DJC Partner, Bridge Magazine | Water crisis hits Michigan suburbs. ‘We’ve been sounding alarms for years’
Last Updated by
Joel Kurth, Mike Wilkinson, Bridge Magazine
Originally published on Bridge Magazine on October 26th, 2017
When a massive water main broke this week in Oakland County and made tap water unsafe to drink for 305,000 residents, a top utility official called the mishap “unprecedented.”
Experts fear it could be something else: a byproduct of aging infrastructure in Michigan whose failings are becoming more frequent and dangerous. A task force appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder last year concluded that Michigan water systems need $60 billion in upgrades.
“There’s no question. As infrastructure gets older, we’re seeing these things happen more frequently, and the cost for repairs is only going to increase,” said Sean McBrearty, a campaign organizer with Michigan Clean Water Action, an environmental group.
This month alone, boil water advisories have been issued in Potterville, South Haven, Albion and Mount Morris because of water main breaks, which are common in winter because of the freeze-thaw cycle but far less so in warmer months.
“We’ve taken water and sewer for granted for a long time,” said Brian Steglitz, who heads the City of Ann Arbor’s Water Treatment Department and served on the governor’s task force.
Officials said they don’t know why the water main ruptured in Farmington Hills on Monday night, pouring thousands of gallons onto the street and prompting a water emergency extending to northwestern Detroit exurbs.
The incident lowered water pressure, making tap water susceptible to bacteria and E.coli infections, prompting a mandate to boil water that covered 11 communities from Novi and West Bloomfield to Rochester Hills that is estimated to continue at least through Friday.
Schools closed. Hospitals canceled surgeries. And residents drove miles for bottled water.
“A main break of this magnitude impacting so many customers is really unprecedented in our system,” said Sue McCormick, chief executive officer for the Great Lakes Water Authority that manages the water system that serves some 4 million customers in southeast Michigan.
Water officials are investigating whether an outage at a nearby power station caused an electrical surge that contributed to the rupture of the 48-inch transmission main, said Cheryl Porter, chief operating officer of the authority.
The water main was installed in 1970 – about middle-aged for its type – and had no previous breaks, McCormick said. She acknowledged it had never been inspected but said that isn’t unusual for large mains that are buried 6-to-10 feet deep.
The mishap comes three weeks after the Detroit branch of the NAACP called on the Great Lakes Water Authority to invest more money in repairs and maintenance. Since 2016, the authority has been leasing and operating Detroit’s water system as part of a deal that gives the city $50 million per year over 40 years to make repairs.
“We’ve been sounding alarms for years that there’s a huge infrastructure crisis,” said Meeko Williams, a Detroit water activist who served on the Blue Ribbon Panel on Water Affordability, a group of experts appointed by the City Council in 2016.
In February, for instance, a problem at a GLWA water treatment plant in Detroit put nearly half the city – and all of Hamtramck and Highland Park – on a boil-water advisory for more than two days.
“So many things should have been wake-up calls,” Williams said. “Why neighborhoods and freeways flood when it storms. Sinkholes. Maybe now that it’s happening to Oakland County (Michigan’s wealthiest), people will pay attention.”