Promised water infrastructure investment comes only in drips

The lead-laced drinking water that led to tragic consequences in Flint was supposed to serve as a wake-up call for Michigan and the nation, a warning that our neglected, aging infrastructure could not only result in dramatic interruptions in basic municipal services, but might prove hazardous or deadly for residents.

After the full extent of the crisis began to surface in September 2015, Gov. Rick Snyder formed a commission to examine Michigan’s neglected infrastructure and proposed a state fund to upgrade its so-called hidden infrastructure, including pipes that in some places were up to 100 years old.

But among the first opportunities to demonstrate a new path forward, as embodied by the new Great Lakes Water Authority in southeast Michigan, presents a murky picture.

The GLWA represented a historic separation between the city of Detroit and the suburbs after 180 years of Detroit handling all municipal sewer and water services for the sprawling southeast Michigan region.

The six-member GLWA board (four from the suburbs, two from Detroit) spent 17 months making logistical and financial plans, including a 5-year budget for infrastructure improvements. What they produced was an outline that, on the surface, will allot $54 million a year more on improvements than what the depleted Detroit Water and Sewerage Department had projected to spend.

A $54 million increase sounds substantial, but it’s not much against a problem that could require an investment of $14-$26 billion more in GLWA communities over the next two decades, according to research compiled by the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG). In fact, prior to a September budget amendment, the projected boost in new investments was half that much.

Two years ago, SEMCOG reported that leaders across the region had barely made a dent in a burgeoning infrastructure crisis, which was first outlined in a 2001 estimate by the council, indicating that when interest, inflation, cost overruns and other factors are considered, up to $104 billion in investments were needed by 2030.

In recent months, suburban officials said they were rescuing a DWSD regional system plagued by financial “fiascos” that led to a loss of $1.5 billion over eight years. GLWA advocates also said that Detroit had been falling behind in prudent infrastructure fixes.

Now, the GLWA hopes to take a different approach, engaging in new cost-saving methods and efficiencies that will reduce the need for expensive underground construction projects. Downsizing the entire sewer/water network is the goal.

Yet, at the current rate, it could be decades before the GLWA reaches the industry standard, as its most aging equipment – thousands of underground pipes, pump stations, valves and reservoirs -- is modernized. This massive waterworks system includes the largest sewage treatment plant in North America, five drinking water plants and hundreds of thousands of component parts. With a reach of more than 1,000 square miles, it serves 4 million water and sewer customers in more than 120 communities. That represents 39 percent of the Michigan population and makes the GLWA one of the largest regional sewer/water systems in the nation.

That means residents will continue to contend with flooded streets and basements during heavy rains, the result of an archaic drainage system; sewage spills and overflows into area waterways, including Lake St. Clair; and other manifestations of the neglect of the system, including waste, via leakage, of its central resource – water – approaching one-third of its treated output.

Guaranteed funding, but for what?

In the September 2014 announcement of a tentative pact to form the GLWA – within the second paragraph of a four-page statement – officials boasted that “the agreement also guarantees funding to rebuild the system’s aging water infrastructure.”

But after two years, the outlook for improvement is dim. According to Mike Nystrom, executive director of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association (MITA), an advocacy group for construction contractors, at the current rate it might take dozens of years to sufficiently upgrade infrastructure in Metro Detroit and across the state.

“It is incremental baby steps, that’s for sure. We haven’t seen a large leap toward improvements,” Nystrom said.

A large leap may be a bridge too far. Brian Baker, a sometimes dissenting voice on the GLWA board, said the new regional authority inherited the DWSD system’s substantial debts and limited resources to improve sewer/water infrastructure.

“The condition of DWSD was not structurally or financially sound when the GLWA assumed control. Debt payments consume half of all water department revenues, which leaves very little for much-needed capital improvements in the system,” said Baker, finance officer for the city of Sterling Heights.

It’s not just southeast Michigan’s problem. On the water side of the equation alone, a study released in April by MITA estimated that the entire state needs to invest up to $15 billion in additional drinking water infrastructure projects over two decades, nearly $1 billion a year, to catch up.

Much of that outdated and faulty infrastructure lies within the GLWA service area, which stretches from the Downriver area of Monroe and Wayne counties, south of Detroit, through the northern and western suburbs up to Flint. In addition to the GLWA’s faltering progress on a wider scale, cities, townships and villages are struggling to catch up with their communities’ needs.

In their 2013 report card on the nation’s infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Michigan water systems a “D” grade and the sewer networks a C, mostly due to “crucial funding challenges” that lead to further degradation. (To be sure, the rest of the country isn’t in much better shape; overall, the U.S. earned only a D+.)

Yet, GLWA officials claim their share of Michigan’s overall problem is rather small compared to that of Detroit and other municipalities, which bear a big burden due to inadequate service pipes to individual homes and buildings. The GLWA is mainly responsible for far-reaching transmission lines, pipes with a diameter of 24 inches or more.

Some 60-70 percent of all pipes in southeast Michigan were built prior to 1970. More than a quarter were installed in the 1930s or earlier.

A system for a different future

The GLWA emphasis on cost savings includes basic efficiencies and refinancing past bond issues, plus a dramatic move to shut down outdated portions of the network without interrupting services.

The authority hopes to close one, eventually maybe two, of the system’s five water treatment plants. Due to population loss and a general decline of water use via conservation, the sewer/water facilities are under capacity and can be shrunken substantially to a more manageable network of pipes and pumps, according to officials.

GLWA’s CEO, Sue McCormick, said the agency is pursuing a process of “selectively investing” in infrastructure rather than maintaining a system planned for decades-old population projections that did not come to pass.

“It’s a 180-degree change in strategy compared to the past,” McCormick said “But … we’re absolutely committed to making all the investments that are needed.”

‘Same old Detroit bull’

After decades of contentious relations between Detroit and its suburbs, relentless criticism of the Detroit water department was the driving force behind numerous suburban efforts to take over the southeast Michigan system.

When the 2013-15 negotiations over the GLWA took a bad turn, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson threatened to walk out and form an Oakland-only system. Again, when the process hit a significant snag, Patterson said he was “disgusted” and added “It’s the same old bull that got Detroit in trouble. I want to help Detroit, but I don’t want to become Detroit in that way of doing business.”

But as the process moved forward, suburban officials confidently predicted that they could manage the sprawling system much more efficiently than the city, including a herculean effort to rebuild a network of nearly 1,000 miles of regional sewer/water lines that had been neglected for decades.

During the bargaining, media coverage focused on the hardball politics, with the suburbs fighting to gain majority control. Infrastructure needs were barely mentioned.

Then came the Flint debacle. With city residents forced to rely on bottled water for drinking, bathing and cooking, that changed the focus. Two polls conducted last spring showed that the public suddenly viewed infrastructure as the top problem facing the state and the Detroit area.

But as the intense public spotlight on the Flint water crisis slowly receded, the GLWA focus in recent months returned to keeping sewer and water bills in check.

After decades of DWSD neglect, Baker, the Macomb County representative on the GLWA board, said that effectively dealing with limited finances while addressing outdated infrastructure across the region may be “like turning the Titanic around.”

That April MITA report warned that the longer action is delayed, the more expensive repairs and maintenance become, and the more elaborate the scope and cost of future replacement projects.

Out of sight, out of mind – until it fails

Failing underground infrastructure, while not as apparent as roadway potholes and crumbling bridges, presents numerous hardships for the public.

The MITA study, compiled by the Public Sector Consultants research group in Lansing, summarized the situation this way: “Failure to adequately plan for and sufficiently fund critical water infrastructure in Michigan can lead to major crises affecting tens of thousands, if not millions, of the state’s residents.”

In southeast Michigan, among the nagging problems in the GLWA sector that present a widespread public impact are: numerous leaks in water mains; flooded streets during heavy rains; routine water main breaks and boil-water alerts; sinkholes and raw sewage spills that result from pipe breaks; and sewer overflows into rivers, lakes and streams.

Nonetheless, GLWA board Chairman Bob Daddow said the authority has made good progress by ensuring that all federal clean-water permits are in place. As a result, said Daddow, Oakland County deputy executive, sewer investments will begin declining by 2020. The finance plan calls for a reduction in sewer projects of about two-thirds from 2019-21.

In addition, Patterson boasted earlier this month that putting “Oakland County practices” to work will save $309 million for the GLWA over 20 years due to a municipal bond refinancing.

Money literally down the drain

The GLWA’s attempt to turn things around still faces several logjams: a politically driven 4 percent cap on annual revenue increases; fixed costs that swallow up 90 percent of the overall budget; a long-term downward trend in water usage due to residential and industrial conservation; lingering DWSD debts and unpaid bills; and the upcoming loss of Flint and Genesee County as major customers.

But no deficiency may be more headache-inducing for officials than the leaky pipes. Water mains throughout the GLWA service area have become so inefficient due to cracks and failing seams that about 30 percent of all drinking water pumped on a daily basis leaks into the soil, failing to reach the faucets of customers, according to the GLWA board. Within the city of Detroit, that figure rises to about 40 percent. The added expense is paid by GLWA customers on a local, not regional, basis.

The decline in state and federal assistance for sewer/water projects over the past two decades makes the funding gap even more ominous.

However, officials at all levels unexpectedly may have found a life raft to stay above their political worries. Public pressure for a 21st century waterworks system may be receding quickly, as the Flint crisis fades into the past. A new poll by Lansing-based EPIC-MRA found that just 5 percent of Michigan voters now list infrastructure as a top problem facing the state. And a just-completed online SEMCOG survey, an unscientific poll, revealed that most respondents believe southeast Michigan sewer and water infrastructure is in good shape.

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Thu, 11/03/2016 - 10:01am
Forgotten in all this is that whole generations of us grew up with lead in our pipes, lead in our water fixtures, lead in the gasoline used in every car, lead in fishing weights and shotgun shells, and lead in the paint and hundreds of other products. We played with mercury in science class using it to polish dimes and roll into little balls on our desks. The air we breathed was not the cleanest and contained who knows what. Yet despite all this, we survived, the life expectancy kept getting longer, and our brains were healthy enough to send men to the moon and keep society progressing. I'm not saying that we shouldn't strive to improve things, but why the sudden paranoia that it must all be done now. Today, if a mercury thermometer breaks they close the building and send in the haz-mat team. The mere thought of any lead measured in a few parts per billion is cause to shut down the system completely. Maybe we need a more rational approach to infrastructure replacement.
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 12:20pm
Agree, Rich. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
thomas zmuda
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 2:05pm
Great comment
Jim H
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 2:20pm
Perfect comment. We have become totally paranoid about lead - and asbestos - and any ground contaminant. We desperately need common sense and balance.
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 4:36pm
No Rich I'm sorry but your comment is neither thoughtful nor great, it is on the other hand symbolic of the sort of ill informed ignorance the permutes discussions regarding toxins in the environment & discussions regarding infrastructure repair & replacement in particular. The levels of lead that we have been exposed to over time has affected brain development in children especially in poorer communities where exposure to lead in aging water lines, flaking paint in older deteriorating homes & other sources has produced generations of impaired individuals, lead tainted exhaust from leaded gas has been directly linked to generational increases in violent crime and aggression and their decline since lead was removed from gasoline. Lead in fishing lures and especially lead shot has caused developmental & genetic damage in fish and waterfowl species and concentrates as it travels up the food chain exposing top level predators such as eagles and other wildlife to toxic levels of lead as well as humans who eat diets that are dependent on wildlife for primary meat protein. I'm not going to even bother going into mercury exposure and it's effects but the comment about asbestos is personally offensive & I'll be happy to address it. My father who was a certified boiler operator and spent a lifetime in building maintenance was exposed like many in his generation to asbestos despite the industry knowing for years about the connection between lung impairment / diseases and exposure. I watched him die from asbestos related lung cancer at 63 years of age. It was an aggressive untreatable cancer that took roughly 6 months to kill him. So don't talk to me about balance and common sense. As a retired water professional in a community that aggressively pursued removal of lead lines from the public water distribution system I am very aware of the hazards these substances pose. You are far to cavalier with other peoples health and welfare & unless you come from a poorer community it is unlikely you were ever exposed to these toxins in the levels you imagine. Try better educating yourself before you berate those who have made removal of these toxins from our lives a priority even in the face of derision from you and the commenters supporting your views.
Sun, 11/06/2016 - 1:29am
John, I support your reply 100%. I salute you for your well stated response. It is encouraging to see that intelligence still prevails. Lance
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 11:48am
Time to move to Port Huron Michigan! Port Huron is about to complete a 15 year $180 million water and sewer modernization project. Our water and sewer infrastructure is modern, safe, healthy and environmentally friendly. Our water and sewer rates are still significantly lower than Detroit and the national average. This can be done and is done in Port Huron Michigan. Port Huron is making great strides and is truly a great place to live and play. Check us out while we are still affordable. New luxury Condos are now available with a view of the beautiful blue water we are keeping clean. (Disclosure, I have no financial state in any of the housing in Port Huron, just a long time resident hoping to see Port Huron thrive) See more about the area at and I know, shameless plug, but if you see the area you will know why I am so excited about it.
Jim H
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 2:31pm
Good job Port Huron. Sault Ste Marie is now completing a 30 year multi-million dollar combined sewer overflow program that has separated virtually all sewer lines into distinct sanitary and storm systems, replaced 100 year old water lines while down in the hole, and replaced the roads and sidewalks that were impacted during the construction. We are now paying $80 to $100 month sewer-water charges per month, but we have a new top notch infrastructure system. Any municipality complaining about water problems needs to get its act together and prepare to reach into its own pockets to fix its own problems.
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 5:05pm
Nice to read a comment from Sault Ste Marie, it's been far to long since I was last up there, my depression era mother & her family are from there and she immigrated from Sault Ontario as a child. For a long time the economy was not so good & it's nice to read something this positive about a place dear to my heart. Just one quibble with your comment, while it's undoubtedly true that the Sault residents are kicking in a substantial part of the cost of these improvements I also know as a drinking water / sewer system professional that these projects often get funding from both state and federal sources as well as low cost loans to help defray the cost of improvements. So yes communities need to contribute to the cost but keep in mind that clean water is in everybody's interest and help is often needed for improvements to happen. As it said in the industry there is always someone's drinking water inlet downstream from your sanitary / storm water outlets so each community impacts someone else & improvements are in everybody's interest.
Jim H
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 7:57pm
Forgot to mention special assessments as one if the major funding sources.
Jim H
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 8:06pm
Fri, 11/04/2016 - 3:45pm
Good point regarding moving except no one moves today for any reason anymore. Unhealthy or even poisonous environment? Nope! Non-existent job and income prospects? No not leaving. High crime? Staying put! 100 200 300 years ago people moved across oceans and continents for the mere chance to better themselves. Today too many just sit in miserable situations waiting for Uncle Sam to help and think of excuses to do nothing. If this wasn't true flint and others would be ghost towns.
Jim Fuscaldo
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 12:13pm
Communities challenged with aging water and wastewater infrastructure, increasingly complex regulatory requirements and budgetary constraints require proven alternative solutions other than taxation or bail outs from Washington. Many states and municipalities have entered into Water-Waste Water Utility Public Private Partnerships (PPP's). The American Legislative Exchange Council has a draft proposal available for state legislatures to consider to authorize PPP’s within their states. The District of Columbia; Chicago Heights, Illinois; Edison and Bayonne, New Jersey, and Seattle, Washington are a few municipalities that have implemented PPP’s to manage their water and waste water treatment facilities. In short proven and tested models and solutions are available. The problem is Lansing. To fix Michigan's aging water-waste water issues we must first drain the swamp of incompetents in Lansing.
Thu, 11/03/2016 - 4:06pm
People need to agree to pay more taxes. Americans have for decades denied the value received from collective investment for infrastructure. The US modernized before most other countries in the world. Taxes paid for this modernization. 100+ year old infrastructure, however, no longer modern and more over cannot be expected to last forever. Trumpsters want more American jobs, as do Democrats. We do not need and will not get more jobs making trinkets to be purchased at Walmart. Most Americans have enough stuff, but cannot get their heads around the fact that what is most needed is what society needs to build together, nonprofit, democratically planned, as commonwealth - that is, by government. In fact, this area of production - building new infrastructure, to replace or repair or modernize leaking water supply and sewage for example, is exactly the mode of production that will create new American jobs. Americans need to open their brains to the fact that business does not create all that is needed, independent of government; that it is precisely the commons that produces some of the most important things. Sure, businesses can participate in building infrastructure, but this still needs to be done as a community, and paid for as a community, that is, by taxation - however that burden is distributed. Therefore the idiots in the GOP who demand that taxes go nowhere but down are the ones who are preventing jobs from growing and ultimately causing the potential for catastrophic destruction of the modern conditions of life themselves - clean water, decent sewage, adequate power and roads, etc. The public sector is exactly where money need to go to create American jobs and to assure the American standard of living, else we may find that standard - through neglect - fall well below that of the rest of the developed world, and even towards conditions that could destroy our society. Unless Republicans get their heads out of the sand, we need socially minded Democrats across the board to preserve the material conditions of American civilization.
Sun, 11/06/2016 - 9:55am
AT, not sure what you're referring to here, since communities vote for and approve all sorts infrastructure projects all the time. State governments do so also, maybe not as much as you'd like but that's details and their choices. The important point is that they make decisions based on the cost benefit calculus of their money and their benefit, as opposed to the distortions and waste introduced by the injection of "Free Money" from someone else. But speaking of real idiocy the idea of injecting huge amounts of money and demand into the construction industry to "create" more jobs, which already faces chronic and severe labor shortages takes the cake!
Mon, 11/07/2016 - 10:20pm
At, I may not be one of your GOP, but I will not agree to blindly pay more taxes, that is how Flint got into it situation, that is how Detroit got into its situation, and so many others. Spending of any kind needs accountability; no accountability is when you get wasteful spending and you get self-serving corruption, no matter what the organization, private business, NGO, or government. How many billions have been spent in cities and other municipalities and yet we are still are struggling with disappointing results. As disdainful you are of Walmart, they are accountable to the public each and every day. Which government entity, which government program, which government spending has such a public accountability? When you start including accountability in the tax increases I will vote for those taxes.
Fri, 11/11/2016 - 11:09am
The entire country is upside-down on infrastructure and the USA already has 20 Trillion Dollars of Debt. ** Shift the focus, i. e. money expenditure, to Americas INTERNAL problems, fix "our" country first and foremost. ** We do NOT truly need to be on foreign soils hemorrhaging $ Millions daily. - Make Michigan the Great Lakes State once again by investing heavily here.