MEXICO, Ind. — Jane Tollver, 66, said she was planning on taking it easy after retiring when she moved to Mexico in rural Miami County five years ago.
But that didn’t happen. In January, she was forced to take a part-time job working as a clerk at the small post office in the unincorporated town of around 950 people.
Why? Tollver said she couldn’t afford a new monthly $60 sewer bill that she never anticipated paying.
Mexico residents started paying the bill earlier this year after completing a $7-million wastewater project to meet federal environmental regulations set out in the Clean Water Act, which Congress passed in 1972.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) discovered the town was in violation of the act after a resident complained about a green substance coming from a field tile. The state said failing septic systems were leaking raw sewage into the Eel River, and residents had to do something about it.
So they did. The town formed a regional sewer district that allowed it to go after state and federal grants and loans to pay for the new sewer system. They discussed the best option to clean up the sewage problem, and decided to build a small treatment facility in town that homes and businesses had to hook in to.
That cost money, too. Tollver said she had to take out a $1,500 loan to pay for the hook-up fee. Now, she said, she’s stuck paying back the loan and shelling out $60 a month to pay for the new treatment facility, its operation and its upkeep.
“I’m retired. A lot of people in Mexico are retired, and $60 a month is a big chunk of change for people who live on Social Security,” she said. “This wasn’t what I expected when I moved up here.”
Tollver’s situation isn’t unique. Over the last 30 years, thousands of Indiana residents in hundreds of rural communities across the state have faced the same conundrum: Build a new wastewater system to replace failing septics, or face the consequences from the state.
Those consequences could include fines or the possibility of health departments condemning homes as unlivable.
In Miami, Howard and Tipton counties alone, at least 12 rural sewer projects are either complete or in the works. Just this year, 10 communities in Indiana building or upgrading small-scale wastewater projects like the one in Mexico took out a total of $32.1 million in low-interest loans from the state to pay for their projects.
It’s a big expense for small, rural areas to build new sewer systems, and those expenses translate into monthly bills that are rarely less than $50 and sometimes more than $80 for communities that are often low income.
Those expenses have a lot of residents asking the question: Are these projects worth the money?
“I think every little town in Indiana is going to have something like this eventually,” said Reggie Wolf, a Jefferson Township Trustee and local business owner who was involved in the Mexico sewer project. “But I just wonder how much impact our system is going to have on cutting pollution down in that river. How much impact is our expense really going to have?”
It’s a fair question. Despite the millions of dollars spent annually on rural sewer projects, many state waterways still remain dirty and polluted due to things like farm pesticides sprayed on fields and chemical runoff from roads.
“One of the biggest challenges Indiana’s rivers, streams, lakes, and wetlands face does not come from the end of pipe,” reads an IDEM statement on what it calls nonpoint source pollution. “It’s pollution that can come from our construction sites, our parking lots, our farms, our roads, and even our own backyards.”
It’s hard to control this kind of pollution, and it’s a major reason why IDEM has deemed three out of four streams it monitors as impaired, or not fit for full-body contact recreational use, according to IDEM’s 2012 water quality report.
Bruno Pigott, assistant commissioner of IDEM’s office of water quality, said the state acknowledges there are multiple sources of pollution that taint Indiana’s waterways, and failing septic systems releasing untreated sewage is just one of them.
But just because it’s one contributing factor to the overall pollution problem doesn’t mean nothing should be done, he said.
“We need to work on all sources of pollution, and we do work on them,” Pigott said. “We have to use all our tools to solve the problem. Slowly, working with all our partners, we’ll get there.”
For farmers and businesses that may generate contaminated runoff that seeps into streams, he said the state offers incentive programs to encourage them to take steps to minimize that runoff.
But incentives are different than mandates, said Richard Denney, a certified wastewater treatment operator for the Lake Bruce conservancy district west of Rochester — especially when those mandates cost rural communities and taxpayers millions of dollars.
Denney said he agrees with the state that residential sewage shouldn’t be polluting waterways. But he said engineering firms often over-design rural sewer projects to meet excessive regulations from the state, driving up construction costs that in turn make monthly sewer bills higher for residents.
For example, when Bruce Lake constructed its wastewater treatment plant, he said, federal and state regulations required the plant to have the capacity to treat 300 gallons of water per household per day.
How much water were residents actually using? Denney said around 70 gallons per day.
“We’re talking requiring our plant to treat over four times what we’re actually using,” he said. “Someone in the ivory tower down in Indianapolis says these are the figures you have to abide by. They don’t look at the actual demographics.”
If state officials were to look at those demographics, Denney said, they would discover that many rural communities where new wastewater systems are built aren’t growing, and will likely get smaller, making the regulations and requirements even more excessive.
“I don’t see IDEM doing any field work before these projects begin,” he said. “They have set regulations without flexibility.”
But IDEM commissioner Pigott said the state does allow communities flexibility when it comes to solving their pollution problems.
If a rural area forms a regional sewer district, he said, that entity has complete jurisdiction over new sewer projects. The sewer district board is made up of area residents and they have the power to decide whether they want to construct their own treatment plant, connect to a pre-existing one in a larger city, or some other option. Indiana currently has around 100 regional sewer districts.
“It’s clear that federal law requires regulation for water being discharged through a pipe,” he said. “We can’t really do anything about that. But we don’t tell communities what they have to do or what path they have to go down.”
Pigott said sewer districts and communities should look at growth trends in their area to determine the best solution for fixing failing septic systems, and he said IDEM and other state offices are available to offer advice or help at any time on different sewage treatment options.
“Communities should take those factors into consideration, not the state,” he said. “They know their communities best.”
But whatever option rural areas decide on will have a price tag for users.
In Macy, a town with around 200 residents in northern Miami County, residents are paying a new $48 monthly sewer fee to pipe their waste to a treatment plant a few miles away. The Macy project cost $1.2 million, and was completed last year.
Marilyn Jackson, president of the town council, said she believes citizens need to be responsible for keeping waterways clean and she understood the need for a new system in Macy.
But, she said, the state had little consideration for how the town funded the project, and didn’t have much sympathy for low-income residents, who Jackson said struggle to pay the new bill.
“They don’t care if you can afford it or not,” she said. “It’s almost like taxation without representation. The government is far removed from Macy, Indiana, but we have to deal with their regulations every day.”
IDEM’s Pigott said he does understand the impact rural sewer projects have on small communities, but in the end, clean water has its price.
“I know there’s a sense of sticker shock when people get the bill,” he said. “I understand that. It’s expensive, especially for people with a limited income. But think about what you’re getting. You flush the toilet and it goes away, it’s cleaned up and it enters our waterways clean.
“It is expensive, but clean water is worth it,” Pigott said. “It’s an extremely valuable resource.”
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at email@example.com.
The Clean Water Act as it is now became law in 1972. It creates the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into U.S. waters, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.