Peoria pushes EPA for more time to stop dumping raw sewage into Illinois River

Pleasure boats speed past the Murray Baker Bridge and jet skis zigzag back and forth across the channel through an area of the Illinois River near downtown Peoria where untreated sewage enters the river during heavy rain.

The city would like to correct this sewage problem over a 20-year timeframe, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wants faster remediation.

Signs posted along the boat ramps on each side of the Spirit of Peoria paddlewheel warn that raw sewage flows into the river during storms, and people should avoid all contact with the water. That includes the spray kicked up on faces of boaters and the hands and toes children dangle in the water. The reality is people walk and recreate in this area oblivious to their exposure to raw sewage.

Peoria shares this problem, combined sewer overflow, with about 770 cities mostly in the East and Midwest that have combined storm and sanitary sewers that overload during heavy precipitation. (Several people have confirmed sewage overflow happens even during light precipitation.) When the system is filled with rainwater, sewage can either back up into basements or be diverted to flow into the river.

Joyce Blumenshine, spokeswoman for the Heart of Illinois Group Sierra Club, signed up for computerized alerts to receive notifications when the system overflows and sewage is being discharged into the river.

“It doesn’t take a heavy rain. It happens even with a light shower,” Blumenshine said.

Currently, Peoria is dumping about 160 million gallons of untreated sewage into the Illinois River each year. In response to an EPA mandate to remediate, the city has come up with a totally “green” solution that does not rely on concrete pipes and waste treatment facilities but uses permeable paving, bioswales and vegetation.

About three decades ago, the city was dumping up to 840 million gallons of sewage a year into the Illinois River, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated corrective treatment. The city invested $10 million into “gray” infrastructure including sewer pipes and treatment. That reduced the annual overflow to about 160 million gallons a year.

Now the EPA is requiring a further reduction. While the city calls this an “unfunded mandate,” environmentalists call this something that should have been remediated decades ago.

Blumenshine said, “Every city is responsible for sewage. This is not news. Peoria has ducked this issue for decades, and that could be considered criminal. We are lucky the city hasn’t been fined.”

Researching green solutions for the city, Mike Rogers, director of public works, and Scott Reeise, city engineer, have visited communities across the country and come up with a plan that eliminates sewage overflow into the Illinois River based on a 10-year storm event projection.

The cost for this final green solution is $200 million compared with $300 million for a gray solution. Proposals for paying for that cost include an increase in property taxes, a storm water utility tax or a sanitary tax. Peoria could adopt a practice used by some communities of offering tax credits for permeable paving and green roofs.

New street upgrades in the Warehouse District sends storm runoff into dry wells in the sidewalk that are planted in trees and other vegetation. The water in these dry wells does not enter the river and is absorbed into the soil. Reducing water that enters the storm sewers increases space for sewage, thereby reducing the need to direct it to the river.

The new “green” plan covers about 8 square miles from Caroline to Darst streets in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Peoria. Streets would be upgraded and alleys would become green like the Chicago “green alley program” with permeable paving, bioswales and deep-rooted vegetation that sends water into the soil, not into storm sewers.

Rogers said he’d like to see a 20-year implementation for this green upgrade.

“The longer the time for implementation, the less rates go up because the cost is spread out over a longer term,” he said. “If implementation is 5 to 8 years, the rates go up more.”

Blumenshine said, “That time frame, another 20 years, troubles me. That’s 20 years on top of decades of ignoring the problem.”

Reeise said the city is looking at best practices in other communities and toured the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y., that uses a system of filtration and water tanks filled with vegetation to clean sewage.

“Instead of waste water treatment facilities, plant material cleans the water,” he said.

Rogers said he was a traditional engineer who did not believe in green solutions until several years ago when he toured a neighborhood in Los Angeles that went 100 percent green in sewage treatment and capitalized on that system for economic revitalization.

“We can do that. We can create jobs in green infrastructure,” he said.


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