Fort Wayne's most ambitious effort to enhance development and improve quality of life is largely invisible on a day-to-day basis. We're referring, of course, to the ongoing effort to reduce river pollution, protect homes and neighborhoods and encourage growth by upgrading the city's sewer system. Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent on the project, laid out in a consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Justice Department that city officials signed in 2007.
We are now in the 13th year of the 18-year plan laid out by Fort Wayne City Utilities and funded by stair-stepped increases that, taken together, have been considerable. Since 2014, rates have gone up by 49%; the average residential customer has a monthly bill of $43.64.
It's significant, though, that even as the project has hit each of its goals, the department has used a combination of cost-saving strategies to hold down those predicted rate increases. The final schedule of increases City Council is being asked to approve will bring that average bill to $53.69 by 2024 – another 23% increase. But the plan previously called for raising average monthly rates as much as $73 a month by then.
As those bills gradually increased, there has been steady progress in reducing the overflows and backups that have befouled our rivers and homeowners' basements for decades. Fort Wayne, like many other cities, has relied on a single system that conveyed both excess stormwater and raw sewage to the city's treatment plants. Even a moderate rainstorm can overload that system and cause backups and overflows.
The first two phases of the sewer project involved repairing and replacing aging pipes and greatly increasing the city's capacity to store and treat wastewater. City Utilities officials say the work to date has reduced river pollution from the Fort Wayne system by a billion gallons a year and protected 33,000 homes that were vulnerable to backups.
Though there are still an average 71 combined sewer overflows annually along the St. Marys and Maumee rivers, progress has been dramatic along the St. Joseph River, which used to be hit with an average of 13 overflows a year. “We have now gone nearly three years without an overflow on the St. Joe,” an informational video on the project by City Utilities says.
Progress can be measured in other ways as well. Increased water and sewer capacity played a role in the development of Parkview Hospital's north campus, the General Motors expansion and the Walmart milk plant, officials say, and the modernized system will be crucial to the city's further growth. More than 14,000 jobs have been created or supported by the wastewater projects, the city estimates.
The centerpiece of the project's final phase is completion of a backup system more than 200 feet below ground that will reduce combined sewer overflow problems by at least 90%. A 400-foot-long tunnel-boring machine affectionately named MamaJo is now more than a mile into its 5-mile dig.
The rate increases for the $380 million final phase will again be stairstepped in. This year's monthly bills would increase by $2.39; next year's would go up by $2.32. The final increase would be in 2024, and the project would be done by the following year. City Utilities officials say the system will be large and modern enough to meet Fort Wayne's needs and the uncertainties of climate change for the next 100 years.
As this community seems to have understood from the beginning, the project is pricey but necessary. The commitment to upgrading its sewer system goes hand in hand with the renewed role our rivers are playing in the city's identity. Sewer backups are becoming a thing of the past for more and more Fort Wayne homes and neighborhoods. And the system's increased capacity will help the city lure more industry. Approving this last leg of the effort should be an easy decision for the council.
To learn more
To view a City Utilities video on the sewer project, go to cityoffortwayne.org/consentdecree12-years-complete.
The city has scheduled two more public meetings on the project:
• Thursday at 6 p.m. in the Bishop Luers High School Media Center,333 E. Paulding Road (enter through door No. 1).
• Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. in the Omni Room, in the basement of Citizens Square, 200 E. Berry St. (parking north of building).