Nobody said cleaning up our three rivers would be cheap. But that didn’t stop most of us from doing a double-take when we saw the price tag presented by Fort Wayne City Utilities this week.
Sewer rates already have almost doubled since 2009. Now comes the next round of increases to underwrite the almost $400 million, 18-year project. Rates will go up each of the next five years, for a 49 percent increase by 2019.
Does it help to know that more than 700 other cities around the nation have similar waste-and-stormwater systems that may have to be upgraded? That other cities in Indiana have made similar, costly agreements with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency? That Evansville, for instance, has begun a $540 million project to clean up the Ohio River and that its sewer rates will be rising even faster than ours? That South Bend is making $509 million worth of improvements to its combined sewer system?
No? How about this, then: Up and down this great nation of ours, the rivers and lakes we depend on for water to drink, to bathe in, to help clean our homes and workplaces and schools and hospitals, have in many cases been treated as open sewers, relied upon to carry away our chemicals, sludge and human waste products.
In Fort Wayne, it happens every time there’s a major rainfall. The combined sewer/stormwater sewer system is overwhelmed and overflows releasing a billion gallons a year of untreated sewage into the rivers.
Under orders from the EPA, City Utilities developed a plan that will eliminate most of those overflows. The centerpiece will be a five-mile-long tunnel that will be dug 150 feet under the city, but the plan also features new holding ponds, strategies to keep sewage and stormwater separate, and upgrades to the existing treatment plant and pipe system.
The question is not how we can shoulder the cost of all this work. The question is, how can we not, if we hope to live in a city that’s growing and prospering?
How do we contemplate reviving our downtown, if our rivers are more of an abomination than an attraction? How would we attract new people and new businesses if we fail to serve the community’s most basic needs for clean water and efficient waste disposal? And not complying isn’t an option, anyway – unless the city wants to be fined thousands of dollars a day for being the outlier in the national battle to preserve our water.
Nobody has to like these increases, but no one would like the alternatives, either.