The Saint Joseph River: Clean, but safe?

A recent series of articles in the South Bend Tribune focused on the Saint Joseph River. Two of the articles examined the water quality in the river and the dangers posed by swimming and boating in its waters. The Saint Joseph River is a wonderful resource for our community. It is the third largest tributary into Lake Michigan. The river has gained a reputation as a huge dynamic fishery and is considered one of the finest summer steelhead fisheries in the country. Over 50 species of fish have been identified in the river. The water quality in the Saint Joseph River is very good and continues to improve.

However, the river was not always a community asset. A State Board of Health study in 1930 declared the Saint Joseph River was grossly polluted by both domestic sewage and industrial waste. The study deemed the river to be dangerous to public health and to fish life. The cities of Mishawaka and South Bend discharged untreated sewage from a combined population of 125,000 persons into the river. Local industries discharged wastes equivalent to another 25,000 people. At that time there were no wastewater treatment plants. The study recommended that the cities construct treatment plants and have them on-line no later than early 1934. The Great Depression and World War II delayed construction until the late 1940s.

Mishawaka’s wastewater treatment plant began operation in April of 1952. Wastewater treatment put an end to the continuous flow of sewage and industrial waste into the river and a steady improvement in water quality followed. In 1990 and again in 2008, Mishawaka upgraded and expanded its wastewater treatment plant to meet the needs of a growing community and to achieve ever higher levels of treatment. In our lifetimes the river has never been cleaner.

A remaining challenge for Mishawaka, and over 900 communities nationwide, is the reduction of sewer overflows in wet weather. Some older parts of our sewer system were designed to use the same pipes to carry sewage and stormwater runoff. In small storms, this mixture of sewage and rainwater receives full treatment at the wastewater plant. However, in large storms the capacity of the sewers and treatment plant can be exceeded. Combined sewer overflow structures (CSOs) were constructed when treatment plants were built to provide a relief for this excess flow. CSOs prevent street flooding and back-ups into homes and businesses.

Mishawaka has worked aggressively to reduce the volume of combined sewer overflow. Since 1990 the volume of CSO has been reduced by almost 90%. The City has developed a plan to address the remaining overflows, and when the plan is fully implemented there will be zero overflows in years with normal rainfall.

In dry weather the water quality in the river typically meets the standards for full body contact recreation. During large storms, and for a few days afterward, bacteria levels in the river can become elevated and exceed the recreation standard. The source of the bacteria is combined sewer overflows, agricultural runoff, and storm sewer discharges. Because bacteria levels can increase in wet weather, contact with the river should be avoided during, and for several days after a heavy rainfall.

We have come a long way in reducing pollution in our Saint Joseph River and the water quality is very good. However, is a clean river a safe river? The Saint Joe is a large and powerful river. Swimming and wading can be dangerous because of the force of the current, and snags and deep pools hidden beneath the surface. Regardless of water quality, caution should be exercised when in or near the river. Its beauty can be deceiving. Common sense and good judgment are needed to stay safe.

Mishawaka has been a leader in water pollution control, protecting and enhancing the water quality in the Saint Joseph River. The proof is evident when strolling along the Riverwalk. Our efforts will ensure that future generations will inherit a river that is cleaner than ever.