After decades of neglect, the bill comes due for Michigan’s water infrastructure


The good news is that there is more attention than ever to these issues, what Janice Beecher of Michigan State University has called a “critical mass” of task forces, task forces, d advocacy and funding aid organizations. At the state level, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy formed the Office of the Clean Water Public Defender in 2019 to collect and investigate citizen complaints about water and sewer failures. The Water Asset Management Council, an expert group established in 2018, carries out a legislative mandate to collect data on the condition of municipal water, sewer and stormwater lines. It received its first data submissions earlier this year. The Ministry of Health and Social Services, for its part, integrates access to water into its current three-year strategy for health and equity.

Professional associations, universities and local governments are also involved. Last fall, the American Water Works Association, which represents utilities, launched a six-month series of presentations and conversations on water affordability culminating in a one-day summit on the 12 may. The University of Michigan completed its statewide water accessibility analysis in December. The Michigan Municipal League Foundation has developed a toolkit to help disadvantaged communities apply for federal infrastructure funds. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments formed a water infrastructure task force this year to coordinate investments in the region. With the help of a state grant, task force member Oakland County brought together community groups to develop water affordability plans for the Pontiac and the Township of Royal Oak .

Communities won’t achieve these goals by following ragged manuals, said Sue McCormick, former CEO of the Great Lakes Water Authority and current member of the Water Asset Management Council. She stressed that the next path is forged in collaboration – not only between governments, but also within ministries. Road projects should be coordinated with water main replacements. Communities, rural and urban, should come together around regional projects. The objective is to control costs.

When in place, cooperation agreements are very promising. Oakland County Water Commissioner Jim Nash touted savings from a joint stormwater project with Detroit. Oakland will send more of its excess flow to Detroit during rainstorms for processing, eliminating the need for an $80 million expansion of its own system. In return, Oakland will invest $30 million in green stormproof infrastructure in Detroit.

“We’re both going to save money and we’re both going to produce much cleaner water in the environment when we’re done,” Nash said. “So everyone benefits.”

Even if the opportunity is present, the beneficial results are not assured and will not be easy to obtain. What is holding the process back is the large number of municipal governments in Michigan, political wrangling between jurisdictions, and lack of data, especially for rural areas and smaller systems that serve mobile home parks, which present some of the most serious water quality problems.

Once the pipes have been replaced, the next step is civic repair. Restoring community trust after years of inadequate service or polluted tap water is just as difficult, perhaps more so, than engineering work. Sylvia Orduño, a community organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, which advocates for low-income households, sees residents buying bottled water even after their lead pipes have been removed.

“How come all this money and investment is being made and yet we still have people who don’t trust clean water right here in a Great Lakes state?” asks Orduño.

City managers and state officials have a delicate task ahead of them, said Sara Hughes, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who studies water infrastructure. Not only do they have to weigh current demands and be careful not to maintain public support by not surprising residents with high bills. They must also consider how these expensive assets will behave decades later, as a warming planet inflicts unusual stresses of heat, drought and deluge.

“If we’re making these big investments, we have to make sure that we think about how they will perform under some sort of new climate regime,” Hughes told Circle of Blue.

For Hughes, there is less talk of climate resilience than there should be. And she would hate to see this opportunity wasted.

“Ten years from now, it would be such a shame if we were still unprepared for major floods, or new runoff patterns to our water sources, or the effects of hot days on our infrastructure,” said she added.

However, big changes will not happen all at once. Spring marks the start of the construction season in Michigan, and the replacement of a $7.8 million water main in the Pontiac is an indication of the near-term direction the state is headed in. .

About a mile west of the town center, at an intersection flanked by modest brick houses and apartments, heavy machinery perches on the edge of an open-pit mine, its yellow-jacketed operators stopping at noon for the lunch.

By the end of a cold March afternoon, the new water pipe now visible in the dirt below Liberty Street and Murphy Avenue will be buried, and the excavators and bulldozers will have descended the block, ready once more to crack the brown cocoa. ground and replace another section of worn hose.


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