The City of South Bend will be borrowing $500 million (yes, half a billion dollars) over the next 20 years to “upgrade” the City’s sewer systems. They’ve maxed out our City’s credit card to address an EPA mandate to stop dumping raw sewage into the river during storm water overflow events. Our antiquated system currently combines storm water with sewage on the way to the water treatment facility. In the event of excess, typically from rain events, the overflow is dumped into the river.
The City’s half-a-billion-dollar ‘solution’, which relies on outdated methodology, is to tear out the streets, including tree lawns with mature trees and lay down huge storm water separation pipes. The streets are then re-paved with impermeable asphalt. This ‘solution’ separates storm water from sewage so that eventually only sewage goes to the waste water treatment plant (what happens there is a health concern for another post).
The problem is that the City’s $500,000,000 ‘solution’ is for all storm water from sidewalks, parking lots, driveways and streets to be directed to the river. The EPA recognizes this as “non-point source pollution”, yet the City is forging ahead with this project. It essentially takes a problem and makes it a little “less bad”.
In response to citizens’ outcry against cutting down fully mature heritage trees all over the City to make way for this project, the City planted small ornamental trees in some of the tree lawns, however the Board of Public Works will admit they have no plan in place to water or tend to these trees to ensure their survival so, as a result, nearly all of the “replacement trees” have perished.
South Bend doesn’t need to be addressing the CSO problem in this manner. They could and should be using permeable streetscape solutions, which are being implemented all over the country. By allowing rain water to permeate pavers or permeable concrete, storm water pipes become unnecessary. This is because water returns to the earth, back to the aquifer and eventually to the river in a re-creation of the natural hydrology.
Rather than burying our “gold” under asphalt, the City could be applying for a multitude of grants that encourage cities to implement permeable streets. Such designs embrace rain water as a precious natural resource to be returned to earth’s hydrology, while creating aesthetically-pleasing, human-scale public spaces and streets.
On December 29, I posted a brief rebuke about this situation on my Facebook page, to which the former director of Public Works responded in a lengthy post in defense of the City’s project. He also admonished me to use social media to spread “good news” from the City. I submit that in a democracy, all media should be used to shed light and disseminate information.