October 29, 2014 – Rob Earnshaw
Hammond Sanitary District Manager Marty Wielgos calls it “liquid gold.”
Usually it’s referred to as liquid waste — the effluent that’s discharged into the Grand Calumet River from the sanitary district. Wielgos said there is a big difference in the quality of the liquid compared to when it was sewage water coming into the plant.
Proof comes each year about this time in the form of salmon, who swim from Lake Michigan and spawn in the upstream waters surging out of the discharge pipe of the district.
“They come here to spawn and die,” said Don Woodard, superintendent of wastewater treatment. “They always come back to where they were born. They wouldn’t be here if the water wasn’t clean.”
Years ago that wasn’t the case, Wielgos said. Water would be dumped into the river untreated. The Grand Calumet was a major shipping canal for Northwest Indiana, Wielgos said, and there used to be a large meat packing plant on the river.
Carcasses from the plant were being dumped into the river and “it became very polluted,” Wielgos said.
“Over the years, the sanitary districts that lined the Grand Calumet, including parts of Chicago, started doing a process that sent the water cleaner back into the river,” Wielgos said recently while watching the salmon near the discharge pipe.
“To me it’s truly amazing how many times I’ve been out here to look at this. It should be able to be used for something other than us putting it right back into the river.”
Wielgos said in California, because of the water shortage, effluent is sent back to the treatment plant and retreated for drinking water.
“It would all be part of a long learning process for the public to become comfortable with that here,” he said.
The sanitary facility pumps about 30 million gallons of water a day into the Grand Calumet. When it rains the amount can jump to 85 million.
The 80-acre facility, the fifth largest in the state, is also home to other wildlife including coyotes, deer, foxes and dozens of bird species. Sometimes a gold carp can be spotted in one of final clarifers, courtesy of ducks that picked up eggs and dropped them in the tank during a stop.
“The Hammond Sanitary District exists hand-in-hand with nature along the Grand Calumet,” Wielgos said.