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Advocates call on feds to invest in Detroit's water infrastructure

Oct 6, 2017

The Detroit branch NAACP hosted an event Friday to raise awareness about Detroit's aging water infrastructure, and to call on the federal government to update and repair it.

Detroit's situation is part of a nationwide infrastructure crisis, but the need is critical in the Great Lakes region, advocates say, because more than 30 million people depend on the lakes for their drinking water. 

According to Palencia Mobley, Chief Engineer for Detroit Water and Sewarage, Detroit has 2,700 miles of water distribution lines that need replacing, and 700 miles of water transmission lines that feed the suburbs. Those lines cost $1.2 million per mile to replace, and the sewer system needs to be re-lined.

At the same time, the city is working to end sewer overflows during wet weather events. Discharges from storm sewers during heavy rains release raw sewage into the environment, threatening wildlife habitat, the recreation industry, and drinking water supplies. 

All that would cost billions of dollars, and Mobley says that's unaffordable for Detroit ratepayers. She says it's important to seek funding from the federal government.

"Infrastructure isn't sexy. Nobody talks about infrastructure. You can't see it. You can't touch it. It doesn't become a thing until there's sewage in your basement or your water is off," says Mobley.

The federal government invested much more in water infrastructure in the past. According to a study by the U.S. Water Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, that investment has dropped from 63 percent of total water spending in 1977 to just 9 percent in 2014. 

"To me that says that the federal government has walked away and is putting all the burden on local ratepayers, and what we're saying is we want to change that dynamic," says Chad Lord, policy director of the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition.

Detroit and the southeast Michigan region has some advantages in meeting its water infrastructure challenges. Area water authorities have invested in advanced technologies for dealing with combined sewage discharges.

Mobley says southeast Michigan and Detroit are ahead of the curve, but the goal is zero discharge.

"Zero is a very difficult number to achieve," says Mobley. "Almost 30 years ago the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department made investments in what we call wet weather treatment facilities. These facilities are designed to treat the combined sewage overflow before it is discharged to the rivers and streams."

Mobley says that Detroit has invested over $1 billion in those systems, and combined, Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties, plus Detroit, have invested close to $3 billion.