Fort Wayne cuts sewage overflows into St. Joseph River

(WANE-TV Photo)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) The city has reduced combined sewer overflows into the St. Joseph River to no more than one per year four years ahead of a federal mandate.

City Utilities staff, river supporters and Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry gathered Tuesday along the river’s banks to celebrate the accomplishment, made possible through a more than $12 million investment into neighborhood projects along the St. Joseph River over the last eight years. The city said the investment has reduced combined sewer overflows from 13 annually to one, keeping 16 million gallons of overflow out of the river and protecting some 500 homes from basement backups and street flooding.

“We discovered that with doing some separation as well as new larger sewer through the neighborhood we were able to lower the cost of that plan and achieve that much quicker than the original plan,” Chief Deputy of City Utilities Matthew Wirtz said.

For a city with 43 locations in the wastewater system that have combined sewer overflow points that discharge raw sewage into the rivers, the accomplishment, early or otherwise, is important, officials said.

“This is a tremendous accomplishment to achieve as we continue to work together to make a meaningful difference for residents, neighborhoods, and businesses,” said Henry. “Our commitment to being good stewards of the environment and our rivers sends a strong message that we value being a leader in providing excellent services and enhancing the quality of life we enjoy in Fort Wayne.”

In 2008, the city agreed to comply with federal and state clean water mandates. Officials said Tuesday that it has met every deadline along the way, and beat the Federal Consent Decree that required it to achieve the one-overflow-per-typical-year status on the St. Joseph River by 2019 by four years.

The city said Tuesday that the fast-tracked work was a sign of its commitment to the rivers and their role in quality of life and lead to economic growth.

“Cleaner rivers are not only a mandate they are the right thing to do,” said Kumar Menon, director of City Utilities. “The community values our rivers and that’s evident by the renewed interest to reconnect and look for new opportunities to incorporate our rivers in our daily lives. We are seeing that unfold with plans to develop along the rivers downtown. Our staff is committed to being good stewards of our resources by protecting them and understands that they are vital to our future.”

And with the success of the overflow reductions in the St. Joseph, the city’s other rivers now stand to benefit.

Officials with City Utilities said that now, planned sewer projects in the Lakeside area and Morton Street to address overflows into the Maumee River, and sewer separation in the Bloomingdale neighborhood that impact the St. Marys River, can get underway several years ahead of schedule. Those neighborhood projects to separate sewers and reduce the risk of sewer backups will come as the city constructs its five-mile-long, 150-feet-deep deep rock tunnel, the largest public works investment in the city’s history. The $180 million project, which will reduce combined sewer overflow into the St. Marys and Maumee rivers by collecting water during and after heavy wet-weather events, will be built between between 2017 and 2023.

“We hope to bid here 2016, 2017. It’s probably a five year construction,” Wirtz said. “We can be done no later than 2025 with this plan.”

As the city work on its end of the bargain, officials said Tuesday the residents can help improve the purity of the rivers, as well, by picking up waste from their pet and making sure to not overspray with fertilizer or weed products. Preventing runoff into waterways have a direct connection to storm drains, officials said. The city will continue to work with farmers and neighbors upstream within the St. Joe Watershed Initiative, they added.

“I grew up in this neighborhood and I know what this river and the whole river was like a few decades ago and it makes me very happy to know that we’ll have a clean river,” resident Pam Porter said about the improvements made at the St. Joe River.

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