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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
A screening building is being added to the outfall structure at the city sewage treatment facility off Lake Avenue.

Sewer upgrades might not pass federal muster

– Fort Wayne sewer customers last week began paying more to wash their dishes or flush the toilet – money that will help the city reduce the amount of sewage gushing into area rivers.

But as City Utilities officials touted their ability to meet goals and complete projects dictated by the federal government, they admit concerns linger about additional and more stringent environmental requirements.

In May 2009, the City Council approved a plan to incrementally raise sewer rates 86 percent through 2013. The fourth annual increase, which took effect July 1, raised bills 9 percent. The average residential customer who uses 5,000 gallons of water a month would pay about $32.37 each month for sewer service with the increase.

The increases were approved to finance millions of dollars in projects to improve the city’s sewer system. Fort Wayne and the federal government finalized an agreement in 2007 requiring the city to spend $240 million upgrading its sewer system.

The intent of the federally mandated sewer projects is to reduce by 90 percent the nearly 1 billion gallons of sewage that flow into area rivers during heavy rains.

Because many of the city’s sewer pipes handle both rainwater and sewage, they exceed capacity during storms, prompting the excess mix of rain and sewage to be piped into the rivers.

Kumar Menon, director of City Utilities, said all the federal deadlines and mandates have been met so far. Those investments include spending millions to upgrade the capacity of the city’s sewer plant from 60 million gallons a day to 85 million gallons a day.

“Each year we’re making significant progress,” he said.

In the past year, the utility completed construction on numerous massive projects: Nearly $6 million for an interceptor pipe along Beckett’s Run, $1.8 million to construct another interceptor pipe just east of Interstate 69 and $750,000 to separate sewers along Pontiac Street are just a few examples.

Interceptor pipes are like the interstate highway of pipes carrying the most sewage. The variance in costs is due to the length of each pipe installed.

Additionally, Menon said the utility is working to increase the amount of sewer pipes it replaces annually. In the past four years, the utility has done nearly 60 miles of sewer pipe replacement.

Menon said a full report on the progress of the federal mandate will be made to the City Council in August.

Unknown costs

Despite all the progress, there are still a few unknowns that could significantly increase costs for the utility.

Fort Wayne has been in negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency for years over whether the federal mandate, known as the consent decree, does enough to clean area rivers. While the city is expected to pay close to $400 million over its 18-year program – the $240 million number is in 2005 dollars – the project will not totally prevent sewers from overflowing into rivers during storms.

The city’s agreement allows for the sewer system to overflow up to four times in a “typical” year for the St. Marys and Maumee rivers and once in a typical year on the St. Joseph River, even after the entire federal mandate is complete.

But Indiana water rules require people to be able to swim and fish in its rivers, something unlikely to be the case after the sewer projects are complete. The city has been in constant negotiations with the EPA to determine whether more cleanup will be necessary.

“Fort Wayne potentially faces a cost of CSO (combined sewer overflow) compliance more than twice as much of what we are currently on tap to pay,” said Councilman Mitch Harper, R-4th. “And no one is talking about this.”

He said such a possibility should always be in city officials’ minds as they prepare for the future, including how the city plans to use nearly $80 million from the lease and sale of the city’s former electric utility.

The city has been working to seek a waiver to keep it from having to go further than its current agreement requires.

Matthew Wirtz, deputy director of engineering for City Utilities, said more than 700 communities nationwide, including 100 in Indiana, have or are negotiating agreements similar to the one already in place in Fort Wayne. He said none of those communities has received such a waiver from the federal government.

While eliminating all sewage overflows might sound like a lofty goal, city officials argue it is cost prohibitive and still wouldn’t leave area rivers open for swimmers.

The city’s draft use attainability analysis – its request for the waiver – states that the city won’t be able to comply at all times with the Clean Water Act, “without the expenditure of funds beyond that which is affordable by the City.”

Or as Menon more plainly states, going to a system with no overflows “is a non-option.”

Harper said it is unclear how the negotiations will play out, noting that federal judges have great leeway in these cases if they make it to court.

For example, a judge in an Ohio case examined all city spending to determine whether the government was truly facing financial hardship. As industries changed their processes to reduce the pollution into waterways, they have left municipalities as some of the largest sources of such pollution, Harper said.

“The biggest polluter of the Maumee River is the city of Fort Wayne,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest polluters in the Great Lakes.”

Menon said river water quality is important to City Utilities, but there is a point of diminishing returns that would force customers to pay millions to reduce smaller and smaller amounts of pollution. Besides, he said the largest source of pollution into the rivers is agricultural runoff, which is not regulated.

“Even doing all this stuff, our water’s not going to be fishable and swimmable,” he said.

Future rate hikes

Whether or not the city must undertake new requirements, sewer customers can expect their rates to continue increasing over the next decade.

The 2013 sewer increase, the last one approved by the council, will raise rates 9 percent for customers. After that, the city will still need regular rate hikes, Menon said, but would likely not be as large.

“Going forward, we don’t see rate increases being that significant,” he said.

And rates appear to be the main way the city will finance the federally mandated upgrades. While a committee commissioned by Mayor Tom Henry recommended proposing a local sales tax to help pay for it, that effort has failed to gain traction with state legislators.

While the utility is doing all it can to reduce costs and seek federal and state assistance, Menon said getting extra help has been difficult. One of the major hurdles is the fact Fort Wayne’s rates and consent decree program are viewed as inexpensive, at least when compared with other communities.

But because Fort Wayne is not alone in having to improve its sewer system, Menon is hopeful.

For example, the EPA in December announced the completion of the consent decree for South Bend. The city of 107,000 people will be forced to spend nearly $510 million on its sewer system. Elkhart, a city of 51,000 people, is being forced to spend $156 million on its sewers.

“Our experience is not unique,” Menon said.