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New Detroit Water and Sewer Deal Announced – harmony reigns — for now.

9 Sep 2014

Photo Credit: Christine Cousins, www.christinecousins.com

Photo Credit: Christine Cousins, www.christinecousins.com

I have blogged previously about the DWSD, arguing that a regional deal makes sense.  I’ve also blogged about rumors that the Emergency Manager was threatening to privatize the system and concerns about funds needed for infrastructure might go into the City of Detroit’s general fund to help the City get out of bankruptcy.  A reported 40 year regionalization deal is now on the table.

if rates look to climb beyond 4% a year – it may be back to a very uncertain drawing board.

There are a number of interesting points in the reported deal, which needs to be approved by October 10th:

1. A regional authority – the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) will be created to operate the regional water and sewer system. The GLWA will have 6 members: 2 appointed by the Mayor of Detroit, 1 each by Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties, and 1 by the Governor. 5 of 6 votes will required for major issues.

2.  Detroit will own and control its own water and sewer system – making it similar to every other community in the system. (more…)

Lake Erie – so is it Ohio’s fault?

22 Aug 2014

t1_11246_1533_LakeErie_143_250mThe recent shutdown of Toledo’s water system due to an algal toxin in the water caught everyone’s attention.  Our friends at Dragun note that the Toledo water problem was triggered by some odd weather, but the algal source problem remains out there.   The MDEQ announced this month a five point plan to protect the lake: (more…)

What is a 100 year rain anyway?

14 Aug 2014

Anonymous_two_red_diceAfter the recent flooding, news reporters came out and pronounced Monday a “100 year rainstorm.”  What does that mean anyway?  Is this mere hyperbole, like “trial of the century”?

The term has a specific impact for both insurance purposes and for planning.  Your flood risk determines whether you should buy (or whether you are eligible for) flood insurance.  And I assume that, as to sewer backup insurance (there is such a thing), it also affects your rates.  So, given that we’ve had rain storms in Detroit of over 4 inches 4 times over the last 100 years, what is a 100 year storm?

A 100 year rain storm (like a 100 year floodplain) does not mean that it happens only once every hundred years but rather that, statistically, planners believe that there is only a 1% chance of it happening in any one year.  Think about rolling a die.  If you roll a 3 four times in a row (assuming the die is fair), when you roll it a 5th time, its chances of coming up a 3 (or any other digit) is still 1 in 6 or 16.7%.  Weather is a bit more subjective and variable than rolling a die or flipping a coin but the same concept applies. (more…)

Detroit Water – an update

21 Jul 2014

China_Single_Handle_Cold_Water_Garden_Bib_Tap_Faucet_Bibcock2013142136069On Friday, protests were held in Detroit to challenge the DWSD’s recent shut-off initiative.  The United Nations has published a number of statements regarding “the right to water.”    Certainly, if the City of Detroit is providing water, it must be clean and safe.  Also, there seems universal agreement that the City should help find or provide assistance to those who truly cannot afford water.  But these protests and the articles raise a question – in the United States, is the government obligated to provide water to someone who does not pay for it?

Other than protection of water quality, the Michigan Constitution only states that any city or village may own or operate public service facilities for supplying water (among other things) to the municipality and the inhabitants thereof.

In the United States, is the government obligated to provide water to someone who does not pay for it?

Michigan cities are allowed by law to put liens on homes that do not pay their water bills.  Since at least 1964, the City of Detroit’s code has provided that Detroit may discontinue water service to any building or any property with delinquent water assessments or charges which has been liened. This concept is authorized by Michigan law.  The City has the option to sue for collection of such water charges if it wants to, but it is the City’s option. (more…)

Detroit water … and the United Nations?

30 Jun 2014

Now this is a black eye that my town just does not need.  As regular readers know, I suspected that the DWSD would become a “hot potato” in the Detroit reorganization.  It has but not quite the way I expected.  One of the big issues that Macomb and Oakland Counties had raised was a concern that, if the system was regionalized, their residents would be paying for Detroiters who were not paying their water bills.  Recent reports seem to have confirmed this fear.

 The thought that some 50% of Detroiters simply do not pay the DWSD for a service that they use daily and expect the other 50% and the rest of us to foot the bills is dismaying.  Actually, it’s insulting.

In March, it was reported that some 165,000 of the DWSD’s 323,900 business, school, and commercial accounts were overdue, and more than 154,000 of 296,000 residential accounts were also delinquent. The DWSD took the position that accounts more than 60 days behind on water bills would be shut off.  In April of 2014, DWSD sent 44,273 shut-off notices and actually shut off 3,025 customers for non-payment; there were also additional collections of $400,000 reported as compared to the same time in 2013.

(more…)

Toilet to Tap? I don’t see overcoming the “ick” factor any time soon

2 Jun 2014

drinking_waterAs drought conditions settle in across much of the United States, some communities are beginning to look at the concept of “water reuse,” which sounds very conservationist.  Generally it means so-called “grey water” reuse where water that’s been used once (such as for laundry or car washes) is reused for other non-potable purposes. It also means the capture of rainwater for irrigation (think the barrels that some people have at the end of their downspouts). (more…)

Climate change and infrastructure

27 May 2014

bumperstickerAfter that 100 year winter we just came out of, and the potholes it left behind, everyone seems to be talking about infrastructure.  Even the Michigan Legislature and Chamber of Commerce are supporting tax increases to support road and bridge repairs.  While potholes are annoying, sinkholes and bridge failures can be some pretty serious stuff, as has been recently reported.   President Obama has also spoken recently about infrastructure investment as he asks Congress to appropriate additional highway funds.

There has also been a slew of recent news about climate change including a national assessment report and reports of major antarctic melting.  Given all this news, our investments in infrastructure should take climate change into account. We all know about freeze-thaw and the havoc it can wreak on our roads and bridges. With weather becoming less predictable and more extreme, as we rebuild our infrastructure, we certainly need to think about doing it right the first time including:

  • Designing tougher, more resilient, lower maintenance roadways, bridges, facilities and roadsides;
  • Incorporating materials which will perform more consistently in weather extremes;
  • Better controls of runoff including pavement redesign and strengthening drain, river and stream banks and ditches to prevent erosion;
  • Stronger and lower maintenance bridge design;
  • Changes in roadside vegetation to ensure survival and water uptake during floods as well as drought and erosion resiliency;
  • Larger capacity pumps/pump stations to prevent freeway flooding; and
  • Better sewer and water lines to prevent failures as we experience more freeze-thaw, deeper frosts and drought conditions.

While the east and west coasts are expected to take the biggest climate-based hit (think Katrina, Sandy and California droughts and wildfires) drought, higher temperatures and stronger storm events threaten roads and we have already seen Great Lakes levels impact shipping and commerce.  A recent government report discussed the likely impacts on energy infrastructure including:

  • increased demands for electricity;
  • greater stress on the grid as we experience stronger storms; and
  • power plants’ vulnerability to water shortages.

From roads to utility lines, water lines and sewers, we are on the cusp of a brave new world.  I, for one, think that if we are about to invest billions in putting Michigan back together after many decades of neglect, we ought to do it with our eyes on the future and do it right the first time.  If that costs more, it will be worth it in failures and crises avoided down the road and will provide a base from which Michigan’s economy can grow.