Sustainable Leadership at the Metropolitan Sewer District

James A. "Tony" Parrott, executive director of the Departments of Water and Sewers

Photogaphy by Wes Battoclette


When you think of leaders of Cincinnati’s most preeminent companies and organizations, you might think of executives of Procter & Gamble, Kroger or other companies. But one name that might not immediately come to mind belongs to someone whose leadership and accomplishments are making ripples across the nation.

James A. “Tony” Parrott heads two of Cincinnati’s most important utilities. He is the executive director of Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) and Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW). Both are renowned for leading innovation in the water and wastewater industries.

“We are a leader among utilities on many levels,” says Parrott, “including workforce development, partnerships on new water technologies and our innovative, sustainable, nationally recognized approach to Consent Decree compliance.”

Parrott is proud not only of what his team has accomplished, but of what generations of GCWW and MSD teams have done.

“Water Works has pioneered advances in water treatment for the past 100 years including rapid-sand filtration, the use of chlorine and granular activated carbon (GAC),” he says. “The utility is the largest water utility in North America to use ultraviolet disinfection following sand filtration and GAC during its treatment process.”

The achievements are leading to recognition across the country. Because of the innovative work and holistic sustainable watershed evaluation process underway in our area, Cincinnati was selected as the host for the 2015 International Water Association Conference. And Parrott and the MSD won the 2014 U.S. Water Prize, which celebrates outstanding achievement in the advancement of sustainable solutions to our nation’s water challenges.

“As I often say, sustainability is creating value in such a way that 20 years from now I can look back and know that the decisions I made back then were in fact good decisions,” says Parrott. “Sustainability is important to me and to MSD because it creates an opportunity for us to use innovative strategies to reduce water pollution, beautify neighborhoods and drive economic development within the communities that we serve.”

Parrott describes the Lick Run watershed, located in the Lower Mill Creek watershed on Cincinnati’s West Side, as an especially significant and large-scale effort in sustainability. “Instead of a traditional large-diameter tunnel,” he explains, “MSD is implementing a sustainable approach with green elements to make an above-ground investmen in the South Fairmount community that can lead to economic growth and neighborhood revitalization.”

The Lick Run Project is impressive in more ways than one. It’s part of MSD’s Lower Mill Creek Partial Remedy (LMCPR). This project alone will eliminate millions of gallons of combined sewer overflows into the Mill Creek each year. The project will improve water quality,and create new jobs.

“The Lick Run project comprises 12 separate projects to collect storm water and natural drainage from the Lick Run watershed and convey or carry it to the Mill Creek,” explains Parrott. “The projects are a mix of ‘green’ and ‘gray’ infrastructure. Green projects include stream restoration and daylighting, wetlands, bioswales, raingardens, stormwater detention basins and other more natural solutions. Gray projects include new storm sewers and other more traditional solutions.” All 12 projects, which started in 2012, are due to be completed by 2018.

Of the 12 projects, one - the central element - is an urban waterway or Valley Conveyance System that will discharge water into the Mill Creek. The other 11 will convey storm water to the urban waterway. 

“The urban waterway includes about one mile of open, naturalized stream channel between Queen City and Westwood avenues, starting around White Street,” says Parrott. “The stream will be constructed with natural stone, pools and riffles and a riparian edge planted with native plants and trees. An underground box conduit system will be constructed underneath the stream channel to carry flow from large rainstorms and help prevent flooding.”

Even though the Lick Run Project is a huge undertaking on its own, it is part of a much larger initiative called Project Groundwork.

MSD is under a federal Consent Decree to reduce combined sewer overflows into area streams and rivers.

During heavy rains, MSD’s sewer system can be overloaded with excessive amounts of storm water and sewage, resulting in overflows into local waterways and sewer backups into homes. The majority of overflows occur from combined sewers, which carry both sewage and storm water in the same pipe. The overflow is called a combined sewer overflow.

Project Groundwork is the solution to that Decree. Parrott says the project is “one of the largest public works projects in the history of our community. This multi-billion and multi-year initiative comprises hundreds of sewer improvement and storm water management projects across Hamilton County.”

According to Parrott, the project includes two phases - one that goes through 2018 and is estimated at $1.146 billion in 2006 dollars, which includes 116 smaller projects, just one of which is the Lower Mill Creek Partial Remedy including the Lick Run Project. Phase two, to follow afte 2018, is estimated at $2.1 billion in 2006 dollars and includes approximately 256 projects that MSD is currently evaluating.

How can MSD afford such expensive improvements? The organization is not receiving any federal or state funds other than grants to pay for Project Groundwork. The Project is funded primarily by MSD customers through monthly or quarterly sewer bills. “MSD worked very hard to negotiate a multi-phased Consent Decree to keep costs down and continues to work on the affordability issue for our fixed-income and lower-income customers,” says Parrott. “MSD also seeks grants and low-interest loans wherever possible.”

MSD is trying to stay on a tight budget for the approximately $3 billion program. The projects undergo a business case evaluation process to ensure that they are cost effective, and they must also meet environmental, social and economic needs of affected communities.

Parrott says the projects will have positive impacts that make the effort worth it. “MSD believes that Project Groundwork will generate new jobs and provide op- portunities for neighborhood revitalization. A recent jobs study for the LMCPR has shown that nearly 900 new construction and trade jobs will be created, predominantly laborers, operators and drivers.”

He also says that executives anticipate “some communities will be able to leverage MSD’s investment in sewer infrastructure improvements to help create better recreational opportunities, improved housing and economic growth through grants, philanthropy and private development.”

What advice does Parrott have for other leaders? “Making significant differences in communities is all about collaboration and partnerships,” he says. “We are at a crossroad in how we lead and innovate across our community. We need to identify and implement game-changing strategies and extend dialogue beyond community boundaries. Water is the foundation of our communities and holds an opportunity to revitalize them through integrated planning, management and implementation of a shared vision.”