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Aging Drainage Strains Metro Detroit
Metro area faces $52 billion drainage bill

Water users will be tapped to rebuild systems

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.

Sewer replacements
   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 from completion.

   Mt. Clemens
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.

   Clinton Twp.
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 project.

   Evergreen-Farmington Drain
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 pollution overflows.

   Crumbling, 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 boom.
   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 local waterways.
   "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.
Invisible issue
   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 water."
   "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 cost."
   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 Phillips said.
   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



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