Water crisis hits Michigan suburbs. ‘We’ve been sounding alarms for years’

water

Stores in western Oakland County quickly sold out of bottled water after a transmission main broke on Monday night. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

When a massive water main broke this week in Oakland County and made tap water unsafe to drink for 305,000 residents, a top utility official called the mishap “unprecedented.”

Experts fear it could be something else: a byproduct of aging infrastructure in Michigan whose failings are becoming more frequent and dangerous. A task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder last year concluded that Michigan water systems need $60 billion in upgrades.

“There’s no question. As infrastructure gets older, we’re seeing these things happen more frequently, and the cost for repairs is only going to increase,” said Sean McBrearty, a campaign organizer with Michigan Clean Water Action, an environmental group.

MORE COVERAGE: Michigan’s record on infrastructure: Ignore everything

MORE COVERAGE: $4 billion question: How to pay for infrastructure fixes?

This month alone, boil water advisories have been issued in Potterville, South Haven, Albion and Mount Morris because of water main breaks, which are common in winter because of the freeze-thaw cycle but far less so in warmer months.

“We’ve taken water and sewer for granted for a long time,” said Brian Steglitz, who heads the City of Ann Arbor’s Water Treatment Department and served on the governor’s task force.

Officials said they don’t know why the water main ruptured in Farmington Hills on Monday night, pouring thousands of gallons onto the street and prompting a water emergency extending to northwestern Detroit exurbs.

water press conference

Great Lakes Water Authority officials discuss a water main break during a press conference Tuesday. Sue McCormick, chief executive officer, is at left, while chief operating officer Cheryl Porter is at right. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

The incident lowered water pressure, making tap water susceptible to bacteria and E.coli infections, prompting a mandate to boil water that covered 11 communities from Novi and West Bloomfield to Rochester Hills that is estimated to continue at least through Friday.

Schools closed. Hospitals canceled surgeries. And residents drove miles for bottled water.

“A main break of this magnitude impacting so many customers is really unprecedented in our system,” said Sue McCormick, chief executive officer for the Great Lakes Water Authority that manages the water system that serves some 4 million customers in southeast Michigan.

Water officials are investigating whether an outage at a nearby power station caused an electrical surge that contributed to the rupture of the 48-inch transmission main, said Cheryl Porter, chief operating officer of the authority.

The water main was installed in 1970 –  about middle-aged for its type –  and had no previous breaks, McCormick said. She acknowledged it had never been inspected but said that isn’t unusual for large mains that are buried 6-to-10 feet deep.

The mishap comes three weeks after the Detroit branch of the NAACP called on the Great Lakes Water Authority to invest more money in repairs and maintenance. Since 2016, the authority has been leasing and operating Detroit’s water system as part of a deal that gives the city $50 million per year over 40 years to make repairs.

“We’ve been sounding alarms for years that there’s a huge infrastructure crisis,” said Meeko Williams, a Detroit water activist who served on the Blue Ribbon Panel on Water Affordability, a group of experts appointed by the City Council in 2016.

In February, for instance, a problem at a GLWA water treatment plant in Detroit put nearly half the city –  and all of Hamtramck and Highland Park –  on a boil-water advisory for more than two days.

“So many things should have been wake-up calls,” Williams said. “Why neighborhoods and freeways flood when it storms. Sinkholes. Maybe now that it’s happening to Oakland County (Michigan’s wealthiest), people will pay attention.”

‘We really could use some help’

Water quality issues extend far beyond southeast Michigan.

In September, the Great Lakes Commission, a government group representing eight states and two provinces, called for $271 billion in water infrastructure investment over the next 20 years –  including at least $15 billion in investments to the Michigan water system.

“The lack of long-term planning and investments to maintain and improve water infrastructure systems are key factors that have led to this crisis,” the report read. “Many Great Lakes communities have outdated water infrastructure that is now between 50 and 150 years old.”

The most notorious example, of course, is Flint, which is still recovering from a three-year water emergency that exposed 100,000 residents to high levels of lead in drinking water and is also linked to an outbreak of legionella that killed at least a dozen people. The crisis began when the city, at the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, switched its water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River without taking precautions to ensure the city’s pipes didn’t leach lead into the system.

MORE COVERAGE: Disaster Day by Day: A detailed Flint crisis timeline

Statewide, Snyder’s task force found a host of challenges, including:  

  • 5.7 billion gallons, on average, of untreated raw sewage that flows into Michigan waterways annually.
  • 64 rivers that drain the vast majority of land in the Lower Peninsula (84 percent) tested positive for human sewage.
  • 1 in 10 of the state’s 1.3 million septic tanks are experiencing operational problems.

Yet the municipalities, counties and utility authorities that can fix the problems are spending $800 million a year less than is necessary to keep up, according to the report.

“We could really use some help,” said Jim Nash, Oakland County’s water resources commissioner.

Snyder’s task force called for $4 billion per year in new taxes and fees. Nothing has come of the proposal.

Nash said he would welcome the new spending because it would help communities inspect systems and prioritize repairs. Without a list of specific needs, Nash said cities only respond to emergencies. Detroit, for instance, repairs 1,900 water main breaks per year rather than invest in improvements, Nash said.

If Detroit shored up its massive leaks, Nash said, the GLWA could shut down one of its five water treatment plants. The system pumps 400 million gallons of water per day, but as much as 80 million gallons of that leaks from the pipes before reaching customers, according to a 2015 master plan.

MORE COVERAGE: Detroit cites progress, but water shutoffs actually rose last year

Compounding the problem in places like Metro Detroit: Conservation is reducing water usage, which reduces revenues. Yet the GLWA and the dozens of municipalities that operate systems big and small still have to maintain the same number of pipes.

“This system was built for a much larger service population than we have today,” said McCormick.

A ‘major pain and inconvenience’

In Oakland County, the incident was a wakeup call to Tanya Haaseth.

The West Bloomfield woman has three sons, including a 17-year-old with autism. She called the situation a “major pain and inconvenience.”

“I worry about these things all the time because we can’t just go to a hotel because of my son,” she said. “He doesn’t understand that he can’t drink the water, so we have to be vigilant to make sure he doesn’t.”

She said she plans on keeping more bottled water in storage in case of a recurrence.

McCormick said the GLWA has undertaken a “methodical condition assessment” of its sewer system and will embark on a similar one for its water transmission lines.

Steglitz and Nash agree the situation could have a silver lining: increased awareness of a problem that many had associated with poorer cities such as Flint and Detroit.

“It’s starting to impact more people,” Steglitz said.

Ann Arbor, for instance, may have to spend $80 million to replace a water treatment plant that was built in 1938 and updated many times over the years. And in 2015, Grand Rapids finished a multi-million upgrade of a system that carries and treats sanitary sewage and stormwater, reducing the danger that untreated sewage would flow into the Grand River.

“You have to replace the car at some point,” Steglitz said. “You can’t keep fixing it.”

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Suze
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 9:05am

And north of Grand Rapids by Rockford, industrial pollutants from decades old dump sites is being found in residents water supplies.
Not the time to allow Nestle to pump millions of gallons more for sale out of state.

Roger Martin
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 9:11am

It is absolute fact that Michigan's elected leaders -- Republicans and Democrats -- have ignored the state's massive infrastructure needs for literally decades. This includes more than roads and bridges. In most instances, our community drinking water systems (which serve about 75 percent of the state's residents), wastewater and stormwater systems and 2,000-plus dams were built 50, 75 or even more than 100 years ago. Business Leaders for Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber, and Michigan voters all rank fixing infrastructure as the top or one of the top two most pressing issues facing the state. Yet, Lansing does pretty much nothing. To learn more about the state's infrastructure needs, I'd encourage you to visit www.FixMIState.org. It is really the only website that seeks to quantify and explain those needs in one place. We intend to continue updating the website with new information and new examples of failing, outdated and overwhelmed infrastructure in Michigan. Frankly, the Legislature will continue to do nothing about infrastructure unless and until voters tell them it's time to fix our state.

Mike Watza
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 9:17am

Nah! Fake News! Give the DeVoss family and their peers their tax cuts. They all drink sparkling water anyway.

Bernadette
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 9:25am

Thank you again Bridge for a balanced and well done article. The statement from the article speaks to just one of the many areas in this state that are broken. (government, education, transportation etc. could be included)

“The lack of long-term planning and investments to maintain and improve water infrastructure systems are key factors that have led to this crisis,” the report read. “Many Great Lakes communities have outdated water infrastructure that is now between 50 and 150 years old.”

Our state government has been an embarrassment for the last decade. Government officials need to have the experience both politically and socially for these offices, not a bunch of patriarchal business men who think they know best. The NERD as he likes to call himself is just that. I am so tired of the same old rhetoric from both sides of the aisle. The only response from republicans is to "cut taxes" and protect business and the only response from Democrats is to raise taxes.

There is not one ounce of creative thinking in this state, just recycling the old ideas, so the rich get richer and the poor get ignored.

Michigan is in the deepest crisis in our time and state government as well as Federal Government is irrelevant, and my tax dollars go to this fiasco. WAKE UP MICHIGAN!!

Jeff
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 9:35am

Water main breaks happen, regardless of how new the water infrastructure is. It is interesting to note the overwhelming majority of municipalities in Michigan have little to no problem maintaining and replacing aging water mains and updating treatment plants. Yes, Detroit has population, but all of the other communities have gained who are all service by the system. Sounds like an audit is long overdue.

Susan Hoover
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 10:21am

And still Lansing and Washington wants to cut taxes.

BreatheFree
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 10:28am

The steady drum beat of tax cuts, lower taxes, tax "reform," has created the expectation that public services are adequately funded and we all **deserve** to pay lower taxes. Nothing could be further from the truth, as evidenced by yet another infrastructure failure. Many people are clueless about how many critical services are taxpayer-funded. We need honesty from our politicians on what needs to be done and the fact that taxes cannot be lowered until all of these failing systems are brought up to par. Sure, who wouldn't like to have their taxes lowered but how do people feel about contaminated drinking water, roads and bridges collapsing, children going hungry, etc., as a trade-off?

William C. Plumpe
Fri, 10/27/2017 - 2:43am

I agree 100%.
You can have lower taxes but that probably means services---like clean, fresh water---are
going to suffer. Lower taxes are easy to promise and sure to get attention but as the heated debate in Washington shows not so easy to do.
A much better idea but more difficult is for citizens to advocate not for lowering taxes but for tax monies to be spent more wisely. That means an informed and more involved citizen. One reason tax cuts are so popular is that they are easier than fixing the results because tax cuts are easier to monitor and evaluate. You know when you get money in your pocket but aren't so sure when the quality of services improves.

Michael Emlaw
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 12:15pm

Water and sewer infrastructure, education, parks, libraries, police and fire services, etc. were once thought to be part of government's responsibility to provide for the common good (common weal, commonwealth). But that notion has been seriously eroded by the numbers of people who resist the cost of providing for the common good as they lug cases of bottled water home or vote "no" on library or recreation millages ("I need a book, I go to Barnes and Noble; I want my kid to learn tennis, so we joined the club").

As another example, recently legislation was introduced to expand police powers to private security organizations that some feel they can afford and need to be safe. Will those who pay for those services be open to the next public safety millage?

Where will we get the consensus to deal as a total citizenry with finding adequate resources (yes, I mean taxes) to provide essential services if we continue to splinter into those who must get their drinking water from the tap and those who don't? Between those who regard this water line break (and others to come) as an indictment of our failure to provide for the common good and those who regard it as a temporary inconvenience while a patch is applied?

I'm not optimistic.

David
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 5:18pm

Puerto Rico has gone without running water for a month.

We have aging infrastructure and politicians at both the State and Federal level who would really like to return to the 19th Century. Makes sense. No infrastructure costs if everyone has a hand pump for water and an outhouse in the back yard.

Let's go for it! Make America "Great" Again.

Michigan Observer
Thu, 10/26/2017 - 5:48pm

There were many eloquent responses to the water main break in Oakland County.Roger Martin says, "It is absolute fact that Michigan's elected leaders -- Republicans and Democrats -- have ignored the state's massive infrastructure needs for literally decades." And "Business Leaders for Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber, and Michigan voters all rank fixing infrastructure as the top or one of the top two most pressing issues facing the state. " And, "Frankly, the Legislature will continue to do nothing about infrastructure unless and until voters tell them it's time to fix our state."

Bernadette says, "The statement from the article speaks to just one of the many areas in this state that are broken. (government, education, transportation etc. could be included)"

In each case, it is an institution, state government that is responsible for our problems. Does anyone recall Proposal 1 from 2015? It would have raised about $1.25 billion dollars a year for infrastructure, The MLive issue of March 31, 2015 said, "funding for the state trunkline system -- highways and related bridges -- would jump by nearly $500 million a year." And, " county road commissions would eventually see a collective $490.8 million a year in new funding while cities and villages would get a combined $273.6 million a year, according to the HFA." And, "State funding for mass transit has remained relatively stagnant over the past 18 years, but Proposal 1 would provide a significant boost. If approved, the ballot measure would generate an estimated $116 million a year for the Michigan Comprehensive Transportation Fund." And, "Currently, a married couple with three children that earns $45,000 in a year would qualify for a $94 credit, according to the Citizens Research Council. If Proposal 1 passes, that same family would qualify for a $312 credit." And, " Proposal 1 would generate an estimated $200 million a year that could be spent on K-12 schools, teacher retirement systems, technical education programs or community colleges." And, " Constitutional revenue sharing would rise by an estimated $111 million per year, providing governments across the state with more money that could be spent on services like police, fire and trash pick-up."

The voters, not Lansing, voted down Proposal 1 by four to one.

William C. Plumpe
Fri, 10/27/2017 - 2:32am

I think it all boils down to the will to spend money on improvements.
The Water Authority is hesitant to do preventive maintenance and
replace water mains based upon a set schedule because that means
more money would have to be spent for monitoring and regular replacement.
It's easier and probably less expensive to wait until the mains break but that
means more difficulty when a main does break because you're doing triage
which is always going to be more expensive. Proactive replacement is a good idea
but is definitely going to cost more and I don't know if the will is there to spend the funds. But if it isn't water main breaks will continue to be a problem. And as the system ages
will probably become more frequent too. It's a trade off. Don't spend money on preventive maintenance and wait for a break costing a lot and causing a lot of difficulty or spend more money and replace based on a schedule and regular monitoring.

Barry Visel
Fri, 10/27/2017 - 8:35am

So if I have to replace my car can I expect Lansing (read my fellow taxpayers) to help pay for it? Will Taxpayers help replace my well and septic system (which I paid for and maintain) if they fail? Of course not. In many cases municipal water and sewer systems were constructed with the help of other people’s tax dollars, but user rates were set too low to cover eventual replacement costs, and now taxpayers are asked to pay for these systems again. These are local systems and therefore local problems. This isn’t a state or federal issue.

Anonymous
Fri, 10/27/2017 - 8:49am

Stop the giveaways to businesses. HIREcontractors to fix the infrastructure. ROADS, water, bridges, aging lead filled schools, and USE TAXPAYER MONEY TO ADDRESS TAXPAYER NEEDS. 80 percent of taxpayers pay 9 to 9.8 percent of income to michigan taxes in some form. The TOP quintile pays 5.6 percent. 9.6 BILLION IN TAX SUBSIDIES GO TO BUSINESSES. EVERY YEAR. RIDICULOUS GIVEAWAY.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 10/27/2017 - 12:17pm

Question for Messrs. Kurth & Williamson: Have you found anyone yet who has been able to explain exactly WHY local government has not been doing their job over the years and conducting routine maintenance on these systems?

Local governments always kvetch and moan that there is NEVER enough money, yet never do anything with what they already take in.

Macomb County is a good example. The former public works commissioner (whose cronies are either under investigation or have been indicted by the federal government...state government wouldn't touch this case with a ten-foot pole) touted what a great job he was doing on maintaining the infrastructure. After a massive sinkhole opened up in Fraser and he couldn't leave the state fast enough. Another failure under his watch, Lake St. Clair, is also a cesspool that still has frequent beach closing because of contamination.

Michigan Observer mentions the failure of Proposal 1 above. Well, Proposal 1 got nuked at the ballot box because not only was it chock full of goodies for unrelated items, but monies collected at the pump (i.e. sales tax), never went where they were supposed to in the first place. Michigan Motorists caught onto this bait and switch and the rest is history.

The WRAP fee bundled in with water rates under the GLWA is a perfect examples of government misspending what they take in.

Unless someone can come up with an adequate explanation of why government officials didn't do their jobs (or is looking at serving a significant portion of the rest of their lives behind bars and loss of all of their assets) any attempt to increases taxes or fees to pay for this lax maintenance will go absolutely nowhere.

Carol Kleinert
Fri, 10/27/2017 - 5:06pm

To Kevin Grand
BRAVO !!

Michigan Observer
Sun, 10/29/2017 - 3:58pm

Mr. Grand says, "Michigan Observer mentions the failure of Proposal 1 above. Well, Proposal 1 got nuked at the ballot box because not only was it chock full of goodies for unrelated items, but monies collected at the pump (i.e. sales tax), never went where they were supposed to in the first place. Michigan Motorists caught onto this bait and switch and the rest is history." Sales taxes paid on fuel didn't go to roads because the state Constitution would not allow it. And, as for Proposal 1 being "chock full of goodies for unrelated items", was there a single item listed by MLive that wasn't well worth doing?

And he also says, "Unless someone can come up with an adequate explanation of why government officials didn't do their jobs (or is looking at serving a significant portion of the rest of their lives behind bars and loss of all of their assets) any attempt to increases taxes or fees to pay for this lax maintenance will go absolutely nowhere." Does he have any evidence that government officials didn't do their job as well as they could given the resources available to them?

The blunt, brutal fact is that we taxpayers talk a far better game than we play. The behavior of British taxpayers during the Margaret Thatcher years is a perfect example. The voters consistently expressed their support for more expansive government programs in poll after poll, but consistently voted to return her to office.

Kevin Grand
Mon, 10/30/2017 - 11:23am

"Does he have any evidence that government officials didn't do their job as well as they could given the resources available to them?"

THAT is a very good question M.O.

And for that, I direct you to one of the worst kept secrets in Macomb County Political circles.

One of those that directly led to this.

http://www.freep.com/story/news/2017/08/29/dino-bucci-corruption-bullyin...

And if a Macomb County resident is aware of these goings on within a DEMOCRATIC county public works commissioner's office, it would stand to reason that the DEMOCRATIC county prosecutor is equally aware of them as well since he works much closer to the problem.

Now of course, we all know why a DEMOCRATIC county prosecutor isn't going to touch this one.

It's bad for the brand.

Mark W.
Fri, 10/27/2017 - 3:06pm

Barely 3 years after Detroit was bailed out to the tune of Billions of dollars from the surrounding counties. People are saying that it is because the state hasn't done its job. The state definitely has room for improvement when it comes to water quality monitoring and quality issues, but the current state of the former Detroit Water Department infrastructure is not the states fault. The blame rests squarely on the mismanagement and corruption that ran rampant in the city of Detroit for the last 50 years. Billions in debt, unpaid water bills in the millions, water department supervisors and employees drawing salaries for doing nothing. That is what led to the situation with the former Detroit Water system. The recent breakage was not due to poor quality piping, it was due to mechanical and electrical issues. If the residents of Michigan want improved state services and improved infrastructure we are going to have to quit subsidizing failing cities and failing agencies. The politicians need to stop tying up needed infrastructure funding tax proposals with caveats and riders that serve special interest politicians and political groups instead of the people. Unfunded liabilities like state pensions need to be stopped and new employees transferred over to 401k plans and medical benefits need to reflect the state of the economy and the nation, not be based on practices from 30 years ago. Wanna fix the roads, lighten the trucks, put the gas tax dollars into the roads and nowhere else. Want to fix corrupt government? Put crooked politicians in jail and take away all benefits from public employees including teachers and school administrators who are convicted of felonies relating to their jobs and make them ineligible for taxpayer government positions. Allowing felons in prison and on parole to run for public office or keep their jobs while in jail is a travesty. Delaying the sentencing of a politician so they can run for office is a travesty and an insult to the people. Letting people convicted of stealing from the public while employed by the state or ;ocal governments to have positions where they control or have access to public funds is just plain stupid.

Rich Anders
Fri, 10/27/2017 - 5:43pm

"The failures we have are not failures at all. They have been designed into the system." Brought about in part by many in leadership positions who are just like those who selected them. Lifers who don't challenge unspoken assumptions and taken for granted rules. Only when assumptions & rules are proven ineffective, in the course of great trauma do boards recruit fresh leaders. Change can be surprisingly refreshing. Having to wait for a crisis is pathetic.

Envirofreak
Tue, 11/14/2017 - 1:15am

Hey, I thought part of our tax bill EVERY year is reserved for infrastructure repairs.... whaddaya say, Gov.???? But our fabulous lawmakers are transferring money from that fund to funds they're more fond of. Ya know, like money to pay more political shills who support whatever they direct them to; more money to businesses that gouge Wayne County (a/k/a Detroit) for things like tree removal and dilapidated building destruction, etc. Plus, its kinda lookin' like our stainless steel Gov. knew W-A-Y more about the Flint debacle before it was officially acknowledged; can only keep our fingers crossed that he also gets what's coming to him -- you know, federal criminal indictment-wise. : )