Record rainfall this summer didn’t deter the city of Fort Wayne from hitting its goal to keep sewage out of the St. Joseph River.
Officials stood on the banks of the St. Joseph to celebrate a benchmark Tuesday: With $12 million spent – part of the city’s investment in federally mandated improvement projects – sewer overflows affecting the St. Joseph River have been reduced to just one a year, down from the 13 that typically occurred before.
And the benchmark was reached at least four years ahead of schedule, city officials said.
Along with Mayor Tom Henry, Kumar Menon, director of City Utilities, and Matthew Wirtz, deputy director for engineering, were neighbors and activists who praised the city’s work in reducing waste and preventing it from reaching the city’s waters.
Although the St. Joseph River benchmark was reached first, the city still has until 2025 to complete a 5-mile-long tunnel, 12 to 16 feet in diameter, to comply with federal mandates to reduce the city’s overall overflows to five from the 71 a year, among other improvements. Construction on the tunnel is scheduled to begin in 2017 and be finished in 2023.
Overflows occur when high water volumes, such as what might occur during heavy rainfall, back up the city’s combined sewer system, causing it to alleviate the excess pressure by discharging into the rivers. Fort Wayne has received a record 21.5 inches of rain this summer, breaking the previous record of 18.7 inches in 1986. Summer rainfall is measured from June 1 through Aug. 31.
In Fort Wayne, the St. Joseph River and the St. Marys River combine at Headwaters Park to create the Maumee River, which flows northeastward to Lake Erie.
"How often do you find folks saying you are ahead of time and under budget?" Menon asked to the crowd.
Many cities are under federal mandate to keep sewage from reaching U.S. waterways, but Fort Wayne had already invested about $90 million in improvement projects that separated sewage from rainwater when it signed a consent decree with the federal government in 2008. With those improvements, the overall projected cost of the entire project was estimated at $240 million, instead of the $500 million experts had estimated, officials said.
While other cities are "at loggerheads" with the federal government, activist David Kohli said at the news conference, "The fact was we had to pay for this."
A local advisory board asked the city to increase its sewer rates, and by doing it "on our own terms, we could do it cheaper," said Kohli, a resident of northeast Fort Wayne.
"The EPA accepted everything that was done to separate the combined sewer system," he said, referring to the projects done between 1997 and 2007.
Projects finished before the consent decree included the McMillen Park Reservoir and Camp Scott wetlands, both of which took pressure off existing pipes, Wirtz said.
Since 2008, the $12 million the city has pumped into neighborhood projects along the St. Joseph River has saved 500 homes from basement backups and street flooding and kept 16 million gallons of overflow out of the river, officials said Tuesday.
Pam Porter lives on Somerset Lane, which runs parallel to St. Joe River Drive. She had to put up with construction equipment parking on both sides of her street, the mayor said during the news conference.
But Porter shrugged off the inconvenience, saying there were no more street floodings where she lived, and "everyone in the neighborhood and surrounding area is very happy about that."
For members of the Sewer Advisory Board, renamed the Utilities Advisory Board, it is one step in a 20-year process that has kept them attending meetings and taking pride in the progress Fort Wayne has made.
Waynedale resident Beulah Matczak, who joined the board in 2004, said she realized how the process worked once she got involved.
Many people she talks to can’t understand why the storm sewer work hadn’t been done years before. "It’s now we need to step up to the plate," she said she tells them. "You can’t expect the city to do everything."