CROWN POINT — Lake County is preparing to invest a large share of its $94 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds into connecting more than a thousand homes and businesses onto sanitary sewers and getting them off leaking, failing septic systems.
The Lake County Commissioners agreed in principle Wednesday to begin moving forward with a four-year sewerage plan that aims to reduce the amount of E. coli and other harmful bacteria that tests show are increasingly popping up in ditches and other county waterways.
The primary area of focus is an unincorporated area southwest of Gary bounded by Ridge Road on north, Main Street on the south, Colfax Street on the west, and Cleveland Street (Ind. 55) on the east.
Sam Weber, senior project manager at VS Engineering, told the commissioners that area has recorded 324 septic system complaints since 1991, and elevated levels of E. coli have been found in the Cady Marsh Ditch that runs through the area just north of 45th Street.
"As septic systems age they tend to fail," Weber said. "In this case, the need for a public sewer system is definitely considerable."
The preliminary plan calls for beginning work in the eastern section of the focus area where the majority of the residences and businesses are located.
Weber said spending $42 million would purchase 35,000 feet of sewer pipe, pay for land acquisition and installation, as well as cover the costs of connecting each home and business to the new sewer.
The commissioners also are looking to spend an additional $25 million in American Rescue Plan funds to get five of the nine subdivisions using septic systems in Center Township, near Crown Point, onto sanitary sewers.
Commissioner Jerry Tippy, R-Schererville, said the county already has a tentative agreement with Crown Point to bring the subdivisions online, a move that Tippy said aligns with Crown Point's wastewater system expansion plans.
Federal law requires American Rescue Plan funds be spent by 2026. Weber said he's confident the sewer projects can be designed next year, put out for bid in 2023, and completed by 2025 — keeping the extra year as a buffer if necessary to finish the work.
The commissioners said the remaining unsewered areas near Gary and Crown Point will get connected when the county is able to put together sufficient resources to complete the work, or if Congress provides the needed funds as part of Democratic President Joe Biden's stalled infrastructure legislation.
Commissioner Mike Repay, D-Hammond, acknowledged that a massive sewer project isn't the kind of thing most public officials think of spending money on when unexpected cash comes in the door because if it's done right people will never see it, or probably even think about it, once it's installed.
But Repay said the benefits of doing it are incalculable in terms of public health, improved water quality, and a cleaner environment.
"We want to get as many properties out of a septic situation and into a treated sewer," Repay said.
In other business, the commissioners voted 2-1 to continue a face mask requirement in county government buildings until Nov. 19 to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19.
Repay and Commissioner Kyle Allen Sr., D-Gary, supported the mask mandate; Tippy voted no.
The commissioners also unanimously agreed to defer action on a request by Sheriff Oscar Martinez Jr. to spend $770,060 in county funds to purchase a new Lake Michigan patrol boat for the sheriff's police.