Michigan sewer plant plans spark concern in Elkhart County over impact to Cobus Creek

Treated wastewater from the proposed Ontwa Township plant would pass through Cobus Creek here.

Posted on March 1, 2014 at 10:27 a.m.

A proposal to build a new sewer treatment plant in Ontwa Township, across the state line in Michigan, has some worried about potential repercussions to Cobus Creek here in Elkhart County.

The plan recommended by an engineering firm calls for construction of a new $7.59 million facility southeast of Edwardsburg, Mich., that would discharge treated wastewater into nearby Garver Lake, which feeds into Cobus Creek. The plant would have a capacity of 570,000 gallons per day, enough to potentially serve the Ontwa Township area and areas of Granger now unconnected to a sewer system.

The discharge produced would be of "much higher quality" than the effluent coming from the city of Elkhart's sewer treatment plant, which discharges directly into the St. Joseph River here, according to an April 2013 report from Michigan engineering firm Wightman and Associates. Currently, Ontwa Township government officials contract with the city of Elkhart to treat wastewater coming from the Michigan locale's sewer system, transported from Michigan to Indiana 6.4 miles away via an underground network of pipes.

  • A copy of the April 2013 report is available on the Ontwa Township goverment website here.

New plant would have three key benefits
According to the Wightman and Associates engineering report, a new wastewater treatment plant in Ontwa Township would have three key benefits:

Hydrogen sulfide: It would alleviate a lingering hydrogen sulfide issue that has damaged part of the network connecting Ontwa Township with the city of Elkhart. The presence of hydrogen sulfide gas in the system in Ontwa Township led to the collapse of part of the underground sewer network connecting to Elkhart in late 2011 and a series of back-and-forth efforts between Ontwa Township and Elkhart officials to address the situation. On Feb. 18, the Elkhart Board of Public Utilities fined Ontwa Township $11,750 over lingering issues related to the hydrogen sulfide situation.

Fees: A new system would give Ontwa Township more control over the fees it charges sewer customers. Elkhart has more than tripled the rates it charges Ontwa Township since the two sides inked an agreement in 2000, according to the report. A 27 percent rate hike implemented by Elkhart went into effect Jan. 1, 2013, and rates were to increase by 7 percent as of Jan. 1 and go up by 12 percent Jan. 1, 2015. The increases stem from improvements Elkhart has to implement due to federal requirements to prevent discharge of untreated wastewater during heavy storms. None of the Ontwa Township waste flows through the part of the network to be improved, said the Wightman report.

Capacity: The new network will alleviate capacity limitations resulting from interconnection with the Elkhart network.
Wightman and Associates also considered the alternative of expanding the existing network with the city of Elkhart instead of building a new wastewater treatment plant. The consultant, though, determined that would cost $9.2 million, more than the $7.59 million price tag of building the new facility.

Still, some here in Elkhart County aren't so sure, and they worry discharge into Cobus Creek, if the Ontwa Township proposal were pursued, would harm the waterway. Cobus Creek runs from Michigan south into northwestern Elkhart County, winding through Cobus Creek County Park before flowing into the St. Joseph River, where treated wastewater from Ontwa Township would ultimately flow.

"It's not just a quality issue it's a volume issue," said Matt Meersman, president of Friends of the St. Joe River, a nonprofit group tasked with protecting and improving the basin of the river, which includes Cobus Creek.

The potential maximum discharge coming from the proposed Ontwa Township plant reflects about half of the current volume of Cobus Creek, he said. As is, Cobus is a coldwater creek, fed heavily by springs, Meersman said, and the addition of the large quantity of warmer wastewater effluent would alter the character of the waterway, potentially harming the wildlife thriving there, including trout.

"We would alter the biological community that can live there," he said.

Even though the wastewater entering Cobus would be treated, he also noted the effluent wouldn't be pristine. Remaining organic material in the discharge, Meersman said, could alter the character of the creek, sapping some of the oxygen in the water, vital to other wildlife.

"There is definitely a lot of concern among our members," Meersman said. "I don't think Cobus Creek seems like a good place to discharge wastewater into."

An official representative from Ontwa Township, contacted three times this week, wasn't immediately available for comment.


The plans have also fallen onto the radar screen of Karen Mackowiak of the St. Joseph River Basin Commission, a state body based in South Bend that's tasked with advocating for the river basin.

Details are sketchy, but Mackowiak said Ontwa Township officials haven't yet asked for a discharge permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, required to build a sewer treatment facility. "There are a lot of blank spaces right now in the process. There are a lot of people talking," she said.

The commission is scheduled to discuss the Ontwa Township plans, one of several agenda points, at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, March 4. The gathering, open to the public, starts at 10 a.m. and is to be held in the Elkhart County Public Services Building, 4230 Elkhart Road, Goshen.

"It is safe to say, I don't have all the details on this project, as I don't believe all the details are out there," Mackowiak said in an email. "While we are always supportive of activities that are meant to improve water quality throughout the St. Joseph River Basin, we are also alert to the possibility that in focusing to remedy one thing, an adverse affect might inadvertently occur if the whole picture has not been viewed."

Follow reporter Tim Vandenack on Twitter at @timvandenack or visit him on Facebook.


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