Consent Decree work reaches final phase

News release from the City Utilities:

Renewing Our Rivers, Restoring Our Spirit
Protecting Neighborhoods and Rivers from Sewage Overflows Enters Final Phase

(January 28, 2020) – At its regular meeting today, the Board of Public Works approved a funding ordinance to move forward with the last phase of the 18-year federal requirement to improve our sewer system. A $380 million investment to protect our rivers, support our neighborhoods and prepare the community for the future will continue for the next six years.

In 2008, Fort Wayne faced the daunting task of meeting the federally unfunded mandates under an agreement with the United States Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Today’s plan calls for a rate adjustment of approximately 5% in each of the next five years to fund the next phase of improvements required from the Consent Decree. The plan will be before the City Council next month.

18 years to complete the following plan:

  • Repair and rehab aging sewer pipes
  • Maintain the system for reliability
  • Eliminate sanitary sewer overflows
  • Reduce sewer backups
  • Establish the Long Term Control Plan to reduce significantly the number of combined sewer overflows that were occurring 71 times a year
    • Requirement allows no more than an average of one on the St. Joseph River and no more than four on the St. Marys and Maumee per year, when the plan reaches completion in 2025

The Long Term Control Plan called for:

  • Reducing sewer overflows through sewer separation – the process creates two pipes one for sanitary sewage and another for stormwater, as opposed to a combined pipe that carries both
  • Increase treatment system capacity by upgrades to treat more and store more sewage
  • Collect more combined sewage with system expansion including the deep rock tunnel

In the first 12 years of the agreement, from 2008-2019, City Utilities has met every Federal requirement and deadline. And while nobody likes federally unfunded mandates, the improvements in the first 12 years are having a dramatic and measurable impact on our community (2008 – 2019)

Achievements in 2008-2019:

  • Improvements made in more than 200 neighborhoods
  • 33,6000 homes protected from basement back-ups and/or street flooding
  • One billion gallons of combined sewage kept from our rivers each year for the past 12 years
  • Success on the St. Joseph River, which is allowed one overflow every 12 months and has had zero overflows in the past 34 months
  • 27 neighborhood sewer separation projects
  • 180 miles of sewer pipe rehab – extending their life span by up to 100 years
  • Expansion of sewer plant wet-weather storage ponds – allowing flow to be stored and piped back to the plant for treatment after the rain event is over
  • Treatment capacity upgrades at the sewer plant – increasing the treatment of 48 million gallons per day in 2008 to the ability to treat 100 million gallons a day in 2019
  • New interceptor pipes that increased capacity in multiple areas of the system – supporting growth for major employers in the community
  • Taught more than 1,500 residents about rain gardens and how they could slow and clean runoff to our rivers and streams
  • Built 20 public rain gardens and more than 100 residential rain gardens
  • Improvements make it possible for future riverfront development

As we enter year 13 of the plan, $380 million in sewer system improvements, with $245 million of that work being performed in neighborhoods, is on the horizon.

Work from 2020-2025 includes:

  • The completion and implementation into service of neighborhood drop shafts, consolidation sewers, and the deep-rock tunnel
  • Pump Station at the sewer plant — pumping flow out of the tunnel for treatment
  • More than 50 miles of sewer rehab lining – extending the life of aging sewer pipes by up to 100 years
  • New pipes for capacity improvements
  • Meter upgrades

Funding

City Utilities is funded by the user fees paid for sewer service and usage. The amount paid by customers is the sole funding for the not-for-profit municipally owned City Utilities – the utility does not receive property tax money.

After an agreement on the plan to meet the order of the Consent Decree was established, we formed the Clean Rivers Task Force to identify alternatives to funding. The group was comprised of bipartisan City and County officials, business leaders, members of the education community, and representatives from neighborhoods. For eight months, the group looked at a variety of options, including asking the State Legislature to approve a local option sales tax to pay for the improvements. The move did not receive enough support to move forward.

The committee also asked City Utilities to look for grants. We did receive about $1.8 million from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. But grant money was not available after the initial commitment and Fort Wayne was left to fund the federally unfunded requirements with local user fees or rates. At that time, (2008), we told residents and council that it would require a rate increase every year, to complete the 18-year plan. Fortunately, through good planning and the availability of low-interest loans, we were able to not have an increase in 2014. While rates must pay for the remaining work, it does not appear as if the rates will be as high as initially projected.

The latest funding request seeks a rate structure that supports work in 2020 through 2024, with an increase of about 5% each year during the next five years.

Typical Fort Wayne Residential Sewer Bill
Final phase of the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) consent decree workplan calls for a rate adjustment of approximately 5% in each of the next five years to fund the next phase of improvements required from the Consent Decree. Image courtesy of Fort Wayne City Utilities.

How we got here

When Fort Wayne’s Combined Sewer System was designed and built, it was state-of-the-art. Discharges from the sewer system were allowed when the system became overloaded with rainwater and exceeded the capacity of the pipes to carry the flow to the sewage treatment plant. It was a perfectly acceptable practice.

But by 1970, as concern about environmental pollution grew, President Nixon Established the Environmental Protection Agency through executive order. Two years later, Congress passed the Clean Water Act to regulate discharges into our rivers and streams.

Across the Country, more than 700 communities, 105 in Indiana, were designed with combined sewers. Since the early 1990’s, combined sewer communities, including Fort Wayne, have faced the federally unfunded mandate to reduce combined sewer overflows.

In 2007, Fort Wayne formalized its Consent Decree, an agreement with the Justice Department and the EPA that dictated the work needed to upgrade and improve the sewer system and to protect public health, homes, and rivers and the environment.

Information about the upcoming public meetings regarding the plan for the next and final phase of the CSO consent decree work

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