When Mike Gutow bought his home on Lake St. Clair in May of 2011, it was with fond childhood memories of fishing, swimming and skiing its clear waters.
“Paradise,” he said. “It’s the best way to describe it. Lake St. Clair was paradise.”
A few days after he moved in, a heavy rain fell, and two or three days later, “this glob appeared at the seawall that was about three-feet thick,” Gutow said. “Mixed in was a lot of dead fish. At first it was like, what the heck is this? I’d never seen anything like it before, but, bad as it was to look at, the smell was even worse.”
He now knows what he was seeing and smelling was the result of a sanitary and storm sewer system that is outdated, underfunded and unable to handle the amount of stuff flowing through its pipes, especially in a moderate or heavy rainfall.
Take a drive along Michigan’s streets and highways, and you’ll know many roads are in poor condition. But buried beneath them are the equally deteriorating pipes that are meant to deliver water for drinking and washing and to carry away the waste. Some of those pipes have been in the ground for more than a century – well beyond their expected lifespans. In some cities, sewage still flows through hollowed out logs, although no one knows exactly where.
“Out of sight, out of mind, right?” said Ronald Brenke, executive director of the Michigan section of the American Society of Civil Engineers, or ASCE. “People don’t think about it, because it’s underground.”
Much of Michigan’s water and sewer infrastructure has been neglected for years, threatening public health and in desperate need of repair, an undertaking that experts say could cost $17.5 billion over the next two decades. That price tag doesn’t include the cost of replacing lead service pipes across the state, a peril exposed by the ongoing water crisis in Flint.
How shaky is Michigan’s overall water infrastructure? Consider our faltering network of sewers. In 2013 and 2014, nearly 25 billion gallons of partially treated and untreated storm and sanitary sewage flowed into Michigan’s waterways. How much is that? One billion gallons is enough to fill more than 1,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
In its most recent report card, released in 2009, ASCE gave Michigan a D+ for its storm water sewers and a C for those that carry waste water. Even worse, the report card gave the state’s drinking water system a D.
“A significant portion of the state’s primary (water) distribution system is nearing 100 years old,” the report said, adding, “Much of the delivery system, including piping, valves and hydrants, are reaching the end of their anticipated design life, and routine replacement has been postponed for too long.”
Tallying the numbers
On March 10, Gov. Rick Snyder announced he was creating a 21st Century Infrastructure Commission to recommend how to modernize the state’s transportation, water, sewer, energy and communication infrastructures. He said he will ask the Legislature to approve $165 million in the state’s 2017 fiscal year budget for the newly created Michigan Infrastructure Fund ‒ a mere drop in the lake, by some estimates.
The ASCE report estimated that Michigan’s municipalities would need to spend $13.8 billion to maintain and upgrade their water systems over the next 20 years. (The state ranked 27th in per capita spending for water improvement projects.)
The report estimated it would cost another $3.7 billion over the next 20 years to bring the state’s many wastewater systems up to standard.
“We haven’t made any progress since the report card of 2009,” Brenke said. “Our system is aging very fast, and we’re going to need more repairs.”
Buried in the ASCE’s 2009 report, and largely ignored, was a dire warning that lead in the ancient pipes throughout the state could leach into the drinking water. That’s what happened when Flint stopped buying water from Detroit in 2014 and began drawing its water from the highly corrosive Flint River.
“We have basically predicted a lot of things that happened in Flint,” Brenke said.
While the Flint crisis has attracted national publicity and congressional hearings, Brenke contends that “Flint is just a symptom of a bigger problem.”
On a recent visit to Flint, Tom Cochran, CEO of the United States Conference of Mayors, said he intends to use the city’s water crisis in urging more federal investment in local infrastructure.
“We’re going to be meeting with the next president in December,” he said at a Flint news conference. “This will be on the agenda – water infrastructure, and we will use Flint.”
It’s not hard to find evidence of a deteriorating water supply system in Michigan:
- In December, a water main break along Detroit’s Lodge Freeway shut down the road’s northbound lanes on city’s west side. Water covered all lanes for several hours, backing up traffic for two miles.
- In 2014, Bay City residents were told not to do laundry or water their lawns – and some large commercial water users were told not use water at all – after a water main break drained 20 million gallons from the system and led to a significant drop in water pressure.
- In 2012, Flint officials said that a water main break leaked millions of gallons over the course of a year before they were able to find and fix it. The leak cost an estimated $800,000 in lost water.
- In 2009, the mayor of Warren declared a state of emergency when more than 100 pipes failed in a single winter month, about three times the monthly average. A break near a shopping center spawned a sinkhole that swallowed a van and left the shopping center without water for several days.
Nationwide, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that water systems lose 1.7 trillion gallons of water a year to leaks, with 16 percent of water never reaching the tap.
Lead lines a further headache
The cost of fixing all those leaky pipes is in addition to what it would take to replace tens of thousands of lead service lines in cities and towns across the state – a measure gaining support from water safety advocates in the wake of Flint.
The American Water Works Association estimates there are 6.1 million lead service lines nationwide, down from an estimated 10 million in 1991. Most are in older homes in older cities, where lead was the material of choice for water service lines from the early 20th Century into the 1950s.
In December, the National Drinking Water Advisory Council, which advises the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on water issues, said that “removing the sources of lead in drinking water should be a national goal.” In March, the board of the American Water Works Association, a nonprofit scientific and education group, voted unanimously to back those recommendations.
Still, with a few exceptions, there is no consensus among Michigan’s drinking water systems to embark on removal of lead service lines. (See accompanying story on Madison, Wisc. for how complicated removal of lead service lines can be.)
Lansing’s Board of Water and Light spent $42 million over the last 12 years replacing 13,500 lead lines, with a few hundred such pipes still to be replaced. Flint has just begun replacing lead lines, a project that is estimated to cost $55 million.
Grand Rapids estimates it has 17,000 lead service lines, although there seems to be little political impetus to spend the estimated $50 million cost of replacing them despite the recommendations of the water advisory council.
But Grand Rapids City Commissioner Ruth Kelly said she sees no immediate reason to replace the lead lines, since recent water testing found 90 percent of the homes had lead levels lower than 2.2 parts per billion. The federal action threshold for lead contamination is 15 parts per billion.
Since 1994, when Grand Rapids introduced phosphate into the system, a measure that puts a protective coating in lead pipes, lead levels in the city’s drinking water have steadily dropped from 11 parts per billion in 1997 to where it stands today. City Manager Greg Sundstrom has said he is satisfied the system’s drinking water is safe.
“I think it's working well. We've been testing it for years,” Kelly said.
The cost of doing nothing
While the price of replacing outdated water and sewer lines is in the billions of dollars, doing nothing also comes with a high price. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that, without increased investment in the system, waterborne illnesses would cost American households $413 million between 2011 and 2020. It calculated U.S. businesses would lose $734 billion in sales from 2011 to 2020 without added investment in water and sewer infrastructure.
Still, the question remains – where is the money to update Michigan's water and sewer infrastructure going to come from?
By and large, municipal sewer and water systems are funded by charges to their customers. So when a city loses significant population – as have cities like Flint, Detroit and Saginaw – the system has little choice but to raise rates on those who remain. In 2015, for example, Flint's average water bill of $910 was highest in the nation – before a judge ordered it reduced by 35 percent.
“You still have the same infrastructure sitting in the ground. You end up with rates that go up substantially,” said Anthony Minghine, chief operating officer for the Michigan Municipal League.
But Minghine said that can also put pressure on water or sewer systems to defer long-term investments in order not to overburden ratepayers. “Those (long-term investments) are the areas that are going to suffer,” he said.
Ronald Brenke, the ASCE head for Michigan, expressed frustration that warnings from groups such as his have not been heeded.
“Unfortunately, everything’s got to be a crisis” before government officials will act, he said.
Sometimes that and a vocal citizenry is what it takes to spur elected officials into action.
State officials at first ignored Mike Gutow when he complained about the gunk clinging to the seawall of his Lake St. Clair home. That’s why he formed a nonprofit group called Save Lake St. Clair and began carrying his message to legislators, city councils and anyone else who’d listen.
State officials initially told him the gunk was algae, nothing to worry about. Eventually, a state test showed it contained human DNA. In other words, stuff humans flush down their toilets.
Part of the problem is that many municipal systems in Michigan still have combined sanitary and storm sewer systems, which are prone to overflow during heavy rain. In the late 1980s, 46 Michigan communities had combined sewer systems, said Charlie Hill, an environmental engineer with the state Department of Environmental Quality. Since then, 16 cities have spent millions of dollars separating the two systems, he said, and about 10 are in the process of separating their systems.
The remaining 20 or so communities, including Detroit, have opted not to separate storm and sanitary sewers, but, instead, to build large retention basins to hold and partially treat the excess sewage during heavy rainfalls.
In 2013, combined sewer systems and retention basins in Michigan overflowed 423 times, spilling 11.4 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage into the state’s waterways – enough to fill more than 135 supertankers. That same year, another billion gallons of untreated sewage flowed out of the state’s sanitary sewer systems, according to an annual report by the DEQ.
In 2014, 11.6 billion gallons overflowed from the state’s combined sewer systems and 750 million gallons from its sanitary sewers, the DEQ’s Hill said.
“I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, but we’ve made a lot of progress from the raw sewage discharges we had 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “I think it’s unreasonable to think there never will be sewage overflows.”
In recent years, when it rains hard, combined sewers and retention basins that serve the growing residential areas of Macomb and Oakland counties overflowed, sending untreated and partially treated sewage into the Clinton River and, eventually, into Lake St. Clair. Each year, Macomb County health officials close beaches on Lake St. Clair scores of times when tests show high levels of E. coli, a bacterium that can cause illness and is an indicator of other pathogens.
In Harrison Township, a few miles north of his St. Clair Shores home, Mike Gutow saw where the muck had built up four football fields long and well out into Lake St. Clair since 2001.
“When I saw that, my heart sank,” he said. “I said, ‘there’s no way I can allow that to happen down by me.’”
When the DEQ said he’d need a permit to have machines remove the stuff, he donned waders, slogged through the muck and began heaving shovels full into the lake.
“It looked like poop,” he said. “I’m even pulling up toilet paper. I could see what it was. I hated doing it. What was I doing? I was making my problem somebody else’s.”
Still, he’s optimistic that he and other members of Save Lake St. Clair are being heard.
“The pressure is starting to come on,” he said. “Yes, there are things being done. They’re making vast improvements.
“What we’re learning from Flint is that our infrastructure is well beyond the age that it should be allowed to exist anymore.”
Ted Roelofs worked for the Grand Rapids Press for 30 years, where he covered everything from politics to social services to military affairs. He has earned numerous awards, including for work in Albania during the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.
Pat Shellenbarger is a freelance writer based in West Michigan. He previously was a reporter and editor at the Detroit News, the St. Petersburg Times and the Grand Rapids Press.