Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Lingering Questions Concerning a New Water Authority

At a press conference Tuesday, September 9, 2014, Detroit’s mayor and leaders of Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties announced that they had signed a memorandum of understanding to create a regional water authority, called the Great Lakes Water Authority, subject to the approval of the bankruptcy judge, Detroit City Council and at least one county board of commissioners.

An article in the Detroit Free Press on September 9, 2014 asserted, “The DWSD will continue to maintain the plants and pipes that are located within the city’s physical borders.” I take it that means Detroit will continue to operate the region’s principal wastewater treatment plant (WWTP).  Not a good idea.  That’s where most of the mischief over the decades has occurred.  


Who will be responsible for accounting and auditing the books at DWSD’s main WWTP? What guarantees are in place to prevent more annual audit holidays, as occurred at the end of the last two fiscal years under the auspices of the state emergency manager?

DWSD doesn't have the talent, equipment or technology to account accurately for the department’s revenues and expenditures.

I wrote here on February 2, 2014, “If you were to look back several decades for the public institution in Michigan most shrouded in secrecy and obfuscation by reason of corruption and incompetence, it’s hard to imagine you would find one more qualified than the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD)...

“Traditional annual audits (1) were not, aren't and never will be comprehensible by the public and (2) obviously didn't reveal, stop or even slow down the laundry list of crimes and mismanagement at DWSD.  And anyone who thinks those problems are completely over at DWSD has his or her head in the sand.”


I was stunned this morning (September 10, 2014) when Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash said in an interview on WDET, public radio in Detroit, that the only way to make the regional water system more democratic is the plan just announced by the region’s leaders.  How patently false!  The only way to make the proposed Great Lakes Water Authority more democratic is to elect its board, not appoint members, as proposed.

On April 30, 2014, I wrote here, “Before we get too much farther along the path of regional government by means of political appointments (for example, the present Board of Water Commissioners), we should insist on democracy in the form of regional elections...

“The damage done to water services ratepayers in the region by some local officials in Detroit and political appointees is incalculable and unconscionable...

“Every county served by a regional water authority should have at least one elected  representative on the authority’s board.  Under my plan, Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties would have one representative for every 350,000 residents.  The City of Detroit would not be a segregated unit.  Its (declining) population would be included in Wayne County’s total...

“I would require that each candidate for election be a resident of one of the municipalities served by the authority.”

The governor, the state legislature, county executives and boards and, above all, citizens in the region should give considerable thought to the issues raised here before making formal commitments to revise the region’s water services structure.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Does Detroit's Bankruptcy Plan Anticipate Double-dipping?

The following quotes are from “Counties: Detroit Bankruptcy Plan Ruins Water, Sewer Department” by Caitlin Devitt in The Bond Buyer on September 4, 2014.  

The article summarizes the objections of Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties to Detroit’s proposed Plan of Adjustment in bankruptcy proceedings insofar as the plan calls for “monetizing” (i.e. diverting revenues to the city’s general fund from) the water and sewer department, which serves nearly four million residents in the region, more than three million of whom live outside the city.

“Already faced with aging infrastructure and chronic unpaid bills, the DWSD would be subject to ‘capital breakdown’ under the confirmation plan, argued Wayne County's attorney, Max Newman from Butzel Long. The one thing the system can't have is a ‘grossly inadequate capital improvement plan,’ Newman said…”

“Detroit's confirmation plan calls for the diversion of $47 million a year from the system's revenues to pay for city pensions. That would mean the loss of $428 million over the next nine years that should be used for capital upkeep and improvements to the aging infrastructure, attorneys argued.”

“The city's current plan would repair about 1.5 miles of sewer line each year, according to Oakland County's attorney, Jaye Quadrozzi of Young and Associates. At that rate, it would take 561 years to repair it, she said.”

“The city's capital plan totals $2.9 billion over the next 10 years, but recent reports show the system will actually need $4.5 billion in repairs. Rates are already too high...she said.”

Counsel for the counties believe that Detroit has intentionally overestimated its pension liabilities to justify a grab for water and sewer revenues.

“[Detroit Chief Financial Officer John Hill] said the city may be forced to ‘make adjustments’ to the confirmation plan if money for capital investment does not come in as expected.”  

Hmmm.  Sounds to me like he expects water and sewer ratepayers to pay twice, once for tribute and again for capital improvements.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Alliance for the Great Lakes, CSOs and Green Infrastructure

The Alliance for the Great Lakes has been monitoring the effectiveness of wastewater treatment in southeast Michigan for a number of years.  It published a report last year describing efforts by regulators to reduce pollution in the Detroit River and Lake Erie.  Following are some excerpts from the report.

“The Detroit sewage plant releases billions of gallons of combined untreated sewage and runoff into the Great Lakes each year during periods of heavy rain.”

“In 2009 the Detroit plant reported such overflows sent 32 billion gallons of combined untreated and partially treated sewage with storm runoff into the Detroit and Rouge Rivers and beyond to the Great Lakes -- making the plant Michigan’s largest source of combined sewer overflows [CSOs].”

“Due to its poor financial condition, in 2009 Detroit halted work on a large storage tunnel intended to address these overflows.”

[A renewed National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit issued to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) required a less expensive means of attempting to control CSOs.  The plan now being implemented will increase the number of retention/treatment basins in DWSD’s system.]

“In 2011, Michigan [DEQ] modified the plant's discharge permit to include green infrastructure provisions to reduce overflows and a revised plan for construction.”

[Green infrastructure as presently construed is expected to reduce CSOs by 10 to 15%.]

“Unfortunately, the final permit issued by Michigan failed to include specific milestones or a timetable for completion of the green infrastructure program…”

“In March 2013, Michigan regulators re-issued the discharge permit with several updates to protect local rivers and Lake Erie from untreated sewage overflows. Now that the permit is final, the Alliance will monitor DWSD’s progress in improving its operations, and participate in community efforts to control phosphorus discharges and develop a ‘green infrastructure’ plan to reduce stormwater entering the combined sewer system.”

[I don’t know how much confidence the Alliance has in retention/treatment basins to control CSOs, but I’m thinking that a lot more emphasis should be put on developing green infrastructure.  For example, let’s stop fiddling around with tree planting at the rate of 3000 or 4000 per year on the “neighborhood beautification” model and start planting on an industrial scale, say 100,000 each year, as they do in Philadelphia and New York.  Maybe John Hantz can help with that.]


Monday, August 11, 2014

DWSD and CSOs: Bad Choices, Second Chances

Heavy rainstorms cause sewer overflows that pollute lakes and streams. Attempting to control overflows in the Rouge River watershed, officials are constructing or expanding a series of impoundments called retention treatment basins that are intended to hold back a small, initial surge of polluted stormwater for subsequent primary and secondary treatment.  The remainder of the deluge is to be screened, dosed with chlorine (primary treatment) and released to the river, still laden with many pollutants.

The question raised here is whether building one or two small, full-service wastewater treatment plants in the Rouge watershed would provide greater amounts of clean water while simultaneously reducing the occasional overflows that overwhelm the massive treatment plant in Detroit at the same or even lower cost than the retention treatment basins.

Don’t confuse the following with expert analysis.  I’m struggling to understand by what reasoning federal, state and local officials think they are implementing clean water legislation concerning combined sewer overflows (CSOs) by building new or expanding existing retention treatment basins (RTBs).  It doesn’t make sense to me.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) central wastewater treatment plant is a mammoth facility intended to serve a large swath of metropolitan Detroit.  Difficulties arise when heavy rainstorms inundate the sewer system.

Major portions of metropolitan Detroit’s sewer system consist of combined sewers that carry both storm runoff and sanitary sewage.  Every time there’s a long, heavy downpour, hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated or partially treated wastewater are diverted to tributaries of Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River in order to avoid flooding basements and swamping the treatment plant.

That means that harmful levels of toxins, pathogens, nutrients and sediment contaminate natural bodies of water.

One would think that the simple solution to combined sewer overflows would be to expand the Detroit wastewater treatment plant.  There are three reasons why that wouldn’t  work:

  • The plant is way too big and unmanageable already.
  • There’s no more room on site.
  • Detroit can’t afford it.

Several years ago, federal and state officials proposed the construction of huge tunnels to hold CSOs temporarily, but Detroit couldn’t afford that, either.

Next, city and state officials came up with a plan to build new or expand existing retention treatment basins, nine in total, in the Rouge River watershed to control CSOs.  

Each RTB would have two tanks.  After screening debris, the first tank would be filled with the initial surge of polluted stormwater, expected to contain the most pollutants (the so-called first flush), and held for eventual pumping to the Detroit plant for primary and secondary treatment.

The second tank would hold subsequent, less polluted flow, which would be chlorinated (primary treatment) and, if the inflow continued beyond the second tank’s capacity, would be discharged, still containing (1) toxins, (2) such sediment as hadn’t settled in the tank, (3) so much of the pathogens as survived the chlorine, and (4) so much of the nutrients as hadn’t clumped up with chlorination, into the Rouge River.

The cost of these nine new or expanded CSO control facilities was expected (2009) to be $479 million.

If each of the nine facilities diverts from the plant to the river nine million gallons per day (mgd) of partially treated overflow, that would trim the treatment plant’s overload by 91 mgd.

But wait just a minute!   An Oakland County study in 2007 suggested an intriguing series of water-related alternatives, including wastewater treatment.  

One alternative deemed cost effective was to build a new wastewater treatment plant on the Clinton River near Mound Rd., north of 22 Mile Rd.  It would reduce both normal flow to DWSD’s plant in Detroit and diversion of polluted CSOs to the Clinton River.   

The proposed plant would handle an average 52.8 mgd with a maximum of 102 mgd.  The cost was estimated (2007) at $275 million.

A new plant like that, built on the Rouge River, would (a) not be limited to diverting partially treated stormwater from the Detroit treatment plant to the river, as would the nine RTBs, but would relieve the Detroit plant daily of up to 102 mgd, and (b) at about 60% of the cost.

Imagine the reduction of CSOs and the Detroit plant’s ordinary load if new plants as described in the Oakland study were built on both the Clinton River and the Rouge River.

Coulda, shoulda, woulda?  Why bring this up now?  Because, these are recurring opportunities. The equipment that goes into these plants takes a beating 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  It wears out fast.  It can be repaired only so often before it has to be replaced.

As we move toward a regional water authority, we would be well advised to gradually replace segments of the Detroit wastewater treatment plant with new, smaller, more efficient and better managed treatment plants throughout the region.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Michigan's Water Oligarchy

Sewage from the northern reaches of the Detroit regional sewer system in Oakland and Macomb counties is normally conveyed to the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant where treated wastewater is discharged to the Detroit River.

But when the system is overwhelmed by heavy rain, polluted water from northern storm and sanitary sewers is diverted to the Clinton River, which empties into Lake St. Clair.

Because the Clinton River watershed bears a legacy of severe pollution, it has been designated an Area of Concern (AOC) under an agreement between the United States and Canada.  Water quality in the river is the responsibility of federal, state and local agencies organized around a Remedial Action Plan (RAP), designed to clean up the river and lake.

The RAP was drawn up decades ago and has been updated periodically.  It is overseen by the Clinton River Public Advisory Council (CRPAC), which is administered by the Clinton River Watershed Council (CRWC), a 501(c)(3) non-profit.

The CRPAC has around 70 members.  But the truly public representation on CRPAC is about 20%.

With the tacit approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), CRPAC and its fiduciary, CRWC, hide behind a curtain of secrecy, refusing to comply with freedom of information and open meetings legislation.

A cursory review of the CRPAC membership roster will tell you why.  State and federal agency leaders must find a way to reach out for participants from civic groups such as the League of Women Voters, riverside and lakeshore home and business owners, service clubs like Kiwanis and Rotary, the Walpole Island First Nation, labor unions, environmental organizations, farmers, fraternal organizations (Elks, Eagles, etc.), ethnic organizations (NAACP, for instance), the Tea Party, the Green Party and the like.  

The days of CRPAC/CRWC being run like a private club for special interests must end.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Plan to Dismantle Detroit's Wastewater Treatment Plant

The wastewater treatment branch of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is too big and unwieldy.  It has a history of bumbling personnel responsibilities, equipment maintenance, accounting and planning.  It has had more than it can handle in purchasing replacement parts, coping with combined sewer overflows and disposing of sludge.  The department has been rife with bribery, extortion, bid rigging and fraud.  These are but examples.

In the recent past, two-thirds to three-quarters of the department’s employees have been on the sewage treatment side of the department’s operations -- too many people with too few skills.  For decades, city politicians used department jobs for political patronage.  An independent study found that DWSD (then employing about 2000) was overstaffed by 80%.  Today, I’m told, the department employs about 1500.

Apparently, the department’s books have been so thoroughly cooked that Detroit’s emergency manager has refused to release annual audits for the last two fiscal years.

For the last seven years, DWSD has had a residential water assistance program (DRWAP) to benefit impoverished city residents.  And for those same seven years, DWSD has been collecting regular donations by generous city customers who agreed to include small contributions via their own water bill payments.  

Of course, any balance that donations wouldn’t (indeed, didn’t) cover would be passed along (unbeknowingly) to ratepayers in general (80% of whom are in the suburbs).

As nearly everyone knows by now, DWSD has let slide delinquencies on about half of the city’s residential water bills, some for months, some for years.  Where has the money donated for the needy gone the last seven years?  Don’t expect DWSD to tell.

Also, for long periods, sometimes years, DWSD didn’t even bother to send out bills, much less collect payments, for fees charged for (preventable) stormwater runoff owed by commercial and industrial property owners in the city.  As with residential delinquencies, these further revenue lapses were made up by all the ratepayers who were current on their accounts.

The fix for this monumental disaster will take a lot of money and many years, but it’s unavoidable.  A regional water authority is essential.

One step at a time, responsible suburban leaders must expand their small, existing wastewater treatment plants and build new ones, employing sound, transparent management and modern, efficient, odorless technology.  

And each step along the way, another piece of DWSD’s dysfunctional wastewater treatment facilities can be dismantled.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Detroit, Poverty and Water Shutoffs

The way news media in Detroit have portrayed thousands of water shutoffs by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in recent months for non-payment of water bills, you would think the problem just suddenly sprang up.  Not so.

Excerpts from “The Plight of the Waterless in Detroit” by Lara Zielin, LSA Magazine, adapted in The Cutting Edge, September 28, 2011:

“The questions deepen as the shutoffs continue. Water bills are also on the rise, even though one in six Detroit workers is unemployed and more than 30 percent of Detroiters live below federal poverty levels. In 2005, more than 40,000 Detroit residents had their water turned off.”

“In 2005, [Dr. Ann Rall] and workers with Michigan Welfare Rights drafted and submitted the Water Affordability Plan (WAP) to the Detroit City Council. WAP proposed that city funds, supplemented by charitable donations, would help ensure at-risk Detroit residents would never be in danger of a shutoff again.”

“The Detroit City Council passed the WAP resolution in 2005, and even allocated seed funding of $2.5 million to support the program. WAP was gaining ground until DWSD put forth its own plan to ease shutoffs: The Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program (DRWAP). DWSD’s director at the time, Victor Mercado, spearheaded the program’s effort, which had much the same structure as WAP: seed funding, and charitable giving (Detroit residents voluntarily agree to a donation every month on their water bill) providing a pool of money to help Detroit residents pay their bills.”

“DRWAP was instituted in 2007, and claims that 3,000 people have enrolled in the program since its inception.”

Does any of this sound familiar?  “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”
(Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, Les Guêpes, January 1849)