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Businesses eager for canal to be a 'selling point' again: Water should be back - and sparkling - soon

March 10, 2008

For nearly five months, leasing agents at Canal Overlook Apartments have relied on photos and visual aids to show potential renters what a perk a canal view can be.

If the would-be renters take a gander now, all they get is a view of a drained Central Canal and workers scraping out decades worth of slime.

"It is usually a selling point, but [the cleanup] has been long and it smells bad," said Lynn Grine, leasing manager for the 125-unit building at 430 Indiana Ave. "Right now, it's not a selling point. It's more of an eyesore."

But not for long. City officials expect to refill a cleaner, algae-free canal later this month, wrapping up the $423,210 project just in time for spring foot traffic.

A block south of the apartments, at the Indiana History Center, officials with Hoaglin Cos. are anxiously awaiting the reopening. The catering company runs a restaurant, Hoaglin to Go at the Stardust Terrace, which offers outside seating beginning in April.

Its biggest business comes from canalwalk pedestrians, especially on nights with performances at The Lawn, nearby White River State Park's concert venue.

"We're excited for it to be over with," said Marketing Coordinator Jason Felders.

Hoaglin also is the preferred caterer for the building, which has frequent wedding rentals during warm-weather months.

Some of the April brides are already starting to "freak out," Felders said. "The view is the big pull and we're a month out from the weddings."

The cleanup has been a massive undertaking.

In October, the city chose Kokomobased Merrell Bros. Inc. to drain the 1.3-mile canal and haul away sediment that was slowing down water flow and adding to algae overgrowth. Nearly 10,000 fish and 367 semi loads of sludge were removed.

Now the water may be back in time to be dyed green for St. Patrick's Day.

"It's going to be great to have it attractive and clean again," said Bob Whitt, executive director of White River State Park.

The original estimate was that work would wrap up in early January, but Merrell Bros. had to wait for a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which initially said no permit was required, then reversed itself.

The three-week delay meant freezing weather stormed in before the work was done. Contractors chipped away at most of the frozen sludge but had to wait for a full thaw to squeegee out the last dregs.

Merrell Bros. started the cleanup process by capping two ground wells that feed the canal, lowering the water level about a foot. The city also diverted a water system tied to the OneAmerica Tower, which usually feeds the canal, into the sewer system.

A subcontractor then herded canaldwelling fish into net systems and set up a mega-slide to the White River. Once all the fish plucked from the brackish water were identified as species already existing in the White River, they rejoined their brethren there. On a couple of occasions, the subcontractor called in the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to doublecheck identifications on albino goldfish and other oddities.

"At least we didn't find any alligators," joked company owner Terry Merrell. It's unclear whether the fish will return to the canal, since they likely had human help getting there in the first place.

After evicting the fish, Merrell drained the rest of the water, removing sludge and later dirt with backhoes and squeegee equipment.

During the work, a pedestrian stopped to point to a spot where he threw a ring in the canal after an engagement went sour. Merrell said his crew tried to find it, even renting a metal detector to help with the search. Coins kept throwing off the readings and the workers never found the ring.

They did find lots of trash, however, along with cell phones, cameras, a bowling ball and skateboards.

"It was like a little treasure hunt," Merrell said.

All the while, businesses along the canal had to put up with views of mud and slime, not to mention some extra noise and, on warm days, an iffy odor.

Even so, the wait should pay off in the form of a pristine canal with water flowing soon, Merrell said.

"We're just a few days away from finishing it," he said. While most of the work is done, crews have been waiting on a couple of days of thaw to remove the last of the slime.

When the cleaning is complete, workers will uncap the wells and restore the OneAmerica Tower water, which will take two to three days to get the canal level back to normal.

Then, city and state officials want to come up with a more permanent solution to the problem.

"It's something I've focused on since I came on board," said Whitt, who took the reins of White River State Park in fall 2005.

The canal's original construction plans included more fountains to add oxygen to the water, but those were canned to cut costs. Portions of the cement canal date back 20 years, but this was the first time it has been drained and thoroughly cleaned.

Cement canals are harder to maintain than dirt-bottom ones like the canal in Broad Ripple because sediment doesn't just slide along, said Kathy Davidson, senior project manager with the Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development.

The city could lower the canal in the future for less-intensive cleanings using street sweepers. It also might add fountains and pumps to speed up water flow. Annual herbicide treatments also are planned to keep algae down, but Davidson said managers are now looking at new technology using enzymes.
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