 residents, Avon Lake also provides service to 200,000 people living in adjoining towns spread out over 680 square miles. Avon Lake is an example of how a small system can maximize its resources, create efficiencies, and meet not just its own needs but those of other communities.

The original Avon Lake Water Filtration Plant was built in 1926 to serve the city’s then-1,200 residents. The city’s wastewater utility came online in 1960. The distribution and collection services were consolidated in 1960 into a combined water and sewer system for the city, which today comprises approximately 250 miles of water and sewer mains.

In 1956, Avon Lake answered a request from the city of Avon, to its south, to purchase water from Avon Lake. At that time, Avon Lake had integrated the wholesale of treated water into their system operations, providing water to the Village of Sheffield, Sheffield Lake, North Ridgeville, Medina, and the County of Medina. Today, the plant also supplies water to the Rural Lorain County Water Authority, which serves areas of rural Lorain County and the Villages of LaGrange, Sheffield, Grafton, Kipton, and Spencer. These towns use 85 percent of the water produced by Avon Lake.

Innovations 

On average, residents of rural communities pay three to four times more for water and wastewater services, compared to residents in urban areas. However, combining operations, management, or procurement with adjoining systems can bring down costs, and lead to reduced rates without impacting quality or safety. As noted by EPA in its 2017 report, partnerships enable systems to improve public health protection. According to Avon Lake Regional Water, its contracts with other communities’ utilities enable it to keep costs down. Today, Avon Lake touts having some of the lowest water and wastewater rates in the state, with the typical drinking water bill at less than half of the state’s average.  

Avon Lake Service Area

Source: Avon Lake
Source: Avon Lake

Avon Lake has a long history of innovation, including:  

  • One of the first Ohio systems to fluoridate its water supplies; 
  • The first system in Ohio to deploy a high-rate filtration system, saving millions of dollars in construction costs; 
  • Applied innovate methods to prevent zebra mussels, an invasive species to the Great Lakes, from obstructing raw water intakes; and
  • Utilized clean energy such as wind, gas, and biosolids, to power a portion of their plants. 
Avon Lake touts having some of the lowest water and wastewater rates Ohio. 

Drinking Water 

As Avon Lake upgraded its drinking water system to combat emerging contaminants, Avon Lake was able to spread the costs of the upgrades beyond its own 24,000 constituents through partnerships with neighboring communities. Without these partnerships, each of those surrounding cities and towns may have had to individually install similar technologies to address the same pollutants.

Like 3 million other Ohioans, the people of Avon Lake and its subsidiary customers get their drinking water from Lake Erie. Notably, Lake Erie is periodically infected by harmful algal blooms, which can carry toxic bacteria. In 2014, blooms in Lake Erie forced the city of Toledo to temporarily close its drinking water system. While the consolidation of systems can provide both uniform and more robust treatment and monitoring services, in the event of contaminant outbreak, it can also limit the built-in levels of redundancy that exist in a multiple systems environment.

Avon Lake Service Area

Source: NASA MODIS, August 2014.
Source: NASA MODIS, August 2014.

Wastewater 

Of the wastewater treated by Avon Lake, just 15 percent originates outside of Avon Lake. The city is operating under a 2004 consent decree with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to address its combined sewer overflows by 2020, which Avon Lake estimates will require $35 million. Additionally, the city will need to commit an additional $35 million to update the system because of deficiencies due to age, and $10 million to address sanitary sewer overflows. Unlike the drinking water infrastructure upgrades, where the costs can be spread across both the immediate user base and the wholesale customers, Avon Lake must directly absorb the costs for the needed wastewater improvements.  

In 2017 Avon Lake implemented an innovative “Lateral Loan Program” to provide low-interest financing for private property owners to repair and replace their sewer connections. Capitalized by a $5 million loan at zero interest from Ohio EPA, Avon Lake is able to offer low-interest loans up to $4,000 for customer repairs and replacements on their private property. As the loans are repaid to Avon Lake, and Avon Lake repays Ohio EPA, the low-interest rate paid by the private property owners can be placed in a revolving loan program, which will allow Avon Lake to provide more financing opportunities for future efforts.

Takeaway

By creating regional partnerships, centered on the distribution and wholesale of water, Avon Lake has been able to maintain affordability and upgrade its drinking water system.