Most of us don’t think about Fort Wayne’s waterways much unless we’re daydreaming of fun at the Three Rivers Festival or having a nightmare about the floods of yesteryears.
That’s more than a bit ironic, given that Fort Wayne exists where it does solely because it is located at the confluence of the Maumee, the St. Joseph and the St. Marys.
But besides the transportation, power, drinking water and recreation that rivers provided for areas such as Fort Wayne, they traditionally served as a free disposal for the byproducts of urban life.
For the longest time, we’ve turned our backs to the rivers, says Kumar Menon, director of City Utilities.
As staff writer Dan Stockman reported last week, the most dramatic phase of the city’s plans to revive the rivers is about to begin: a deep-tunnel sewer system.
Rivers here and across the country have been getting cleaner since dawning environmental concern led to the Clean Water Act of 1972. Industrial and farm chemicals were brought under control, and the rivers here and across the country have gotten cleaner.
But Fort Wayne, one of 746 communities with combined sanitary and storm sewers, still has a huge problem. Seventy-one times a year, after storms, those sewers pour untreated water into our rivers.
When it’s completed at a cost of $150 million, the deep-tunnel project will cut the number of yearly overflows to about four and prevent 90 percent of the sewage runoffs. It also will be another step toward preventing floods and the more common backups that bedevil homeowners’ basements.
But the reality is that the rivers here will never be like the sparkling mountain streams of an old John Denver song.
E. coli, the potentially harmful bacteria that abounds in sewage, is still detected even when there are no storm runoffs, said Matthew Wirtz, City Utilities deputy director.
To be sure, overall problems will be dramatically reduced. Other communities upriver from Fort Wayne, such as Auburn, also have sound wastewater treatment plans, and farmers are experimenting with new ways to control runoff. As improvements in other communities will help us, ours will help Toledo, downstream on the Maumee.
In fact, the whole nation is cleaning up its water in recognition that environmental stewardship and economic development can go hand in hand.
But there will still be contamination from farm animals and fields, wildlife, roadways and urban storm runoff.
Menon shrugs when asked how to control all of it: Put diapers on geese and deer.
So swimming in the rivers might still be a limited or risky proposition. And the brown water won’t change because the color mainly derives from the sediment the river carries along.
But those who live, conduct business or pursue recreation along those waterfronts will have reason to be proud of the rivers again.
It’s more about knowing that they are clean, Menon said, and using our rivers as assets rather than as sewage canals. In that light, the tunnel project – predictably much less disruptive than the kind of street-level sewer work the western part of downtown just went through – is not a burden but a key to unlocking the city’s future.
Drill, baby, drill.