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Bridge Michigan
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Grand Rapids comes out of the sewer

Outside his window in the Grand Rapids Wastewater Treatment Plant, Mike Lunn can see the Grand River across the street.

A moderate rain was falling, the kind that in years past might have caused him to worry that once again the city’s sewer system would spill millions of gallons of untreated sewage into the river and, eventually, into Lake Michigan.

That hasn’t happened since 2013, when record flooding sent the area’s rivers over their banks and 435 million gallons of treated sewage into the river. In 2015 the city finished a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the system that carries and treats the area’s sanitary sewage and stormwater, reducing, if not eliminating, the danger that untreated sewage would again flow into the Grand River.

In many ways, Grand Rapids is a model for other Michigan cities struggling to comply with federal clean water rules. Throughout Michigan, cities and other municipalities still dump billions of gallons of sewage into the state’s waterways every year. In 2013, combined sanitary and storm sewer systems dumped 11.3 billion gallons into rivers, lakes and streams, enough to fill 135 supertankers. The following year, the combined sewer systems dumped 11.6 billion gallons.

Since completing the upgrade of its sewer systems, Grand Rapids has stopped the sewage overflows typically brought on by heavy rain.

“Doesn’t even faze us anymore,” said Lunn, the city’s environmental services manager. “It’s done. It feels pretty good.”

It wasn’t always so. In 1969, the worst year on record, the city alone dumped 12.6 billion gallons of sewage into the Grand River and its tributaries. For the next several years, the sewage overflows continued every time it rained hard, and the Ottawa County Department of Public Health routinely warned swimmers to stay out of the water along Lake Michigan’s beaches.

With the passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974, the federal government began pressuring states and municipalities to clean up their acts and their rivers, but many, including Grand Rapids, were unable to avoid dumping sewage and stormwater.

As in many other Michigan cities, Grand Rapids had a combined sanitary and stormwater sewer system. In a moderate or heavy rainfall, water ran into the catch basins, mixed with the human waste from the sanitary sewers and eventually filled the system beyond capacity, causing it to overflow into the river.

“The state was on the city to do something about this,” Lunn said, “and the city was pushing back.”

News reports documented the frequent overflows, sparking criticism of the city for its poor environmental record. In 1988, a TV crew filmed sewage running out of a large pipe directly into the Grand River. That same year, “we had a few big rain events,” Lunn said, “and the city said, ‘Uncle. We do have a problem.’”

That’s when Grand Rapids officials began planning the monumental task of separating its sanitary and storm sewer systems and upgrading its sewage treatment plant. In 1991, workers began excavating the sanitary and storm water pipes, many of which had been in the ground for more than a century, separating the two systems, and closing the overflow points that released sewage into the Grand River and its tributaries, a project that would continue until 2015.

The $400 million venture mostly was covered by a bond issue, which taxpayers will continue paying for the next 28 years. Some money came from the State Revolving Fund, created in 1988 to help municipalities finance water pollution control projects.

In 1991, the city built a retention basin that can process one billion gallons of sewage a day.

Down river, the Ottawa County Department of Public Health no longer closes beaches or issues “no swimming advisories,” but occasionally suggests “no body contact” when tests show high levels of E.coli bacteria in the water. In the past, by the time the county got the test results back and ordered the beaches closed, the E.coli had dissipated, Matt Allen, the county’s environmental health supervisor, said.

“We weren’t getting to the root of the problem,” he said.

A few years ago, the county performed “speciation” tests on the E.coli and found that much of it came not from humans, but from other environmental sources, including livestock, waterfowl and other animals.

“People need to realize Lake Michigan is not a swimming pool,” Allen said. “It’s not a chlorinated body of water. It is an open body of water that has wildlife in it.”

The county now urges swimmers to take precautions, such as washing hands, showering and toweling off after swimming.

Not that the water isn’t cleaner since Grand Rapids stopped sending its sewage down the river and into the lake.

“Technically speaking, keeping that stuff out of the Grand River is a good thing,” Allen said, “and Grand Rapids should be commended for it, because they certainly took a lot of criticism for it.”

The city has been environmentally proactive for years. The West Michigan Environmental Action Council is based here, and Grand Rapids was named “America’s Greenest City” by Fast Company, a business magazine. In 2010, it was recognized for having more LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings per capita than any other mid-sized city.

In recent years, the city, nonprofit organizations and businesses have planted native vegetation and built rain gardens to absorb rainwater and keep it out of the sewers.

“It’s kind of a different environment working here,” said Lunn, who previously was assistant wastewater manager in Flint. “We collaborate here.”

Each year, the Grand Rapids sewer system – which serves the city and 10 other communities – spends $6 million to $8 million replacing worn out pipes and $600,000 to $1 million lining others with fiberglass.

Over the past 15 years, the city has spent about $30 million upgrading its wastewater treatment plant. Lunn dipped a glass into a small tank labeled “sample finished effluent.” This was the final stage of what began as sewage and now appeared to be clear water.

“That’s what’s going into the river,” Lunn said.

Would he take a drink? No, he said.

The water is clean enough to meet federal clean water standards, but not to drink.

Even Grand Rapids probably is underinvesting in upgrading its sewer system, Lunn said, but he added: “We’ve invested a lot more than any other city in the state.”

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