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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Dunigan Bros employees separate storm sewers and sewers on Laverne Avenue. The project will keep 15.6 million gallons of overflow from entering the Maumee River each year.

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette Stacy Haviland, a city landscape architect, shows off the rain garden in front of Lakeside Middle School. Rain gardens are designed to reduce runoff into the rivers.

  • Photo by Pam George To help make the rivers more accessible, volunteers from the children’s zoo cleared brush recently from the banks of the St. Joseph River.

Sunday, August 06, 2017 1:00 am


Cleaner air, water are worth the cost

At a glance

Highlights of a survey of Indiana residents for the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust:

• 71 percent agreed: “The federal government needs to do more to combat climate change.”

• 63 percent agreed: “Climate change is one of the most serious problems facing the world today.”

• 25 percent said: “Climate change is a made-up problem and does not need to be addressed.”

• 90 percent of respondents were “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about pollution in rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

• 84 percent said they were very or somewhat concerned about greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

The survey was conducted in March by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. The 800 registered voters surveyed were selected to match the party, age, gender and race demographics of Indiana voters.

A new survey that shows overwhelming support for pro-environmental policies in Indiana might surprise some, but fighting pollution has been viewed positively in Fort Wayne for a long time.

Indiana consistentlyranks low in state ratings for water and air pollution, we have no shortage of politicians who rail against job-killing anti-pollution regulations, and the federal government is in the process of making deep cuts in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget.

In this city, however, broad and consistent support for the campaign to clean up our rivers would seem to confirm the findings of a recently released statewide poll taken for the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

In the survey of 800 registered voters, 71 percent agreed with this statement:

“Protecting the environment should be given priority even at the risk of slowing economic growth.”

Ninety percent of those surveyed said they were very concerned or somewhat concerned about pollution in rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Eighty-four percent were very or somewhat concerned with protection of the state's wildlife. And 76 percent of those surveyed were very or somewhat concerned about greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

None of this is a surprise to those who have followed Fort Wayne's long and ambitious efforts to clean up the St. Joseph, St. Marys and Maumee rivers.

Fort Wayne is one of hundreds of U.S. cities with combined-sewer systems carrying both stormwater and sewage to treatment plants. When rain clogs that system, the overflow ends up in the river – or in basements.

In 2007, the city signed an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce that combined sewer overflow rate. The cost was pegged at $240 million in 2005 dollars, said City Utilities CFO Justin Brugger; factoring in inflation, the price tag when the project ends in 2025 will be $361.7 million. 

“The environmental investments in Fort Wayne have been significant, and we have not wavered from that,” said City Utilities Director Kumar Menon, who said he was not surprised by the recent survey findings. From the beginning, the community has been supportive of the massive project despite the fact it will mean steady increases in sewer rates, Menon said. He credits much of that support to the early work of an advisory board of “neighborhood leaders, community-oriented people who want us to fix the problems.”

“They told us, 'Do the right thing, even if it's expensive,' ” Menon said. “When it came time to ask the council for support, we had an overwhelming number of people who spoke in favor of this.”

That support continues, as City Utilities found during neighborhood meetings this spring ahead of the launch of the project's most ambitious and costly feature: the $187.7 million deep water tunnel that will be as deep as 240 feet and will carry combined-sewer water from a large swath of the city to the treatment plant. The often-divided council voted unanimously to approve it preliminarily, and the big dig began June 15.

Already, the effort is paying off. In 2015, the city announced annual sewer overflows along the St. Joseph had been reduced from 13 to one. When the tunnel system becomes operational in 2021, the number of combined sewer overflows on the St. Marys and the Maumee is expected to drop from 70 a year to four, and the amount of untreated water entering the rivers directly from sewers and other discharge points should be reduced by more than 90 percent.  Increased capacity at the sewage treatment plant has drastically reduced overflows there. “Since 2009, we've reduced discharges (from the wastewater treatment plant ponds) by about a billion gallons per year,” said Matthew Wirtz, deputy director of City Utilities.

The economic benefits of all this work are beginning to register, as well. Cutting sewer overflows already means 18,000 homes will no longer have basement backups that could cost homeowners as much as $20,000, Menon said, and tunnel construction will create 4,500 local construction jobs over the next four and a half years.

That, of course, doesn't count the real payoff – when efforts to clean up water pollution dovetail with riverfront development to make the rivers a destination point for a city on the upswing.

But Fort Wayne's experience has not been unique, Menon said. Other Midwestern cities facing even larger pricetags to control water pollution are getting similar support from citizens.

“We are consistently hearing the same message,” he said. People want to know that pollution control is working and that it makes economic sense. If so, Menon said, they say, “keep investing.”