“For decades Michigan has neglected updating the infrastructure systems that deliver clean drinking water to our homes, and keep toxins - like your number two - out of our lakes and rivers.”
So says FixMIState, which is affiliated with the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, a trade association representing infrastructure contractors. Stories of sharing our water resources with the digested remains of last night’s dinner are the stuff of public swimming pool nightmares. But a closer look at the real situation shows the charges being leveled at municipal and state infrastructure managers may be full of … well … spin.
Watch the FixMIState video: “The Journey of Number Two”
In January, FixMIState released a video titled, “The Journey of Number Two.” The video narrates the journey of the (in)famous poop emoji through Michigan’s sewer system. The group claims that long-term neglect of the state’s aging sewage infrastructure is allowing billions of gallons of untreated sewage to bypass water treatment facilities and enter Michigan’s waterways. The group’s website helpfully adds that “engineers, policy experts, business leaders, and elected officials largely agree that fixing Michigan’s infrastructure will take decades and cost billions of dollars.”
Jason Hayes is director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Garrick Anderson is an environmental intern at the Center.
Fortunately for Michigan taxpayers and beachgoers, the group is tackling an issue that engineers, policy experts, business leaders and elected officials have been working on for at least the last 30 years.
FixMIState’s message that Michigan’s infrastructure is aging and can spring leaks is true enough. Of course, any sewer system can spring leaks, and when they do, municipal employees and contractors are charged with fixing them.
But the association’s next claim is where the error seeps in. The video’s narrator claims that “[d]uring a heavy rainstorm and even when the weather is fine, sometimes our aging wastewater systems don’t work like they should…Instead of going to the treatment facility, poop and stormwater mix, which means your number two spills into a Michigan river or lake.”
The part the narrator appears to miss, but the video’s graphic designer accurately portrayed, is that the primary reason for your number two ending up in Michigan’s rivers and lakes is that the sewage system was designed to do that very thing. It’s not evidence of a broken system; it’s evidence that the system is functioning properly.
Michigan’s infrastructure was designed to release overflowing water into surface waters — even when it is mixed with sewage — during periods of heavy rain. This design feature, called an “outfall,” or a “combined sewer overflow,” is visually depicted in the FixMIState video.
Although the narrator does not discuss it, this design feature is there to help keep the sewer system from being overburdened and forcing human waste and sewage back into your home. When this happens, beach closures and road flooding can occur, but our homes (and health) are less likely to be damaged.
Government officials recognize that sewage flowing into our lakes isn’t an ideal solution to the problem. So, federal, state and municipal governments have spent the last three decades working to redesign and rebuild sewer systems to eliminate the outfall problem. And they’ve had a remarkable amount of success.
In 1988, Michigan implemented a strict sewer overflow policy to limit the amount of sewage being diverted into lakes. At the time, state employees found 80 systems, containing 613 outfalls, that had repeatedly discharged untreated wastewater. But by 2015 — 27 years later — the total number of outfalls had decreased to only 124.
That’s a reduction of nearly 80 percent. As a result, the entire state of Michigan now releases only half as much untreated sewage as the city of Detroit did — on its own — in 1988. More importantly, the program targeted the bigger and more prolific outfalls at the start, meaning the remaining outflows have even less of an impact than FixMIState suggests.
If FixMIState had released its video in 1988, its claims would be a cause for immediate concern, but over the last 30 years, Michigan municipalities have worked to address almost 80 percent of the problem. Furthermore, they have a plan to address the remaining 20 percent.
Every municipality in Michigan is carrying out its own long-term control program. Each is meant to address the issue of sewage outfalls in a system, keep sewage out of the state’s waterways and meet federal standards for water quality. The process takes time, is expensive, and we still do have a way to go. FixMIState’s video makes it seem like we just learned about this issue. But, in reality, this problem is already 30 years down the drain.