Fort Wayne's Sewer System Continues Overhaul

Aug 5, 2014

Aeration basins at Fort Wayne's wastewater treatment plant.
Credit Virginia Alvino / WBOI News

The city of Fort Wayne was established along the confluence of three rivers – waterflows that eventually make their ways over to Ohio and into the Great Lakes. Soil, sediment, runoff from farms, and debris all flush into the water, but here in Fort Wayne, so does a billion gallons of raw sewage each year.

City Utilities is in the process of fixing that, in response to a federal mandate.

Six years in to a long-term plan and a lot of improvements have been made, with one of the city’s biggest public works projects ever, still to come. But it takes big bucks to do big work – money that will come from customer rate hikes.  

WBOI’s Virginia Alvino has more on the history of the sewer system, the work that’s coming up, and the impact it will have on the rivers.

 It’s easy not to worry about what goes down our sinks and toilets every day, all we need to know is that it goes away.

“All this flow from all over Allen County, outside of the county to the south and Zanesville, we take in flow from Grabill and Leo and New Haven, all that flow’s coming in and ends up here,” says Chief Engineer for Fort Wayne City Utilities. 

‘Here’ is the wastewater treatment plant on Dwenger Avenue right in Fort Wayne.Nearly every home and business in the area is sewered to this facility, where waste goes through a pretty extensive process before it flows out into the rivers.

“It comes in 40, 50 feet down, deep underground,” says Wirtz. There are about 1,300 miles of pipe that get it here.“And it’s pumped up and starts through our process, basically, there’s some large tanks over there to the west where it’s preliminary treated and settled.”

"Settling" just gets the initial solids out. 

Conveyor belts screen out the trash that people flush.
Credit Virginia Alvino / WBOI News

“Then comes over through some tunnels and piping past us, into what we call aeration basins, where it’s basically introduced to microorganisms, bugs, and they do the work,” says Wirtz. These “bugs” eat waste, and to make them hungrier, oxygen is pumped into the basins. So this part of the process looks a little like a white water rafting trip, that’s a little less white.“Give it some chlorination. It crosses over the river into a pond before discharging into the river.”

Wirtz says that final product that goes into the river is actually way cleaner than the river itself. But because of problems with the sewer system, a lot of waste never gets treated at all.

To understand why, we need to go back a ways.

Back in the 1860’s, construction started on underground pipes that just funneled water from the street straight into the river. Once indoor plumbing came along, a lot of raw sewage was added to the mix.

“By the early 1900s Fort Wayne had figured out that pollution in the rivers isn’t that great, so the next solution was collect it and pipe it downstream,” says Wirtz.

Downstream communities were not thrilled. After the depression Fort Wayne built a wastewater treatment plant, but by the 70s, the Clean Water Act meant Fort Wayne was incompliant with new environmental regulations.

The big reason for that is the use of combined sewer systems, which take in storm water and waste in the same pipe – and when it rains the system can’t keep up. That means raw sewage overflows into the river about 70 times a year.  

So it was mandated that Fort Wayne make a long term control plan, or consent decree

“They’re not waiting til 18 years to check in on us, every few years we have deadlines to meet, and if we don’t do that we pay fines and penalties,” says Wirtz. 

Wirtz and City Utilities are six years into the plan, which requires overflows be reduced to just 4 times per year – and a lot of progress has been made. $100 million has been put towards increasing capacity at the plant. And a lot of those combined sewers – separated.

“That not only reduces overflows, but it helps significantly with protecting homes from basement backups, it helps reducing street flooding,” says Wirtz. 

Now Utilities is getting ready to embark on a massive public works project.

A 5 mile long tunnel – flowing waste from around Foster Park, back to the plant. The tunnel bored into bedrock 200 feet underground, will be about as deep as the Allen County Courthouse is tall. This method means there’ll be no disruption of streets, or downtown above.

The project is expected to cost around $150 million. 

So where’s all that money coming from?

From you, and me – the ratepayers.

John Stafford is advising Utilities on the consent decree. At a recent city council meeting, he explained the Clean Rivers Task Force established in 2008, which studied options for funding sewer improvements.

“The task force kind of concluded that indeed this is a public service for which you can charge a user fee because you can readily identify the customers of the system," says Stafford. "And the city did pursue several other sources.”

They tried to take a bite out of the cost by getting together with other consent decree communities, and looked at grants and federal support. 

“That really never materialized into any significant alternative source of revenue, which takes us right back to where we are this evening, looking at funding the next five year portion of the long term control plan with user fees,” says Stafford. 

That means ratepayers will see an increase of $17 a month, bringing average bills up to around $52 by 2019.

Not everyone is happy about more rate hikes. Councilmen Glynn Hines and Tom Didier voiced concern about their fixed-income constituents. And the town of Huntertown , is unhappy about their rates going towards system improvements in Fort Wayne.

But the director of City Utilities Kumar Menon says that this is the only way to go.

“We are a not for profit municipally owned utility," says Menon. "We do not have any other profits or any other sources of revenue except rates, and while rate increases are difficult for anyone at any time, we don’t have any other option to do what we need to do.”

And their request was nearly unanimously approved by council, with only Councilman Mitch Harper objecting.

The rates now head to the Utility Regulatory Commission for approval. Designing, bidding, and public input on the tunnel project still lies ahead.