The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 6:58 pm

Watershed year for St. Joe River

Dave Gong The Journal Gazette

In what is being described as a milestone year for Fort Wayne City Utilities, one project along the St. Joseph River is particularly important. 

Matthew Wirtz, City Utilities deputy director, said 2015 is an important year for the St. Joseph River, which will achieve compliance with a 2008 consent decree – or legal settlement – with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. 

It’s part of an 18-year, $240 million effort to reduce the number of combined sewer overflows into Fort Wayne’s three rivers – the St. Joseph, St. Marys and the Maumee – from an average of 76 overflows per year to four. The St. Joseph is the first watershed that will reach compliance with the consent decree, Wirtz said. 

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 pressure by discharging into the rivers. 

The St. Joseph River typically overflows 12 to 15 times a year, causing sewers to dump 9 million gallons of wastewater into the river. Through some earlier sewer separation projects, City Utilities has been able to decrease that amount to about 5 million gallons per year.

"All those overflows (on the St. Joseph River) will be reduced to one or less in a typical year," Wirtz said. He said this portion of the project will be completed four years ahead of schedule and is expected to come in significantly under budget. 

Once the project is complete, it’s expected to discharge only about half a million gallons into the river in a typical year – a 97 percent decrease from the current overflow levels. 

The original concept for the improvements along the St. Joseph River were expected to cost about $20 million, Wirtz said. The revised costs, he said, are expected to save the city about $10 million. That money could go to help accelerate other aspects of the long-term control plan. 

City Utilities was able to accelerate the timeline and save money by refining the original long-term control plan developed to deal with the EPA mandates. 

"The long-term control plan was a pretty high-level planning document," Wirtz said. "As you get into engineering and refining and planning, ... you always kind of value engineering that original plan. We found some ways that we were able to get the regulatory agencies to support changing our approach." 

The original plan called for building storage tanks and a small disinfection facility along the St. Joe, Wirtz said.

With the supported changes, the city was able to make improvements at the wastewater treatment plant and build some relief sewers in the neighborhoods, avoiding the need for more storage tanks and a new treatment facility. 

City Utilities’ Wendy Reust said the area of the city where the storage tanks and disinfecting plant were supposed to go is a highly developed residential area, which made it hard to find suitable locations for the tanks. The planned disinfection plant also presented a challenge for maintenance and staffing, she said. 

Instead of using storage tanks, smaller relief sewers installed throughout the neighborhoods will transport the water from the overflow points to large sewer pipes that are used to transport wastewater to the storage ponds at the wastewater treatment plant. 

A diversion structure – used to get water from the sewer line to the storage ponds at the plant during heavy rainfall – is also under construction. 

"This is only operational during wet weather," Reust said. 

The original plan would increase the capacity of the main sewer line in the area around the St. Joseph River to about 78 million gallons per day. The improved plan will increase that capacity to about 94 million gallons per day, Reust said. 

By avoiding the addition of more storage tanks and a disinfectant plant in the neighborhoods along the St. Joseph, City Utilities Director Kumar Menon said the land that would have been used will be available for area residents, instead of "something that’s now barricaded off forever." 

"We want to try to keep land available, and we don’t want to just build treatment plants in places where people have homes," he said. 

More than $100 million was invested to improve the wastewater treatment plant on Dwenger Avenue east of downtown since the mandates were handed down in 2008, Wirtz said.

By the end of next year, the plant needs to be able to handle the treatment of 85 million gallons of wastewater per day. The increased capacity also means the wastewater treatment plant is able to treat several hundred million gallons of water per day that gets stored in large retention ponds near the plant during heavy rainfall. 

Previously, that excess water would discharge from the retention ponds into the rivers. 

"Every year since 2009 or 2010, we’ve been treating about an additional 1 billion gallons of flow that used to discharge out of those ponds, and now we’re able to return it to the plant, and we’ll be able to increase that as this plant capacity goes up," Wirtz said. 

With the improvements, the sewer system’s capacity along the St. Joseph will be adequate for at least the next 20 years.

Over time, Wirtz said, the city will continue to take efforts to manage flow and capacity to try to extend that life as long as possible. 

In addition to improvements along the St. Joseph River, the city’s largest-ever public works investment is also part of the EPA’s consent decree.

A large deep rock tunnel – designed to take the majority of the overflow water away from the St. Marys River to the wastewater treatment plant – will be in the design phase in 2015. The tunnel will roughly follow the St. Mary’s River from the north end of Foster Park about five miles to the treatment plant. 

The tunnel is expected to cost about $150 million. The city plans to put that project up for bids in 2017.

Menon said City Utilities is ahead of schedule on several programs designed to address the federal mandates. The department is under budget on many of those projects, as well, he said. 

"As a result of being under budget, we were able to avoid a rate increase this year for sewer," Menon said. "If you compare us to the other 105 communities in Indiana that have the combined sewer overflow mandates, or across the country at the 770 communities that have these same mandates, I think we would be one of the few that have actually been able to go a whole year without a rate increase." 

Menon said City Utilities was able to avoid a sewer rate increase in 2014 by driving down the costs of consent decree projects through "working better with the engineering firms and by collaborating really well with the construction firms." 

"A consent decree community means you are stuck with some kind of a rate increase," he said. "To be able to go a whole year and not ask the community for any additional resources is a big deal, at least among the communities that have to put up with these mandates."

Share this article

Email story

Subscribe to our newsletters

* indicates required