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Great Lakes Article:

Need for water upgrades 'serious'
WATER WORKS: Report says region's water works infrastructure in need of multimillion dollar upgrades
By Jerry Davich
Northwest Indiana Times
Published May 24, 2005

To most region residents, the importance of drinking water and wastewater treatment facilities may equate with the Water Works property in the game Monopoly.

But the underground labyrinth of public works and their above-ground filtering and treatment plants serve as the lifeblood of every community. If in doubt, try going a day without pouring a glass of water or flushing a toilet.

Unfortunately, much of this region's water-works infrastructure is outdated -- built decades ago -- and is in need of replacement. This goes for the state and nearby Illinois communities.

In its 2005 Report Card for America's Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a "D-" -- down from a "D" two years ago -- in the status of its drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.

Nationally, nearly 30 percent of this country's 600,000 miles of sewer pipes will be in poor condition by 2020, especially in older communities, the group predicts.

"Many systems have reached the end of their useful designed lives," the report states.

Regionally, the report estimates that during the next 20 years, Indiana will need $1.7 billion for drinking water works and $7.2 billion in wastewater upgrades. Illinois will need $6.1 billion for drinking water and nearly $12 billion for wastewater during the same time period.

Locally, a more detailed assessment of this region's needs was published by Indiana University's Center for Urban Policy and the Environment, prepared for the Indiana Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

The 2003 report states that Lake County alone has nearly $1.3 billion in "high end" infrastructure needs for drinking water and wastewater upgrades, second only to Marion County. Porter County has $227 million in similar needs.

Among those estimates, Lake County leads the state with $137 million in drinking water-investment needs.

"The need is serious," said Tom Neltner of the Indiana Clean Water Coalition in Indianapolis, a state watchdog group.

"Especially if we want to have the kind of quality of life that is essential to attract the economic development that Indiana seeks and needs."

Yet from 1990 to 2002, Indiana governments spent only $253 million annually on such infrastructure upgrades, the IU report states. To meet the needs identified, Indiana governments would have to spend $650 million annually during the next 20 years.

In Lake County, the total drinking water infrastructure investment from 1990 to 2002 was $69 million, the most spent by any county in the state. Porter County spent $3.8 million. In wastewater investments, Lake County spent $262 million and Porter County spent $58 million during the same time period, the report states.

Neltner said the highly detailed report has not made a dent close to home.

"The short-term economic focus of Hoosier government has done its best to ignore it," he said.

'Third-world solutions'

Last week, yet another study warned that untreated waste from combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, is fouling Lake Michigan and its tributaries. These overflows are caused by outdated systems that still combine stormwater with domestic and commercial sewage, systems that haven't met minimum federal standards for preventing such scenarios.

The study, by the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project, used data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state agencies in Indiana and Illinois, just as the civil engineers group did.

"These reports represent evidence that the old, crumbling infrastructure in Illinois and Indiana is in dire need of upgrades," said Frances Canonizado, spokeswoman for the Illinois Public Interest Research Group in Chicago.

"Allowing raw or partially treated sewage to flow into our waterways is a third-world solution to our problems," she said.

These sewage overflows not only dump infectious diseases into recreational waters and cause high E. coli counts, but also infect healthy tourism along this region's lakefront, critics say.

In Indiana, more than 100 municipalities have older sewer systems still in place, including many local communities. Some, such as Hammond and Valparaiso, are involved in costly upgrade projects.

Valparaiso, which uses a ground-water system for its water needs, has begun a $10 million infrastructure improvements project, funded by an $8.8 million bond issue. It's designed to include a million-gallon water tower and upgrades of two water treatment plants.

Hammond's Sanitary District recently approved a plan to end the release of raw sewage into local waterways. The $29 million project, set to begin in 2006, calls for the construction of a 14-acre storage basin to hold mixed rainfall and sanitary waste until it can be processed at a treatment plant.

The district is under orders from federal and state agencies to cease releasing the untreated sewage into local rivers by 2010.

Never enough money

In Illinois, Chicago and 50 other Cook County municipalities have combined sewer systems designed to treat 2 billion gallons of wastewater per day, according to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago.

In the 1970s, the U.S. EPA helped develop a Tunnel and Reservoir Plan -- a 110-mile system of underground tunnels -- to catch combined sewer overflow and pump it to reservoirs that hold the water until it can be sent to a treatment facility for cleaning.

Today, 100 miles of these tunnels are working, with the remaining network and reservoirs to be finished within a decade. Funding is holding up the project.

"We'll never have enough money to build as many plants or enough sewage-treatment capacity as we need," said Cameron Davis, executive director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, formerly the Lake Michigan Federation.

"We're not going to simply engineer our way out of these problems with more funding or more bricks and mortar."

Instead, Davis suggests "soft-engineering solutions" -- performed by residents as much as government agencies -- like improving our water conservation habits.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission is working on a regional watershed plan to better focus local communities' attention on such solutions.

The group plans to address the suburban sprawl that typically stretches thin any region's public works, said Reggie Korthals, NIRPC's director of environmental planning and programs.

Mark Reshkin, president of the Valparaiso Stormwater Management Board, said sprawl surely will cause more sewage overflows.

Costly combined sewer separation projects will be a slow process, he said, without significant federal money, especially with the costs of the ongoing war in Iraq.

"All infrastructure renewal (cited) in the ASCE report will suffer from inadequate funding," he said.

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