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The Journal Gazette

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Mayor Tom Henry, center, leads the first ceremonial groundbreaking for the Three Rivers Protection and Overflow Reduction Tunnel (3RPORT) Thursday at Glasgow and Dwenger avenues.

Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:00 am

Water works: Tunnel will be boon for cleanup of rivers

The deep rock tunnel dig that begins today is a big project to address a big problem.

Fort Wayne's sewage filtration plant works just fine, officials say – the treated water that goes back into our rivers is several times cleaner than the water that's taken out to become the city's drinking water. But much of Fort Wayne, like many cities, is underlain by combined sewer systems that often overflow when there's a sustained rainstorm. When that happens, water that includes untreated sewage ends up in the rivers and backs up into residents' basements.

In 2008, when the city began to implement its water-pollution-control consent decree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there were more than 70 of those combined sewer overflows in an average year, releasing 11/2 billion gallons of untreated water. An additional billion gallons of water that was only partly treated was discharged from the city's two holding ponds.

Now the problem of overflow from the holding ponds has been solved, and last year, the city announced improvements have reduced overflows along the St. Joseph River to one or none per year.

When the tunnel project is completed in 2021, City Utilities says, the number of combined sewer overflows on the St. Marys and the Maumee will drop to four; the amount of untreated water entering the rivers will be reduced by more than 90 percent.

Some areas of town are being converted to separate stormwater and sewer systems. But the tunnel, which will be as deep as 240 feet, will run below existing pipes. That will allow the city to collect and treat hundreds of millions of gallons more of combined sewer water at half of what it would have cost to separate lines along its five-mile path from Foster Park through West Central and the north edge of downtown to the treatment plant.

Groundbreaking for the 5-mile tunnel will be at 11 a.m. today on treatment plant property at Glasgow and Dwenger avenues. One of those planning to attend is rivers advocate Dan Wire.

“I think the timing on this is phenomenal,” said Wire, who is helping move key aspects of the riverfront project into reality this year. “We still have folks out there who say, 'Those rivers are cesspools.' ” Noting that City Utilities has met or beaten all of its deadlines on the project to date, Wire said he believes the cleanup “is going to be here before we know it.”

City Utilities Director Kumar Menon stresses that the tunnel project and other aspects of the city's cleanup effort can never reduce water pollution to zero. A series of rainfalls such as the ones earlier this month could still overwhelm the system, he said. “To build a tunnel of that capacity would be astronomical.”

But, he said, the improvement in the city's ability to handle such situations will be substantial. And the effects,Menon said, go far beyond merely complying with the EPA's orders.

“It's obviously good for riverfront development. We have the capacity to increase production. We have the ability to attract people who want to come in and invest in our community.” The cleanup project itself – the total cost is $240 million, of which $188 million is for the tunnel – is creating jobs and attracting environmentally trained experts to our community, Menon added.

The tunnel may not be the flashiest project to move off the drawing board. But as much as any development above ground, it will change this community for the better.