Elkhart CSO project ahead of schedule

ELKHART - The tell-tale sign that you're standing in something other than a large, concrete room underground is the overwhelming, sour smell.

Posted on July 18, 2011 at 1:00 a.m. | Updated on Feb. 28, 2012 at 10:29 a.m.

ELKHART - The tell-tale sign that you're standing in something other than a large, concrete room underground is the overwhelming, sour smell. The remains of raw sewage.

Other than that, the million-gallon storage tank that sits under a grassy field at Elkhart's High Dive Park is just that - a large concrete room with technology that allows a series of pumps to fill and empty it of storm water and sewage to keep the mixture from entering a lagoon nearby during heavy rains. When the sewer system can handle the flow again, the sewage is then released and sent to the wastewater treatment plant.

The process is more complex than that, but in a nutshell, that's what it does.

And since the tank and pumping facility were turned on for the first time in late 2010, they've been doing their job well. The city has not experienced a single overflow at High Dive, said Mike Machlan, engineering services manager and city engineer.

It was too expensive to design and construct a plan that completely eliminated overflows into the river, so the idea is to minimize them.

"This will not be able to handle the flow once every three to five years," Machlan said of the High Dive system.

There were typically 14 a year into the lagoons at High Dive, he said.

Six of the tank and pumping systems will be constructed throughout the city, including at the Elkhart Environmental Center, at Jackson Boulevard and Waterfall Drive and on the Bower Street side of the Sherman Street Bridge. Construction on the next three is about 10 years out, according to Tory Irwin, utility engineer.

The new system has given the city the chance to take the flow of wastewater from northeast Elkhart and "leap frog" the system to the wastewater treatment plant, Machlan said. Between eight and 10 combined sewer overflow locations are affected by the construction.

"It's really had a big effect," he said. "We're very excited about this."

The $4 million "High Dive Park CSO Control Measure," as the engineers call it, was the first project undertaken by the city in its long-term plan mandated by the federal government to limit sewage overflows into the river. At the same time Grand River Construction was working at High Dive, Selge Construction was working on sewer separation at Crawford Street and to hook up the new facility to the sewer at Beardsley and Edwardsburg avenues.

Machlan said the goal is to make the projects "multi-dimensional. We know we're going to deconstruct parks as part of this," he said.

At High Dive, a walking path, lighting and landscaping were added around the area of the tank and pumping facility.

The city did three CSO projects in 2010 that eliminated about 4 million gallons of combined sewage entering local waterways and about 20 overflows annually, Machlan said.

There's even more good news: The city is four years ahead of schedule with its plans. "According to our published schedule, we should be at this point in 2015," Machlan said. "We are theoretically four years ahead of schedule."

The EPA is requiring the city to complete the entire plan by 2029.

The federal stimulus directly and indirectly allowed the city to get ahead of the game, Machlan said.

The Indiana State Revolving Loan Fund, with money from the stimulus, allowed the city access to a low-interest loan to fund several projects. The city also received about $1.3 million in direct stimulus money as well. Because the High Dive project came in about $2 million under budget, Machlan said, the city was able to do additional work, as well as work with the Indiana Finance Authority to use the leftover low-interest financing to pay for brownfields work at LaBour Pump and the old Elkhart Foundry and Machine for the same amount. He called it a "two-fer" and the city didn't have to bond for the High Dive project.

This year, construction will continue on sewer separations near the FOP Little League and design is being completed for another project in the Studebaker Park area. Irwin said construction on the latter project - in some combination of areas including Floral, Evans, Middlebury and Baker streets - will begin later this fall or in the spring of 2012. Cost will determine the exact boundaries.

The plan

The city has about 20 years, with a chance to extend it another five years, to complete a $134 million, federally mandated plan to control sewage spills into the rivers during heavy rainfalls.

The official name of the series of projects that make up the plan is the "CSO Long Term Control Plan" and it's been a long time in the approval process, having to be OK'd not only by the city, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management also has played a role.

City ratepayers already have seen two years of 4 percent increases in their sewer bills to help pay for the first five years of construction.

Combined sewers carry stormwater, raw sewage and industrial wastes to the wastewater treatment plant in the same pipe. When it rains or snow melts, the mixture can overwhelm the system and be piped into the Elkhart or St. Joseph Rivers or Christiana Creek. That's known as combined sewer overflows.

The various construction projects in the long-term plan will help minimize the number of times sewage will overflow into the river through a combination of tank storage, redirection of existing sewers and expansion of the city's wastewater treatment plant. The city also continues to separate combined storm and sanitary sewer lines.

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