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Aging Drainage Strains Metro DetroitMetro area faces $52 billion
Water users will be tapped to rebuild
By Gene Schabath, Mike Martindale
and Gordon Trowbridge / The Detroit News
Todd McInturf / The Detroit News
Rick Reber works on the $140-million
construction of a massive underground storage tank in Madison Heights.
The sewer projects planned or under way in Metro Detroit include:
12 Towns Drain (George W. Kuhn Drain)
$144-million project to expand holding tank and prevent sewage overflows, as required by a
federal court order; scheduled for completion in 2004.
St. Clair Shores / Eastpointe / Roseville
$70 million to expand sewer pipes and replace pumps to prevent overflows is three years
Just finished a pollution-control project costing $36 million that raised water bills an
average of $145 a year.
Fraser /Auburn Hills /Clinton Twp. /Madison Hts.
Among the many communities that have spent as much as $5 million to disconnect household
down spouts and footing drains from storm sewers.
Project to fix leaking pipes and manholes; estimated cost in the millions.
Southern Oakland County
Communities including Royal Oak and Birmingham just finished $16.8-million overflow relief
Improvements to holding basin that serves 15 communities could cost $180 million. Oakland
Drain Commissioner John McCulloch hopes to get permission for an alternative that could
cost as little as $17 million.
Detroit Water and Sewerage Department
After $1.7 billion in improvements since 1977, estimates to continue updates and control
pollution reach as high as $3 billion.
Clinton Twp./ Fraser/ Center Line / Grosse Ile
Local communities under orders by state Department of Environmental Quality to reduce
overflowing, pollution-spewing sewers are a $52-billion ticking time bomb for southeast
Michigan, threatening to balloon water bills, increase taxes, cut into other public
services and perhaps even choke the development at the heart of Metro Detroit's suburban
A growing group of public officials and environmental activists across
Michigan is struggling to gain attention for an issue about as unsexy as they come.
"It's not a pothole or your child coming home with a bad report
card," said Craig Ruff of Lansing's Public Sector Consultants. "It's not Grandma
having to pay $300 for a prescription. Those things are visible, everyday experiences, but
we're talking about something that's not in your face."
No part of Metro Detroit is immune from the costs, whether it's aging
pipes in older communities, such as Detroit and Mt. Clemens, or flooded basements and
over-extended sewer systems in burgeoning new suburbs like Farmington Hills.
Not to mention the threat to the environment and drinking-water supplies
posed by billions of gallons of partially or completely untreated sewage flowing into
"There is human feces in the rivers," said Rep. Bruce
Patterson, R-Canton Township. "This issue is not going away."
An even greater fear for some local leaders: the possibility U.S.
District Judge John Feikens, who has overseen local compliance with pollution rules for
more than two decades, might order a stop to development construction until the area's
sewer needs are met.
About $1 billion worth of sewer construction in Michigan over the last
decade has failed to keep up with suburban development, environmental requirements and the
need to replace pipes and pumps that are in some cases seven decades old. A Southeast
Michigan Council of Governments report puts the price at $52 billion over the next two
decades, including the cost of borrowing money to do the work. Nationally, estimates run
as high as $1 trillion -- and absolutely no one is sure where the money will come from.
Local governments say there is no way they and their rate-payers can
handle all the expense. Lawmakers in Lansing may get behind Rep. Patterson's plan to
borrow $1 billion to pay for sewer projects -- or they might not. A $20-billion proposal
in Congress to help states with sewer expenses is likely to be sacrificed to the defense
budget and the war on terrorism.
Macomb County Board of Commissioners Chairman John Hertel looks at the
$100 million in sewer projects now under way in his county and sees crisis.
"We need something like the Manhattan project in World War
II," said Hertel. "Like the Manhattan Project, this is something that only the
federal government could handle."
But the issue is as secret to most people as the atomic-bomb effort was
to Americans during the war.
In the recent Detroit News/WDIV Mood of Michigan poll, only 1 percent of
those surveyed said outdated sewers were a major problem, even though the projected costs
of sewer repair and replacement are similar to those for road repairs, the No. 3 priority
for those polled.
Underground are a variety of expensive problems: decades-old pipes
desperately in need of repair; systems that overflow into creeks and rivers whenever rain
fills them to overflowing; even seemingly innocuous items like leaky manholes and down
spouts in homes that flow directly into sewer pipes. That doesn't include the need to
extend sewer lines to the area's ever-expanding suburban developments.
The improvement efforts reach into individual homes, like Johnella
Harris's in Auburn Hills. The city is spending about $3 million to disconnect the down
spouts of homes like hers from pipes that lead directly into sewers. The flow from those
down spouts can overburden sewer systems, leading to pollution-causing overflows.
"When I heard what they were doing and that I could have the work
done for free, I called up," Harris said of the $6,000-a-home job.
All of it must be dealt with under a complex set of federal clean-water
regulations designed to keep disease-carrying sewage from flowing into public waterways.
And all of it costs money.
Right now, at least $250-million worth of projects are under way in
Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties. They include the $140-million construction of a
massive underground storage tank at what's known as the 12 Towns Drain complex in Madison
Heights, and a $70-million expansion project in St. Clair Shores.
There's plenty more to come: Estimates of the cost of replacing aging
Detroit Water & Sewerage Department facilities, which serve 4.3 million customers in
the area, run at about $3 billion. Early estimates for a 12 Towns-style fix at another
complex in western Oakland County have approached $190 million.
If those expenses and others aren't met, some local leaders fear the
area's economy might be at risk.
Out of business
Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson's State of the County
Address this year was not as upbeat as usual.
Sure, the budget was in fine shape, the county still had its top-notch
credit rating and the value of county real estate still toped that of 10 whole states.
But he also grimly noted how Oakland County alone faced $11 billion
worth of drain and sewer upgrades over the next 30 years. And how Federal Judge Feikens,
who oversees the Federal Clean Water Act in Metro Detroit, was threatening to "slam
the door shut on future development in the region unless progress is made cleaning up our
"He could simply issue an injunction that says there will be no
more permits issued for construction in southeast Michigan until the court deems the
quality of our water supply has improved," Patterson said.
"If such a moratorium were to occur, it would bring to a screeching
halt the blooming economy in Oakland County that we've enjoyed over the past decades. We'd
simply be out of business."
It's a threat suburban developers in the Atlanta area already face,
thanks to the order of a federal judge there. And it's one Feikens has made sure area
leaders are aware of.
But Feikens, in a recent interview, said things aren't that desperate.
"We are making substantial progress ... but civilization has its
Feikens, now 83, makes clear his view that despite the expense, those
waiting for federal help to carry the costly burden are wasting their time. Unlike the
1980s -- which he calls a "Golden Spigot" era for federal funding -- the money
coming from Washington is now only a trickle.
"The only way to do this is not taxation but through the imposition
of rates on the users of the system -- those who get the water and whose sewage are
removed," he said. "And if folks want to live 60 or 70 miles out and away from
the treatment plants, then they should have to pay a little higher rate. That might be a
part of the solution to urban sprawl."
Search for dollars
If the burden will fall primarily on water-bill payers, look no farther
than Saginaw for a preview of a worst-case scenario.
In 1989, the city began to separate its sanitary and storm water sewers
to prevent sewage overflows during heavy rains. Saginaw's water utility borrowed $110
million for the job. Thirteen years later, it still owes $80 million -- or twice the
city's annual budget -- and water bills are up more than 400 percent.
"If your (Metro Detroit-area) residents went through what ours did,
you would have a lot of people tossed out of office down there," City Manager Reed
Bills got so high that the sticker shock of quarterly bills forced the
city to go to a monthly billing cycle. The average bill of $19.30 a quarter jumped to
$92.41 a month.
Officials like Oakland County Drain Commissioner John McCulloch see that
scenario as unacceptable, and they look to federal and state officials for help.
McCulloch said he would like federal grants in the "25 to 30
percent range" to meet environmental goals -- something that would require massive
infusions of federal dollars.
Federal officials recognize the scope of the problem. A draft
Environmental Protection Agency report, leaked last week, predicts that at current funding
levels, more than half the country's sewer pipes will be in disrepair, and that of $7.5
billion in planned spending by local governments to meet federal rules, not a dollar will
come from federal coffers.
Efforts to add federal money, though, have run into post-Sept. 11
reality. Earlier this year, Bush administration officials told Congress they wouldn't
support sewer funding, saying the money is needed for defense and anti-terrorism efforts.
It's also unclear whether the state will chip in more. Rep. Patterson
wants to ask voters to approve a $1-billion bond issue to help pay sewer costs; a similar
measure in the state Senate would add $1 billion more for school construction.
Patterson acknowledges that with the slow economy taking a chunk out of
government budgets and taxpayer wallets, it's a tough sell.
"There are an awful lot of demands out there," he said.
"... We're going to have to pick and choose -- and when I'm asked, I'm going to say
let's step up and address the water issue. We can't survive without good water."
You can reach Gene Schabath at (586) 468-3614 or email@example.com