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South Bend still working on cost-saving sewer solutions

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -

A federal mandate is forcing South Bend officials to figure out how to keep the St. Joseph River clean without cleaning out your wallets.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg presented quite a few solutions his administration has been working on to the city’s common council on Monday.

But he says this is still shaping up to be the biggest public works project this city has seen.

“We’re trying to reduce that burden as much as we can so that we reduce the impact to all of our citizens,” said Eric Horvath, South Bend's Public Works director.

Buttigieg told the council he is planning to revisit a costly consent decree by the EPA.

“If the federal government is going to say to cities, ‘we have to make major infrastructure improvements in order to have clean water,’ we need them also to do it on a timeline and according to rules that are affordable,” said Mayor Buttigieg.

In 2011, the government agency mandated $500 million in changes to the city’s sewer system as part of the Clean Water Act.

City engineers say that number is now is at $861 million.

The city has invested $148.9 million already, but officials don’t want to see the rest of its spending go down the drain.

“We have families in the community that could wind up paying as much as 10 percent of their income just on sewer and water bills and of course no one can afford to do that,” said the mayor.

A burden the mayor is looking to avoid it through innovation like the city’s smart sewers program.

“The smart sewer network has been key to our successes,” said Kieran Fahey, the director of the long-term control plan.

They also plan to go green, in an effort to save taxpayers money.

While new infrastructure is still necessary, the city wants to also create more greenspace.

 “Planter boxes, trees, anything to do with making sure all downspouts are disconnected, as many ways as possible to make it beautiful,” said Fahey.

The city calls these new changes the Sage Plan, and estimates it would cut total costs down to around $350 million.

But it has to be renegotiated with the EPA first.

“That’s well worth it, especially if that means taking the overall final price tag of this thing from almost a billion to less than $500 million,” said the mayor.

Buttigieg will also testify before congress on May 18 about the impact this mandate has on communities like South Bend.

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