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The Three Rivers: A Snapshot

Virginia Alvino

After years of simply being part of the landscape for many residents, Fort Wayne’s rivers are getting a lot of attention.

These days, there are new plans for restoration and riverfront development.

Today WBOI begins our series, “The Three Rivers.”

We’ll explore issues of Fort Wayne’s rivers and riverfronts one little piece at a time, reporting on how our relationship with them is changing, and what’s staying the same.

As lots of folks know, Fort Wayne was established along the confluence of three rivers. The St. Marys flows north, the St. Joseph - south, those converge into the Maumee River, the longest contributing stream up to the great lakes.

It’s a system that crosses city, county, and state lines.

And, this region’s relationship with its rivers has changed a lot over the past few centuries or so.

They used to be highways for the native population, European explorers, and American settlements - then

“We brought in the railroads, we brought in the automobile, we didn’t need the rivers for transportation any more, but we did need it for manufacturing as the communities grew, " says Dan Wire, Director of the Tri-State Watershed Alliance. He says this evolution took a toll on our relationship with the water. It became just another product to be used and discarded.

So let’s take a look at three causes of pollution today, and how they’re changing – raw sewage, sediment, and nutrients.

First thing lots of people think of is sewage – fair. About a billion gallons of raw sewage is flushed into the water each year in Fort Wayne. The City is currently investing in what could be its largest public works project ever – to drastically reduce those overflows.  

Next , the biggest contributor to that brown color, sediment.

“And that’s just dirt that washes off,” says Wire. 

Sediment is fine clay in our soil that takes a long time to settle. Wire says since the 70s we’ve reduced the amount of sediment in half, and are starting to do more dredging projects that filter it out.

Fort Wayne’s new riverfront plan includes a few lakes that could help with that, still he says the rivers will be brown for a while. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

Lastly, chemicals called nutrients, like phosphorous. They can attach themselves to the dirt, and create troublesome algae blooms.We saw the effects of this in dramatic fashion last August when a hazardous algae bloom caused a drinking water ban for more than 400,000 people near Toledo.

Phosphorous comes from agriculture, sewage, but also fertilizers used in golf courses, or your own home lawn. This is the area where we’re seeing some real resourcefulness in improving best practices.

Dan Wire wants us to focus on the global picture. He says Fort Wayne is lucky to have so much water in the first place.

“I think that now we’re seeing in today’s economy it’s the quality of place, quality of life that is the huge driver," says Wire, "that is the new economic engine of most communities.” 

Dan says especially bigger communities and industries understand this, that the water itself is a valuable economic resource – so they’re being proactive and making improvements.

Still other sectors are making changes in response to regulation, or just to be good stewards.

Basically across the board, there’re some best practices we know are working, and some we’re still figuring out. But as those things develop, Dan says the community still needs a change in perspective. He’s a big time advocate for recreation and developing personal relationships with the water.

“The public has just heard mostly about how they’re an enemy, and that’s a very small percentage of the time," says Wire. "By and large, the majority of the time, the rivers are great, go play on them, you can recreate on them.” 

He says there’re lots of upcoming opportunities to get up close and personal with the rivers, from Dragon Boat races and pontoon rides, to dinner on The Deck. But one thing he’s sure of. He says “it definitely takes everyone working together to get the results that are going to be best.”