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In the pipeline

Sewer bill increases an essential expense


A hole 100 feet wide and 130 feet deep was discovered recently on a peninsula of northern Siberia. No one yet knows what caused it.

By coincidence, City Utilities is planning to spend about $150 million to dig a master sewer line about that deep under Fort Wayne. It’s part of a $400 million, 18-year project that will clean up our rivers by preventing most of the combined sewer overflows that now routinely occur here.

The city’s pollution problem stems from a sewer system developed back in the days when there were fewer people and water quality wasn’t a national concern. Some of our sewer lines go back – way back. One of them will be 150 years old next year.

Ours is one of more than 700 American cities whose sewers combine stormwater with wastewater.

Every time there’s a major rain here, those sewers overflow. A billion gallons of effluent per year end up in the St. Marys and St. Joseph rivers.

The plan to clean up Fort Wayne’s rivers is a federal court consent decree hammered out between the city and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2007. Implementation, which began in 2009, is on track and slightly under budget. Now the city is seeking authorization for the second five-year phase of the project, which will be the subject of a City Council public hearing on the plan Tuesday.

As costly as the massive project is, Fort Wayne’s plan has one of the lowest per capita costs of the city-EPA consent decrees around the nation, according to City Utilities Director Kumar Menon. With lower populations than Fort Wayne, Evansville and South Bend, for instance, each have higher price tags for their river cleanup plans. And Fort Wayne’s plan phases in rate hikes as gently as possible.

Iit’s natural to balk at the figures. Sewer rates already have almost doubled since 2009. The plan now being considered will raise rates another 49 percent by 2019.

But there really is no good alternative. The rivers have to be cleaned up. Trying to reopen negotiations and change the plan at this point would risk even more expense. And putting the rate increases up for a vote every year would make planning a nightmare for the city, its businesses and its residents.

This is one bill no one savors but everyone seems to recognize the need for. As Menon says, “We’ve got to do this, because it’s the right thing to do.”