"City finally deals with CSOs

The White River and its tributaries are in violation of two state standards under the Clean Water Act. The river lacks the necessary amount of dissolved oxygen to support aquatic life and has high levels of bacteria considered unsafe for recreational water activity.

The city of Indianapolis has implemented a plan to correct the violations and reduce raw sewage overflows into the waterways that contribute to bacteria and pollution exceeding environmental standards. It will construct tunnels and tanks to store sewage underground until water levels subside after storms.

According to Margie Smith-Simmons, an official with the Department of Public Works, this will do more than prevent the common occurrence of waste in the water.

“Although waterways won’t be safe for swimming, the city’s investment is still worthwhile because it will remove raw sewage from our waterways, reduce sewage backups into basements and eliminate odors in our neighborhoods, and the sight of toiletry products along our streams will be a thing of the past when the plan is fully implemented. The effect will be more livable neighborhoods, cleaner streams and greater opportunities for economic development,” she said.

Improvements will occur around Fall Creek and the White River where most of the overflows spill.

Though these improvements will not be seen or smelled immediately, consumer water bills will reflect the change. Between 2006 and 2008, the average household bill will increase by about $6. According to the Department of Public Works, Indianapolis has the most affordable rates among other Indiana communities.

Other Indiana communities and surrounding counties also face the sewer dilemmas. The state has more than 100 communities with combined sewers.

The combined sewer system was built more than a century ago when underground pipes controlled stormwater, not raw sewage. When excessive rainfall or snowmelts occurred, the system relied on internal dams in an underground pipe system as well as streams and rivers to bear the burden of overflows. Since the invention of indoor plumbing, the sewers have not been updated. Now streams and rivers bear the burden of raw sewage as well.

A few years ago, Congress passed a law requiring all communities using combined sewers to reform their systems and reduce overflows. Indianapolis mapped out its options and chose a plan that will be finalized in 2025.

While raw sewage contributes to bacteria such as e. coli, viruses and other pollution in waterways, Smith-Simmons said that there is no need to panic over the 20-year delay.

“We are moving forward with the sewer improvement projects in an expeditious but practical manner,” Smith-Simmons said.

“The program will be implemented in four five-year phases, consistent with the capacity of the construction market to build the new infrastructure, the need to fit projects together in a proper sequence and the ability of ratepayers to bear increasing sewer rates.”

Bruno Pigott, assistant commissioner for the Office of Water Quality with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said that consumers need not worry about their drinking water even though White River and Fall Creek are primary water sources for Central Indiana.

“Regardless of CSOs [combined sewer overflows] discharging, water has to be clean enough to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act,” he said.

Before drinking water is distributed to homes and businesses, it goes through a treatment facility.

Pigott also said that it is important for the city and citizens to address other sources of pollution that contribute to hazardous waterways if Indiana wants to make its rivers, creeks and streams fishable and swimable.

While the city has addressed septic tank and storm water problems, other forms of non-point source pollution exist. Chemicals from lawn care products, pet waste and other toxins mix with surface water and run into waterways.

“Other issues [of pollution] are more difficult to solve because they depend on changing the actions of many people,”

Smith-Simmons says, “including those living upstream. Government cannot solve all of these problems on its own. It will take the concerted efforts of all of us to begin to address urban stormwater pollution.”

For more information visit www.indycleanstreams.org.