News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 10, 2012

Effort under way to reduce sewage, stormwater dumped into Wabash

Arthur Foulkes
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Imagine a 100-acre swimming pool 20 feet deep. Filling that pool would require 690 million gallons of water.

That’s how much combined stormwater and raw sewage the city of Terre Haute dumps into the Wabash River in a typical year.

During Friday’s Our Green Valley Alliance for Sustainability conference at Indiana State University, City Engineer Chuck Ennis explained how local taxpayers and sewer ratepayers will help reduce that volume from 690 million gallons to about 60 million gallons per year.

The city’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) plan will capture about 96 percent of the city’s overflow into the Wabash River, Ennis said during an afternoon session of the conference, which is concluding today on the ISU campus.

Sections of Terre Haute’s sewer system date back to the end of the 19th century, Ennis said. That means the same underground tunnels that handle stormwater runoff and also raw sewage.

Before 1962, all of that flowed directly into the river. Since 1962, the combination of stormwater and raw sewage only overflows into the river during a significant rain, he said.

But now, thanks to a federal mandate, the city’s property tax and sewer ratepayers must pay for a multi-million-dollar fix to the system.

“That’s the hand we were dealt,” Ennis said.

Terre Haute is dealing with the problem in two giant pieces. One is a roughly $140 million upgrade of the wastewater treatment plant — something that will double the plant’s holding capacity. The second piece is a 20-year, $120 million plan to divert, store and dispose of the city’s combined sewer overflow without letting it reach the Wabash River.

The upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant is being funded by increases in local sewer rates. The CSO plan is being covered by sewer rate increases and property tax revenue, Ennis said.

Terre Haute is not unique. Thanks to the 1974 federal Clean Water Act, all river cities with combined storm- and wastewater sewage systems are facing the same expense, Ennis said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is enforcing the Clean Water Act, uses the presence of E. coli — essentially animal waste — as its “yardstick” for measuring how clean or dirty a river is, Ennis said. At present, the city of Terre Haute contributes about 12 percent of the E. coli you would find in the Wabash River immediately downstream from the city, he said. The rest comes from smaller communities upstream, agricultural sources and from animals living in the wild, he said. E coli only survives for a few days, so Terre Haute’s Wabash River E. coli count is not affected by more distant upstream communities such as Lafayette, Ennis said.

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com.