News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 18, 2012

EDITORIAL: Price for modernizing sewers steep, but an essential step

Rates will jump steadily as major work progresses

The Tribune-Star

---- — The Civil War was a long time ago. Yet, segments of the Terre Haute city sewer system date back to that era. Few aspects of 21st-century life in America can function efficiently with 19th-century technology.

This community has gotten its money’s worth out of its aged, overburdened sewer system. For too long, Terre Haute — like more than 100 other Hoosier communities — also has used a nearby river as an ultimate destination for its raw sewage.

Legally and ethically, these deficiencies now must be corrected. The repairs are not cheap.

The imperative need to fix the problems is the reason the City Council voted reluctantly, but unanimously, this month to increase sewer rates to local households by more than 50 percent during the next three years. The fees will rise 15 percent in July 2013, with two more 15-percent increases in the following two years. For the average Terre Haute household, the jump will be from $32 to $37 next year, then to $43 in 2014, and to $49 in 2015, according to the Indianapolis consulting firm of H.J. Umbaugh & Associates.

Higher bills affect homeowners, and the council members acknowledged the fiscal pain involved. Still, the reality is, Terre Haute must upgrade its sewer system and its 1960s-era wastewater treatment facility to reduce the amount of raw sewage that runs into the Wabash River. The 1972 U.S. Clean Water Act requires the improvements.

“We are mandated to do this,” Mayor Duke Bennett said at the council meeting. If Terre Haute failed to enact rate increases to pay for bringing the city’s waste disposal methods into Clean Water Act compliance, the community could face a federal takeover of the “long-term control plan” for the system. If so, rates would rise even higher, the mayor said.

The changes are two-fold, and not simple. One involves a $140-million upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant, basically doubling its capacity. The other — that long-term control plan — includes a new $120-million plan to divert, store and dispose of Terre Haute’s combined sewer overflow (or CSO). The end result should allow the city to reduce the volume of CSO — the combination of stormwater and raw sewage — into the Wabash from 690 million gallons a year to just 60 million.

The problem is rooted in the days before indoor plumbing, when Terre Haute built huge underground, brick tunnels to drain storm water from its streets into the river. Once homes acquired indoor plumbing, those tunnels became a “combined sewer system,” sending, yes, human waste along with rain water into the Wabash. A century later, the community invested in the southside wastewater treatment plant, and implemented another large tunnel linking the old combined sewer lines with the plant. That routed much of the sewage away from the river.

Not all of it, though. The system works fine when the sun shines, but any amount of rain or snow melting triggers significant overflow into the Wabash.

The upgrade will capture 96 percent of the CSO, according to the city engineer’s office.

Higher sewer rates will fund the wastewater treatment plant renovation. The extra sewer fees and property tax revenue will cover the CSO alterations.

Difficult as it is, the mayor, City Council and community have taken the proper path to modernize this infrastructure and better care for the Wabash.