Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Democracy and the Inevitable Regional Water Authority

Insist on Electing Leaders of Regional Institutions

Let’s suppose that sometime in the not too distant future the state legislature enacts a framework for a regional water authority in southeast Michigan. That could be done with or without inclusion of the City of Detroit or even Wayne County, but preferably with both on board.

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.  In Monroe County, for instance, candidates would have to reside in either the Village of South Rockwood or Ash Township.

Got a different idea?  We’d all like to hear it.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

New England Fertilizer to pelletize DWSD sludge


The New England Fertilizer Company (NEFCO) is coming to Detroit.  It’s purpose will be to dispose of sewage sludge, sometimes called biosolids, generated by the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD).  

The same purpose brought Synagro Technologies, Inc. to Detroit in 2007 and Vista Disposal, Inc. in 1980, but the exposure of corruption in those two deals stopped them in their tracks.

Inability to properly dispose of sludge is what caused DWSD to dump the nutrient-rich sludge into the Detroit River.  The river carried it to Lake Erie, where nutrients like phosphorus fueled oxygen-sapping algae blooms.  

As a consequence, DWSD has been cited on a number of occasions for violations of the Clean Water Act.  The problem has been so intractable that federal and state intervention was necessary for 35 years.

NEFCO has been in business since 1986.  It operates facilities adjacent to wastewater treatment plants large and small around the country.  

Under a 20 year contract with DWSD for nearly $700 million, NEFCO will operate a plant it is to construct on Jefferson Ave., opposite DWSD’s principal wastewater facilities.  The plant is expected to be completed in 2016.   It will produce pellets suitable for fertilizer or burning as a source of energy.

The project is intended to replace DWSD’s obsolete incinerators.  Planners anticipate that NEFCO will dispose of approximately 300 of the average 500 (so called) dry tons of sludge produced by DWSD daily.  Most of the rest will go to landfills.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Building Infrastructure for Water Services

The Clean Water Act and State Revolving Funds

What many of us mean by the term “Clean Water Act” (CWA) is actually a series of federal statutes enacted from 1972 through 1987 having to do with protecting and improving the quality of certain surface waters in the United States.

The legislation in 1972 provided for federal grants to assist in the construction of public sewage treatment plants.  In 1987, the grants were replaced with low-interest loans from a revolving fund created by the federal government and administered by the states.  States are required to contribute an additional 20 percent.   

“Revolving” means that, as loans are repaid with interest, those funds are made available again for new loans.  Thus, the fund has grown and grown.

Over the years, Clean Water State Revolving Funds (CWSRF) have provided many billions in financing for more than 33,000 projects.  Loans can be as high as 100 percent of construction costs, repayable in 20 years.  States can enhance their lending power for clean water infrastructure by issuing CWSRF-backed bonds.  There are several options besides loans to support water-related improvements.

Michigan’s many CWSRF projects are monitored by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  An overview of Michigan’s clean water funding can be seen on DEQ’s website.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Flint Journal Applauds City, KWA

In an editorial April 13, 2014, the Flint Journal commends the decision of the City of Flint to leave the Detroit water system in favor of the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA).  Flint will treat local river water while awaiting completion of KWA's pipeline from Lake Huron.


"Wisely, Flint ended the relationship with Detroit and accelerated a plan to treat Flint River water until the new Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline is finished."

"It was a bold move, one that was carefully vetted. And, it helps prepare the city for KWA, an agreement made with a true spirit of cooperation among the city, Genesee County and the state of Michigan."

"We understand that the Flint River usage and even conversion to KWA will not result in rate decreases — but we caution the city to exercise real sensitivity toward anything but the most modest of water rate increases, if any."

"For decades, Flint and Genesee County were virtually powerless to stop the city of Detroit from inflicting its largest water rate increases on local customers because of an agreement signed about 40 years ago."

"Let’s raise our drinking water glasses and cheers to a new direction for the next 40 years."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Free Press Editorial Misses the Mark

I can understand the urgency with which the Detroit Free Press and many Detroiters view the bankruptcy process in which the city is embroiled, but the paper’s editorial yesterday, “Detroit bankruptcy: Let’s get the deal done” seemed uncharacteristically hasty and ill-informed.

The portion of the editorial devoted to the city’s water department was particularly perplexing:

“The regional water deal is dead in the water, and Orr is soliciting requests from private
companies to operate and manage the department.”

“If Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties joined an authority — Wayne is willing, Oakland and Macomb aren’t — each would have made an annual $47-million lease payment that would have supported pension obligations for Detroit Water and Sewerage Department workers.”  [Each?  Really?]

“It’s difficult to understand by what logic Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson and Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel find private management preferable to a regional authority, which would include county-appointed members. Regional ratepayers will bear the costs of delinquent customers in Detroit and Highland Park, as well as increased rates to support investment in the system under private management just as surely as under an authority, but with no voice for residents.”

It seems to me that the logic that compels Mr. Patterson and Mr. Hackel but escapes the editorial writer is that, once committed to rebuilding the dilapidated infrastructure that would be inherited by a regional water authority (which would include Detroit), the suburbs would have abandoned all hope of building their own system, free of the burdens of supporting City of Detroit retirees and furnishing water to hundreds of thousands of city residents who can’t or won’t pay for it, not to mention the corruption and mismanagement that have plagued DWSD on and off for decades.

The editorial writer points out that Oakland and Macomb (and presumably Wayne, too) would have much desired representation on the board of a regional water authority.

Note, however, that the editorial overlooks the fact that a DWSD with a private operator would continue to be controlled by a board on which the three principal counties already have representatives, who benefit from by-laws that require supermajorities on important votes.

Perhaps a little more deliberation and review on the part of the Free Press editorial staff would be in order.