A Publication of WTVP

What do Rock Island, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis have in common? They must each spend tens of millions of dollars to comply with federal mandates for cleaner water through the reduction of sewage flowing into their waterways from so-called “combined sewers” during periods of heavy rain. Peoria—and more than 700 other communities throughout the country—will also have to comply with the mandate soon.

I’ve recently learned that Rock Island (population: 40,000) will spend $60 million and Fort Wayne (population: 220,000) almost $239 million to meet the requirements under the Clean Water Act. While many factors (existing infrastructure and topography) play into the ultimate expense, simple math tells us our financial challenge will be substantial. By the way, we have no choice but to comply—the fines for failure to clean up our act would be extraordinarily huge, not to mention the irresponsibility of not taking leadership to address the issue.

I certainly agree with facing up to our responsibility for cleaner water. What would Peoria—and the surrounding area that depends on us for economic vitality—be without the Illinois River? By this December, we must submit a plan to begin reducing outflows of raw sewage from our sewers into the river. This situation only occurs 14 to 34 times per year, sometimes with less than a quarter inch of rain. Nonetheless, it is a problem we must address. As this problem didn’t happen overnight, I asked Public Works Director David Barber for some background.

The basic problem started in the late nineteenth century when Peoria built its first sewers to carry stormwater from our streets. Indoor plumbing came along and people hooked their sewer lines into those same sewers—combining stormwater and sewage together into one pipe. These combined sewers were standard practice at the time. In the 1930s, the Sanitary District treatment plant came online and started treating the sewage, but the sewers were still combined and designed to overflow during wet weather. Frankly, if they didn’t have this ‘escape,’ our streets and basements would be inundated with raw waste. Some of the problem was alleviated in the 1950s and ‘60s when the City required construction of separate sewers for sewage and stormwater. But, in the older parts of the City, the combined sewers remained in place.

(I should mention that outflows from our combined sewers aren’t the only problem facing the river. I’m told that during a July 2007 rainstorm, most of the bacteria came into the Peoria section of the river from upstream, and about 10 percent came from unknown sources in Kickapoo Creek.)

We haven’t been idle in meeting the Clean Water challenge. The 33-member Clean River Committee was formed to review our plans for addressing the problem and help to develop potential solutions. The Committee is urging Peoria to consider so-called “green” solutions to our sewer and stormwater problems. Some of these ideas are rain gardens, porous pavements and other solutions that hold rainwater back more naturally. While the green solutions can’t replace the need to expand our existing sewer system, they may be part of the solution. Make no mistake about it, we want the most cost-effective way to meet the requirements and build a more sustainable community.

As mayor, part of my responsibility is to help shape the overall policy that serves as an affordable, practical backdrop for the administration of city services. I fully appreciate the desire of other units (or subdivisions thereof) of local government, such as the Airport Authority and the Peoria Public Library, to upgrade their services to stay competitive or meet taxpayer needs. But the reality is that Peoria has to meet the Clean Water mandate, and that will require millions of dollars of long-term bonded debt. (The federal government’s support for local clean water improvements is only five percent of the total expense.) While this is not an unfunded mandate per se, it’s pretty darn close. And the cost burden we will bear is significant, to put it mildly. We simply cannot accomplish all the worthwhile public improvements at the same time.

The City Council has an incredible responsibility as it balances the mandated requirements of the Clean Water Act with the requests to approve additional bonded debt for associated services, such as library expansion. I trust my colleagues will keep this perspective in the forefront as we meet our local governance responsibilities. IBI