Part 1 of 3: Fort Wayne Underground

Major improvements underway to city’s sewer system

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – In 2008, the City of Fort Wayne and the Environmental Protection Agency reached an agreement that mandated Fort Wayne to  drastically lessen the amount of sewage dumped in local waterways. Some of that work has already been completed, and much more is still planned.

Over the next few days, NewsChannel 15 will look at the project, not only the financial cost, but also how the water quality will improve.

In 1972, the EPA started looking at ways to enforce the Clean Water Act, which, according to the EPA’s website, “establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters.”

Click here to read more about the Clean Water Act.

“From 1972 to 1994, the EPA worked on a series of orders on how to get this done,” Kumar Menon, the Director of Fort Wayne Utilities, said.  “In 1994 or 1995, the EPA came to us and said it’s our turn.”

In April of 2008, the EPA and the City of Fort Wayne signed an agreement, which put the city on a federal mandate in the form of a consent decree, requiring the city to make major improvements to its sewer system and the amount of raw sewage the city’s combined sewers release into the rivers by 91 percent.

In June, Environment America released a study that said Indiana was the worst state in the nation for water pollution.  Click here to read more about that study.

This map shows the communities in Indiana and across the country that are dealing with CSOs.  (Courtesy: US EPA)
This map shows the communities in Indiana and across the country that are dealing with CSOs. (Courtesy: US EPA)

Combined sewers are sewer systems where sanitary sewage and storm water uses the same pipe lines. During wet-weather events, some untreated sewage flows directly into waterways because the sewer system can’t take on any more water.

“We did spend quite a bit of time negotiating with the regulatory agencies, with the EPA and IDEM, to come up with the right plan and the right schedule to address what is an unfunded mandate,” said Matt Wirtz, Fort Wayne’s Deputy Director Engineering.

Fort Wayne is one of more than 100 Indiana communities with combined sewers, and more than 700 communities nationwide.

“There isn’t anything wrong with the sewer systems we have now,” Dan Wire, the director of the Tri-State Watershed Alliance, said. “They are functioning as they were designed. However, as society moves on, we have greater expectations. Looking at our rivers as an economic engine for our community, we need to update how our sewer systems operate.”

The agreement gives the city until 2025 to reach its goal. Over that 18-year span, the city will work to reduce its raw sewage entering Fort Wayne’s waterways from an average of one-billion gallons annually to 100-million gallons in a typical year.

“Our agreement with the EPA is to reduce the overflow of 72 times a year to less than four times a year,” said Wirtz. “That means a river can only be impacted four times a year.”

There are 43 spots where untreated sewage dumps into the city’s waterways. “Most of the pipes, when we are done, those overflow points probably won’t discharge,” said Wirtz.

The affected waterways are:

  • The Maumee River
  • The St. Joseph River, south of Coliseum Boulevard
  • The St. Mary’s River, north of Tillman Park
  • Spy Run Creek south of State Boulevard
  • Two small Maumee River tributaries: Baldwin Ditch and Harvester Drain
  • Wayne Natural drain #4, at St. Mary’s River tributary that drains neighborhoods northeast of Tillman Park

The Allen County Partnership for Water Quality has been closely watching the work the city has planned. Matt Jones, a water resource education specialist at the ACPWQ said the improvements will make Fort Wayne a more attractive community.

“With better water quality, people will want to buy here. They’ll want to move their business here,” said Jones. “We will have a reduced smell after huge rain events. It’s a boom to recreation.”

A cup of water from the St. Joseph River.  Picture taken on Friday, June 20.
A cup of water from the St. Joseph River. Picture taken on Friday, June 20.

Jones spoke with NewsChannel 15 along the shores of the St. Joseph River in the middle of June.  That day, Jones grabbed a sample of the river’ water, which had a green tint.

“The green tint isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” said Jones. “Our rivers would normally be running a little green, and less brown, if they were in ideal condition. They will never be blue because that is not the kind of rivers we have.

“Blue rivers don’t carry a lot of life forms in them. They’re not very biologically diverse. Our rivers are very biologically diverse. They have to have food in them in order to keep all the organisms alive and doing well.”

The improvements will make for better fishing, and will reduce the amount of blue-green algae in the rivers.

“It’s like being a cook,” stated Jones. “If you start with better ingredients, you’re going to come out with a better product no matter what level of a cook you are. So, the better water quality that is here in the rivers, then the better water quality we’ll be getting through our faucets. Less treatment will have to happen, fewer chemicals in the water, and that’s better for everyone.”

Fort Wayne Utilities is holding a series of open houses and meetings to give residents a chance to ask questions about the federally unfunded requirements, along with what the improvements are, how they’ll be funded, and how they’ll impact sewer rates.  Some meetings have already taken place.  The rest of the schedule is:

Public Meeting

  • Monday July 14 – 6:30 p.m., Northrop High School – Bruin Room, enter through door #3, 7001 Coldwater Road

Open House Opportunities

  • Thursday July 10 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Dupont Library, 536 East Dupont Road
  • Tuesday July 15 from 6 to 8 p.m., Waynedale Library, 2200 Lower Huntington Road
  • Thursday July 17 from 5 to 7 p.m., Tecumseh Library, 1411 E. State Blvd.

Check back at WANE.com on Thursday for more on this story, when we look at the cost of the project, and explain some of the specific improvements that are being done.

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