Water Peace in Our Time?

An efficient and reliable water system is necessary for Metro Detroit to sustain long-term growth.
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For years, businesses and residents have stood patiently on the sidelines as the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department — and the suburbs it serves — argued about who was to blame for rate hikes. As the local media delighted in the controversy, the suburbs blamed the Detroit Water Department for imposing what was perceived to be excessive fee hikes, while some suburbs were slow to point out that they were mixing in rate increases of their own to operate their respective water departments.

But the dialogue has changed for the better in recent months, especially as Director Victor Mercado has opened up the Water Department’s books for all to see. Providing water to 126 communities from Flint to Monroe isn’t easy, and the effort requires intense capital improvements (some $2 billion over the next five years) to maintain quality while improving upon an aging system. “We’ve learned to reach out to our customers, share the same data we’re looking at to improve service, and basically push politics to the sidelines,” Mercado says.

Suburban leaders agree. “In [the last] year, there has been more transparency and accountability from the Detroit Water Department,” says Oakland County Drain Commissioner John P. McCulloch. “I was the first to complain in the past.” Greater cooperation between the city and suburbs is needed on a variety of fronts, but the ability to deliver water at reasonable rates ranks at the top of the list. Without water, businesses can’t operate machinery, create products, or provide for their employees.

What’s more, city and suburban leaders must address water delivery in outlying communities — in essence building loop systems to provide for redundancy in case another electric blackout or other catastrophe occurs. New water pipes connected to the existing system would also mend a growing crisis — high levels of arsenic in wells — and help homebuilders once the real-estate market recovers.

Greater cooperation between the city and suburbs is also needed to agree on the best way to expand and improve the system. Oakland County, along with Macomb and Genesee counties, is studying the need for its own water system to improve service to urban and outlying areas (by drawing water from Lake Huron). The study, to be completed later this year, will identify the cost and likely suggest funding mechanisms. The Detroit Water Department announced last September a $300-million effort to address the same basic plan, but it would be paid for by all of its customers. Time will tell whether the cooperation will last, but it will be sorely needed if the region is to remain competitive in the long run, especially as many southern and western states struggle with fresh water supplies.

What’s more, demonstrated regional cooperation may eliminate the need for costly federal judicial oversight of the system, at least as it pertains to water. But a regional board may be needed to address our aging sewer system, which hasn’t kept pace with water in terms of improvements. But whether it’s water, sewers, roads, or data lines, we can’t afford to allow territorial boundaries and politics to hold hostage the greater good of the region and state.

R.J. King
rjking@dbusinessmag.com

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