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By Jim Sack
Fort Wayne Reader
When urban enthusiasts talk about economic development and bringing new life to the downtown, Fort Wayne’s rivers are highlighted for their potential. The Legacy Task Force has elevated to near the top of their short list a proposal to redevelop the downtown river front with millions in I&M lease money. The proposals are somewhere between committees and Mayor's preparation for submission to council.
But as city councilman Mitch Harper recently noted, the rivers remain a sordid pollution problem. Our rivers are still filthy, and relief — according to pollution control engineer Matthew Wurtz — is eight or more years away.
Over history our rivers have gone from a sturgeon-filled source of food for Little Turtle and family to a cesspool. The waves of European settlers used the rivers more for dumping than nourishment. There are pictures from the early 1900s that show mounds of debris rising from river banks to the back sides of buildings.
The clawback started about the same time the photos were taken in 1905 or so. David Foster and others founded the Park Department, and brought famed landscape designer George Kessler to town to beautify the city.
What he designed was a revolutionary step forward in urban planning that took our city from a tight grid system of streets to sweeping, undulating boulevards that define places like Sycamore Hills, Chesnut Hills, Cherry Hills and all those faux “glen”s and “hollow”s and “creeks." He reversed the philosophy of parks scattered around a city to a city with the emphasis on every neighborhood designed as parks for beauty and aesthetics.
And Kessler focused on the rivers as the center of our renaissance. But what he offered went largely incomplete due to the 1920s city council's miserliness and shortsightedness. Even the riverside drives he envisioned have been separated from their view by gray, concrete, industrial-strength flood walls.
Long ago, I gave up my regular Memorial Day Canoe Regatta because my friends were just too concerned about ingesting a drop of our polluted rivers which we are just now — 100 years after Kessler — are starting to clean up. And the reluctant clean up is only coming because Washington demanded it and was willing to force us to do what we should have done 15 mayors and 20 indifferent city councils ago.
In the late 1990s, the federal government acted where local government would only give lip service. Bitching and moaning, City Council began complying and has since approved tens of millions of dollars in construction projects to keep your toilet waste from bobbing along for all to see and extinguishing most life, certainly all edible life, including those sturgeon, in the river. The funds are mostly added to your water bill. You are paying for two centuries of sloth.
So, in early June, engineer Matthew Wurtz was summoned to council table by Mitch Harper. Harper was angry that a promise of information long ago requested from same Mr. Wurtz had not been fulfilled. Wurtz’s voice was soft and contrite.
But Wurtz did not apologize, he just gave the standard bureaucratic answer: we will have that for you this fall. Manana. Mr. Harper’s eyebrow raised and he made a note in his smartphone. Who knows, maybe the bureaucrat will eventually make good on his promises.
What Wurtz added after his faux-apology was even more disappointing: the rate and toxicity of our pollution of our own rivers, the center of our city, is little better than an EPA superfund site. It is poison for man and beast.
Gallons of toxic liquid flow into our rivers during every heavy rain “event,” he said (rain “event?”), the equivalent to more than a thousand Olympic-size swimming pools. Wurtz then added that we would not see real progress until around 2020, if by then, given politics, lethargy, indifference and budgetary “constraints.” Promises, promises.
So, where does that leave all of our plans to use the rivers as the centerpiece of economic development? Neck deep in effluent, that pretty Latin-based word for the good old Anglo Saxon word shit. All of the pretty plans for marinas, vistas and boardwalks depend upon rivers that do not stink and don't turn the stomach with the site of raw sewage. Installing a sculpture or two, creating overlooks and boardwalks will not change the foul view and the stagnant air that define our rivers.
It is mom’s fundamental law of life: clean up after yourself. We have not done that. Our political leaders and our businesses have taken the cheap way out over the past two centuries by dumping their waste — a business expense, and a tax expense — into the river for future generations to clean up. It is now our cost; we will pay the $250 million from our pockets to pay for our elders’ sins. Businesses have pocketed the savings, mayors have valued re-election over civic duty.
Despite the otherwise diligent and sincere cleanup effort of the Henry Administration, the problem only gets worse when a bureaucrat fails to keep a promise to Mr. Harper and the community.
Word is that Mr. Harper is planning a run for mayor. Anyone who cares about their community should take heart in his voiced determination to clean the rivers. We should support him on that point, if nothing more. In fact, when a Republican talks environmental clean up and protection we should, after recovering from the initial shock, applaud — it is so unusual. Despite “conservatism” and “conservation” coming from the same meaning the Republicans have not been at the forefront of environmental care.
Perhaps the indignant Mr. Harper will offer a plan to make industrial dumpers, restaurateurs, and other serial polluters do what mom expected of all of us — clean up after themselves instead of transferring the expense to the rest of us.