Detroit Water Dept. Must Reorganize to Survive

The time seems right to strike a regional deal that benefits everyone.

Did you ever think about where your water comes from and what may be in it? I have a good friend who never thought about the fact that there was a finite amount of water and that certainly some of what came out of his tap had, at some point (possibly in the distant past), likely passed through someone else’s bladder. What that means is that proper treatment of wastewater may have a serious impact on drinking water quality and public health.

Just this week, rumors have surfaced that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department may be cutting 40 percent of its staff — a reorganizing of the system which, if successful, could lead to lower operating costs, lower borrowing costs and may make a multi-county regional deal more likely. If not, the system could be back in trouble. There have also been rumors of a possible sale of the system or that the Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr might strike some sort of deal without Oakland and Macomb counties — which hold many of DWSD’s customers.

The DWSD  and the local counties are trying to work out a deal to “regionalize” the Detroit Water System — thus far — to no avail. Given the recent push for regionalization with Cobo Center, the DIA and the Detroit Zoo, the DWSD seems a natural except the impact and economics of getting it right are even more important than those three initiatives put together. This is significant because the DWSD supplies drinking water to 126 communities in southeast Michigan, other than Detroit, serving roughly 40 percent of the state’s population; it also treats most of those communities’ wastewater.

The system is one of the country’s oldest, dating back to the 1830s and the infrastructure issues involved are huge, given its age and that the system has five water treatment plants treating water from two intakes in the Detroit River and a third in Lake Huron. Because the DWSD was able to achieve compliance on the other “ahem” end, it was finally let out of what was then one of the oldest ongoing lawsuits in existence.  With the economic stresses facing it, whether it will be able to stay in compliance is one of the many challenges ahead.

However, wastewater treatment plants (which discharge treated sewage) don’t always clean everything out of the water and failures to catch chemicals like pharmaceuticals, can have impacts downstream.  Sometimes, the chemicals get caught by accident without the operators even knowing it. A recent draft MDEQ report also tells us that there are problems in Michigan’s rivers (some of which may have been there all along and better testing is just now bringing it to light) with higher levels of pathogens of the sort our sewers and septic systems are supposed to eliminate.

While the city’s drinking water meets federal and state standards, those standards don’t test for everything that winds up in the water. Concerns have even been raised about plastic “microbeads” found in all manner of consumer products (think body washes and toothpastes) that flow right through the bathroom drain, past the treatment units and into the Detroit River. We’ve come a long way from the 1969 fires on the Cuyahoga and Rouge Rivers, but we’ve still got a long, long way to go.

As to our drinking water, one hopes that the treatment and testing deals with every possible chemical and pathogen but we know that it does not. The cryptosporidium scares of the last decade have been replaced by concerns with pharmaceuticals in the water today.

With needs for infrastructure upgrades and impending staffing cuts, the time seems right to strike a regional deal that benefits everyone in both the short and long terms. Let’s hope the region can pull this off. Sound water and wastewater systems are important for both our health and our economy.