Part 2 of 3: Fort Wayne Underground

Fort Wayne mandated to spend $240 million to clean rivers, improve sewer system

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – Work has already begun to improve the cleanliness of the three rivers that run through Fort Wayne.  The city has until 2025 to clean the water by 90 percent, and will spend more than $240 million on the work.

In 2008, Fort Wayne reached a settlement, which put the city on a federal mandate in the form of a consent decree to make major improvements to its sewer system and reduce combined sewer overflows by 91 percent.  The work must be completed by the end of 2025.

In an average year, approximately one-billion gallons of untreated sewage dumps into the city’s waterways.  By the end of 2025, the average has to be down to 100-million gallons.  To get to that goal, the city will spend at least $240 million on sewer improvement projects.  The final amount spent is expected to be higher than $240 million, due to inflation.

“This was the best plan with the highest return on investment,” said Matt Wirtz, Fort Wayne’s Deputy Director of Engineering, who added that guaranteeing all untreated sewage would not make its way into the rivers would be too costly.  “On the remaining overflows, the cost was significantly higher, and there were diminishing returns on trying to actually reduce those overflows.”

The combination of projects will not only address reducing combined sewer overflows (CSO), but will also reduce basement backups, enhance maintenance, and improve and rehab an aging sewer system.

Fort Wayne is required to update the EPA every six months about the progress of the work.  Deadlines must be met or the city could face fines.

“The first part of our solution was to increase the capacity of our wastewater treatment plant,” said Wirtz.

Work on the plant began in 2008, and to date, the city has spent over $65 million at the plant so far.  A spokesperson with Fort Wayne Utilities said part of the expense was for ongoing maintenance at the plant on Dwenger Avenue, but the majority of it was due to EPA requirements and the city’s Long Term Control Plan.

The plant’s two largest projects are under construction right now and won’t be done until 2015.  Those projects will raise the plant’s capacity from 60 million gallons a day (mgd) to 85 mgd.  As of July 2, the city’s capacity was at 70 mgd.

Once the work is complete, it will allow the city to treat an additional one billion gallons of water a year, compared to the plant’s capacity in 2008.

The city has also invested over $25 million in partial sewer separation projects, which does not include similar work before 2008.  Sewer separations are where utility workers separate sanitary sewage and storm water into two pipes, which helps reduce basement backups.

“We’ve been doing tons of sewer separation,” Kelly Bajic, a project engineer with Fort Wayne Utilities, said.  “We’re actually ahead of plan on that.  Our consent decree says we’re supposed to be finished by 2018, but we’ve actually made a very big jump on that and we’ve been working very consistently over the last five years.”

The city started working on sewer separations before its agreement with the EPA because it knew it would have to do this work eventually.

“We’ve reduced basement back-ups in 6,500 homes, we think,” said Kumar Menon, the city’s Director of Utilities.  “Over the next 15 years, we will continue to reduce that even further.”

Neighborhoods were partial separation projects have occurred include:

  • Wells Street and Jacobs Avenue
  • Lillian Avenue and Ethel Avenue
  • The Hamilton Park area
  • Kensington Boulevard and State Boulevard
  • Forest Avenue
  • Morton Street Pump Station and Rehabilitation and Pleasant Avenue Stormwater Pump Station
  • McMillen Park neighborhoods around Camp Scott
  • Lexington Avenue south of Rudisill Boulevard
  • Oakdale north of Rudisill Boulevard
  • The Smith Drive and Roosevelt Drive area
  • Kirkwood Park
  • Woodhurst neighborhood
  • Vance Avenue area

    This chart shows how much other cities will spend on their sewer systems.  Date of completion is the date the long-term control plan is, or was, expected to be completed.  (Source:  Indiana Department of Environmental Management)
    This chart shows how much other cities will spend on their sewer to upgrade their systems. Date of completion is the date the long-term control plan is, or was, expected to be completed. (Source: Indiana Department of Environmental Management)

In all, the city has done more than 20 projects regarding sewer separation.  The most recent work is going on the west side of downtown.  The work along Ewing Street is costing the city $6.8 million and will be done over three phases.

The majority of the work will all be done with unfunded dollars, which means sewer rates will be used to pay for the work.

“No one likes rates,” Kumar Menon, the city’s Director of Utilities, said back in late June.  “The challenge with the mandate is we have to pay for them somehow.  There’s no other source to the utility, other than user rates.”  The city receives no taxes for sewer upgrades Menon added.  “What people need to remember is 100 percent of our rates go directly into our projects.  One hundred percent of the rates go to making sure we are enhancing the quality of life.”

The city is in the process of having its second five-year rate increase approved.  The first was approved in 2009.

This five-year rate plan will go through 2019.  If approved as written, a typical Fort Wayne sewer customer, using 5,000 gallons of water, will see an increase in fees by an annual monthly average of $3.44 per month.  That amount will go up each year over the five-year span, equaling an approximately $17.21 increase, compared to now, between 2015 and 2019.

This chart shows sewer rates for Fort Wayne and several other cities in the area, as of December of 2013. (Source: City of Fort Wayne Utilities.)
This chart shows sewer rates for Fort Wayne and several other cities in the area, as of December of 2013. (Source: City of Fort Wayne Utilities.)

“We hope that is something people will invest in to get cleaner rivers and a better quality of life,” Menon said.  “It’ll mean more room for development opportunities, more jobs in the communities in construction projects, and create a pipeline for our kids who are studying here to stay here.

The city has received some financial assistance with the work.  Thanks to the 2009 stimulus package, the city received a $1.5 million grant, and received a $3.5 million State Revolving Fund, as a loan, at a low interest of 3.87 percent.

The biggest single improvement, in both cost and actually reducing overflow, is the Three Rivers Protection and Overflow Reduction Tunnel, also called 3RPORT. Check out WANE.com on Friday to learn more about this project, and get a look at a similar tunnel that is being built in Indianapolis.  NewsChannel 15 is the only Fort Wayne television news outlet to get a tour of the tunnel at the state capitol, so far.

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