Don’t Drink the Water

When I turned on the kitchen faucet, like most of you, I didn’t give much thought as to how clean and purified water got all the way from the river to my house. At least not until about two years ago when Mayor Mike Duggan asked me to Chair Detroit’s Board of Water Commissioners. Now I think about it a lot.

We are in the third day of a “Boil Water” advisory for a large area of the city and I live smack dab in the middle of that area. So I’m boiling water and dirty dishes are gathering in the sink because I can’t run the dish washer.

The problem originated in the venerable Water Works Park just up E. Jefferson from where I live. This is one of three intake facilities that suck the water into the system from the Detroit River.  A key pump failed and the water pressure in the effected area dropped. Water mains (the big pipes that bring the water to your house) are old. Over time they accumulate a certain amount of what I’ll simply call crud. As long as the mains are pressurized the crud stays in place. But a drop in pressure can stir the crud up and release bacteria.

This is an interesting lesson in the geopolitics of Southeast Michigan. From the first days of the city’s establishment Detroit has been responsible for all of the water and sewerage activities for the entire region. The system began in Detroit and was expanded to meet the needs of the suburbs as they sprawled north, south and west (can’t go east because of Lake St. Clair).

In the early 70’s urban planners expounded the benefits of Regional Government – combining municipal services over the boundaries of many individual suburban communities. They have had success with the concept in places like Toronto. Since the Water and Sewage system provided services to the entire region this was a good candidate for regionalization. But the idea of regional government coincided with the election of Detroit’s, first Black Mayor the Honorable Coleman A. Young. He and many Black Detroiters were suspicious. Why was it okay for Detroit to run the system for many decades until a Black Mayor was in charge?The idea of Detroit’s jewels was born. The white suburbanites were out to plunder Detroit’s jewels; the Art Institute, the Zoo, Belle Isle and the water system.

For reasons that are complicated and involve corruption under former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the system came under the jurisdiction of a Federal Judge. On January 1, 2016 the fans of regional operation of the water system got their wish. The collecting and purifying of water and the treatment of sewage is now the responsibility of the Great Lakes Water Authority.

But as the saying goes – be careful what you wish for.

GLWA (glee-wah) leases the plant and equipment from Detroit and is responsible for all operations. Detroit is simply a retail customer like all of the other cities in the region albeit the largest at 45% of total capacity.

It’s GLWA that screwed up. And it’s not the first time. Residents of the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood got raw sewage in their basement after a very large rain storm last summer because 6 out of 15 pumps at the Conner Creek pumping station were off line.

Conner Creek Pumping Station on E. Jefferson

 

This is exactly what Coleman Young feared. If we don’t control the system Detroit will always get shitty service. Now for what it’s worth GLWA delivered foul smelling water to a number of Downriver communities earlier this year. How’s this for bureaucratic speak?

Cheryl Porter, chief operating officer for the authority, said that despite the odor the water is safe to use in any manner.

“In regard to the concerns about water quality in a number of Downriver communities, the authority has conducted extensive testing of its water at its Southwest Treatment Plant and in locations where odor is being detected,” she said in a statement. “Tests confirm that all regulatory water-quality standards are being achieved, and that the water is safe.”

In other words “hold your nose and drink”.

The “boil water” water advisory should be lifted today. It was issued in the first place in “an abundance of caution“.

I’m going to invite the CEO and the COO of GLWA to the next meeting of the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners. Someone has a lot of esplaining to do.  I think there will be a lot more wah than glee.

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