Environment and Government

Major sewer system renovations await federal approval: With waste pouring into White River almost every time it rains, Indianapolis is in dire need of sewage overhaul

January 3, 2005

The city's long-term plan to prevent the flow of raw sewage into White River and its tributaries should receive federal approval soon, nearly five years after Mayor Bart Peterson introduced a proposal to fix the antiquated system.

City officials expect to receive permission from the Environmental Protection Agency in April to proceed with a plan to construct tunnels, underground storage tanks and new sewers to capture raw sewage that would otherwise overflow into waterways during heavy rains.

Peterson presented his initiative in mid-2000 following a mandate from the federal Clean Water Act that requires a plan to control the overflows. The combined sewer overflow problem that is decades old could take 20 years to rectify.

"This isn't a problem that has happened overnight," said Jim Garrard, director of the city's Department of Public Works. "It's going to take some time. We'll see some significant water improvements in 10 years."

The system carries sewage, storm water and industrial waste away from homes, streets and factories using the same set of pipes. When as little as a quarter-inch of rain falls, or the same amount of snow melts, the system fills beyond capacity and waste is sent directly into city waterways.

The improvements to remedy the situation submitted to EPA for approval are estimated to cost $1.4 billion to $3 billion. The cheaper alternative would capture 90 percent of the sewage, while the more expensive option would snare 99 percent.

City residents are funding the upgrades through rate hikes. Sewer bills increased 17 percent in 2001, or an extra $1.94, for every 7,000 gallons of water used. Another rate increase will take effect later this year. Garrard is unsure how much sewer bills will rise, although he said the next hike could be higher than the first increase of 17 percent.

Residents currently pay an average of $12.85 for every 7,000 gallons of water used, a figure Garrard said is much lower than the rates of other Midwestern cities. The cost ranges from $18.68 in St. Louis to $34.10 in Cincinnati, according to the city.

The city of Indianapolis so far has spent $500 million on preliminary enhancements that have enabled the system to capture roughly 60 percent of the 7.8 billion gallons of yearly sewage overflow.

The improvements include a tunnel system along Fall Creek to store and carry sewage to the city's wastewater treatment plants. And an underground tank that would store sewage to be pumped to treatment plants is under construction on White River near the campus of IUPUI. The tank will reduce overflows by 3 million gallons every time it rains.

Inflatable dams in the sewers near 32nd and 34th streets act like rubber balloons to reduce overflows into Fall Creek by 30 million gallons annually.

The long-term plan EPA is considering includes new, larger sewers along Pogues Run, Pleasant Run, Bean Creek and parts of Fall Creek and White River to capture overflows and carry them to the central tunnel system. An underground storage tank near Spades Park to capture and store overflows from upper Pogues Run also is among the planned upgrades.

While it could be 20 years before the sewer project is complete, the benefits will be worth the wait, Garrard said. But Indianapolis is hardly alone in its quest for cleaner waterways.

It is among 130 communities in Indiana facing similar demands to improve their infrastructures, said Vince Griffin, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce's director of Environmental and Energy Policy.

"This is arguably the largest cost for a number of local governments throughout the state ... and EPA is really holding their feet to the fire on this issue," Griffin said. "This is going to be a very tough decision for a lot of communities."
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