A little known or seen part of our every day built envrionment will be the focus of one of the city’s largest infrastructure projects ever in coming years. What is commonly called a “CSO” or “Combined Sewer Overflow” is a structure that was implimented in the late 19th and early 20th century. A single system of buried pipes were used to collect sewage and storm water runoff so that surface pollution was eliminated. At the time, this was thought to be a great improvement over the current systems. However, when the pipes were filled to capacity, there was nowhere for this combination of sewage and storm water to go. Outlets were built into streams and rivers. This lead to what eventually became our prior generation’s realization that this was a poor choice. The graphic below, sourced from wikipedia, demonstrates how the system works.
Fast forward to the present, and we are dealing with what is essentially a problem created by our forefathers. Think about today’s popular rhetoric about sustainability & “green” living and you begin to rapidly draw a correlation that there is a big problem with dumping raw sewage into our rivers. In Indianapolis, our main source of drinking water is drawn from the White River, treated and then sent out to businesses and homes around the region. This is done by two wastewater treatment plants on the south side of Indianapolis. In short, this is a huge problem. So huge that in 1994, the EPA enacted policy to require cities with CSO’s to begin addressing the problem and finding a way of dealing with it. This policy reflects the spirit of the Clean Water Act of the 1970′s.
So how does this apply to Indianapolis? A very detailed account of how we got where we are, can be read here. Within the past decade, the EPA sued Indianapolis to “force” us into coming up with a way to improve the outflow of sewage into a number of regional streams and rivers. The city developed a long term plan for managing this problem. This plan, which was estimated in 2005 dollars to be $1.73 billion, would mitigate the affects of CSO into streams by constructing a system to hold the contents of what currently spills into the rivers and streams. The system that was originally planned to be constructed, would consist of a large tunnel system 200 feet underground that would funnel a number of CSO facilities into it. Additionally a smaller capacity (relatively speaking) system of holding cells located 35 to 70 feet underground and linking the two area sewage treatment plants (basically a conveyence system) would be constructed. This system would contain 24 million gallons. This entire system would hold excess sewage and runoff in the event of a rain storm until either of the two facilities could treat and release the water back into the White River.
Recently, the city announced that through negotiations with the EPA, and a modification of the original plan adopted in 2006, that it would save $740 million to tax payers. The release by the Dept of Justice, details a plan that would eliminate this smaller inter-plant system by making it an extension of the deeper tunnel system as well as extend the large tunnel by 1 mile on it’s north end. By doing this, it will allow the capture of 2 CSO’s that contribute largely to the violations currently happening earlier than originally planned. However, it would push back the planned operation of this portion of the system by a year and some change. The trade off however, greatly expands the capacity of the system and the EPA agreed. The Justice Department claims a savings of $444 million. At this point, the difference between the Dept of Justice figure and the City’s figure is unknown.
The plan as it stands, will be a combination of tunnels that will have a holding capacity of 250 million gallons and be located 200 feet underground. The tunnels themselves will be 18 feet in diameter. The current overflow of 7 billion gallons a year of untreated sewage and storm water will be reduced to 414 million gallons a year. Bidding will conclude for the first section of the tunnel in 2011, which is called the Deep Rock tunnel Connector. The DRTC will begin at the Southport Advance Water Treatment plant and run to the Belmont AWT plant located on Indy’s southside. Four additional tunnels will be dug after this one has been completed. The total system is slated to be operational and compliant to the 2006 decree, by 2025. An additional website detailing the White River Tunnel portion, is located here. The City has a website detailing the system further here.
At this point, some may be saying, why are we spending this much money and enduring sewer rates that will rise to pay for the system? For one, violations will be penalized by hefty financial fines by the EPA if nothing is done. The ethical side of not doing anything also looms. Do we want our children to be drinking sewage laced water? Of course not. This project must be done in some way, shape or form. Our current mayor, Greg Ballard, has taken strides to try and lessen the impact of expected rate increases. His plan to privatize the water and sewer by “selling” it to Citizen’s Energy is a step in the direction. By consolidating operations, a savings can be calculated to rate payers. Initial figures peg savings of 25% compared to initial rate increases. This is one situation where privatization of a public service seems reasonable.
People may also be asking why can’t we better engineer a system that collects and treats storm water naturally? We have started to see small improvements in this area around the city in the way of the Cultural Trail and it’s rain gardens. The recent Ohio Street Rain Garden project and other projects in the city have also addressed the storm water runoff issue. However, the need for action is urgent, and the deep tunnel projects will help to mitigate the environmental destruction currently being caused by our legacy CSO situation.
This is a classic example of doing things the wrong way and putting tomorrow’s generation on the hook for cheap decisions today.
If you spend any amount of time on the south side of downtown Indianapolis you may have noticed a large scale project going on. It looks to the casual observer like a bunch of pipes that are suppose to be under the ground, that are routed above ground for the most part along city streets and occasionally buried beneath at street crossings using thick steel plates.
This past weekend, I started at the Lilly campus where the pipes appear to begin and started walking, armed with my camera. What I discovered, was a vast stretch of pipes traversing the streets of downtown’s less dense areas. Namely, where a lot of parking lots and abandoned streets are located. I discovered a pumping station in the ground, but open to the air. There were many things to check out and as I walked, the scope of the project only got bigger. The shear amount of pipe on the ground indicates a large amount of labor was invested to just get these all hooked together. That tells me that this must be a pretty big, and important, project.
The roots of our focus area here should probably start with the Indiananapolis DPW (Department of Public Works). Navigating their website can be as tricky as making your way through a cornfield maze at halloween time. Their site is divided up into many different sub categories classified by the type of work going on. Luckily, they devote a lot of space to sewer and water issues. A topic which has gotten a lot of press in Indy over the last couple years, and will undoubtedly get MUCH hotter, is that of CSO’s or Combined Sewer Overflows. Back when our fore fathers started platting cities, they thought that it would be convenient to combine sewer drainage, and storm water drainage. Today, we see the very reality of what our fore fathers did, making life difficult for us. The federal government has, in recent years, decreed that all cities with CSOs undertake plans to split these utilities into seperate sewer and overflow drainage systems. The obvious point here, is that less raw sewage will end up in our rivers. Indianapolis’ long term plan can be found here.
With this decree came the realization that MASSIVE work (and expense) would be required to do this. In the future, that will require some serious tax hikes for sewer and water users of Marion County. This has also gotten a lot of press lately albeit a bit more politically focused, in the form of Mayor Greg Ballard’s attempt to “sell” the sewer and water utilities to Citizen’s Energy. They claim that future rate increases will be less than they would be under the current operating conditions. That obviously, remains to be seen.
What is going on right now on the southside of downtown, appears to be a comparatively minor piece of the overall picture though. Through the DPW’s website, I was able to view the list of projects from 2009-2013. If you focus on the areas designated by CS-32-005 you will get a sense of the area of focus for this article.
According to the sign on site, this is the Merrill Street Combined SewerRehabilitation portion. According to informal requests to the DPW, they are calling this a sanitary sewer bypass. Upon further sleuthing, I was able to find that this involves “in place curing of pipe liner and manhole rehabilitation”. Also, the work should be finished up by late August to mid-September according to the same inquiry. When this project is complete, expect a much more visually appealing project begin to take shape. UrbanIndy.com will have some information on that in the near future; but for now, take comfort in the fact that the work that is taking place now while ugly in appearance, is being done to make our enviroment a little better for us now, and a LOT better for our children.