Billions needed to keep water systems working – The Macomb Daily

Drivers in Michigan chidingly say the state has two seasons –- one marked by the potholes, the other by construction barrels.

Both are familiar symbols of crumbling roads. But experts warn a wider and very expensive problem is percolating below the surface.

Around the country, scores of decaying drinking water systems built around the time of World War II and earlier are in need of replacement. The costs to rebuild them will be staggering. The costs of inaction are already piling up. The challenge is deepened by drought conditions in some regions and government mandates to remove more contaminants.

At stake is the continued availability of clean, cheap drinking water — a public health achievement that has fueled the nation’s growth for generations.

“The future is getting a little dark for something as basic and fundamental as water,” said Adam Krantz of the Water Infrastructure Network, a lobbying group that is fighting cuts to key federal water programs.

Unlike pothole-scarred roads or crumbling bridges, decaying water systems often go unnoticed until they fail. But without big changes in national policy, local governments and their ratepayers will be largely on their own in paying for the upgrades. The amount of federal money available is a drop in the bucket. That will mean rising water rates on customers, a trend expected to continue for years.

“That’s the key that Americans have to understand: If they want this system, they are going to have to be willing to finance it,” said Greg DiLoreto, past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, which has warned of a future with more equipment failures that will disrupt water service, transportation and commerce.

In most places across the country, the promise of clean, cheap, readily available water has been taken for granted, but that has begun to change. Farm runoff has polluted municipal water sources, drought has taken its toll on reservoirs and wells, and the aging underground networks of pipes that carry water to homes and businesses rupture all too frequently.

More than a million miles of underground pipes distribute water to American homes, and maintaining that network remains the largest and costliest long-term concern.

Just as with crumbling bridges or congested highways, the solutions don’t come cheap.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency projects it will cost $384 billion over 20 years just to maintain the nation’s existing drinking water infrastructure. Replacing pipes, treatment plants and other infrastructure as well as expanding drinking water systems to handle population growth could cost as much as $1 trillion. Without that investment, industry groups warn of a future with more infrastructure failures that will impact water service, hinder transportation and affect commerce.

Despite the need, the largest federal aid program for improving the nation’s drinking water system has more than $1 billion sitting unspent in government accounts, a review of data by The Associated Press shows. That is largely the result of project delays, poor management by some states and structural problems.

Adding to the concerns over a lack of investment, many parts of the country simply don’t have enough water. Between the West and pockets of the Southeast, 71 million people are now affected by drought, according to federal calculations. In a recent survey by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 40 of 50 state water managers said they anticipate supply shortages in at least part of their states over the next decade.

As they get older, water mains fail in different ways. Some split and rupture, with an estimated 700 main breaks occurring around the U.S. every day. The most devastating failures damage roadways, close businesses and shut off service for hours or days.

Utilities have long struggled to predict when to replace pipes, which have vastly different life cycles depending on the materials they are made from and where they are buried. Experts say a peak of up to 20,000 miles of pipe will need to be replaced annually beginning around 2035, up from roughly 5,000 miles currently. Each mile can cost $500,000 or more.

The impacts are playing out across the nation. The Philadelphia water department, the nation’s oldest, is already spending tens of millions of dollars more per year to replace its worst pipes. Yet the city saw more than 900 water main breaks in the most recent budget year. In June, two massive breaks forced evacuations and damaged cars, homes and businesses.

New Orleans once boasted about not raising water rates for two decades. But in 2012, the city approved 10 percent increases on water bills for eight straight years as part of a plan to fix its crumbling system. The average household’s monthly water-and-sewer bill will climb to $115 by 2020.

The massive main break that flooded the UCLA campus in Los Angeles in 2014 was widely seen as a wakeup call for failing infrastructure.

Pipes aren’t the only components in need of big investments. Many treatment plants are old and need to be replaced or rebuilt at a cost of tens of millions of dollars even in small cities. New valves to control water flow, new pumping stations to keep up pressure and new tanks to store water are also needed.

The demand for investment comes as revenue is falling, in large part because Americans are using less water and installing more efficient toilets and showerheads. Many households affected by drought have also cut their usage, either voluntarily or because of mandatory orders. That is good for conservation but starves water systems, which charge customers based on the amount used.

Facing the loss of income, many have been forced to raise rates. Customers essentially are paying more for using less.

Costs are also rising to accommodate federal regulations that require removal of more potentially harmful contaminants.

Need and improvements

Michigan ranks 27th in per capita federal spending for capital improvement projects for water. The state ranks 9th in projected money needed over 20 years at $13.8 billion, of which $9.5 billion would be for water transmission and distribution, indicating Michigan’s water and sewer infrastructure is aging and in need of repairs or replacement.

Locally, the city of Mount Clemens, which operates its own water filtration plant and a waste water treatment plant, has borrowed $16.6 million to finance water system improvements. The last time was 2007, when $3.9 million was used for various upgrades, including an ozone system.

“We’ve won multiple awards for best tasting water,” City Manager Steven Brown said.

On the waste water side, Mount Clemens has borrowed $22 million. Nearly one-third is still to be paid off. That includes $1.19 million in 2010 from the State Revolving Fund for an ultraviolent light treatment system that cuts down on the use of chemicals. The city of Warren made the same improvement years ago.

“There’s no mistaking that it’s expensive to keep these systems running,” Brown said. “There’s always going to be a need for reinvesting in the system as equipment gets old.”

Because Mount Clemens operates its own water and waste water plants, the city does not contract with the Detroit Department of Water and Sewerage for the vital service. But it also enables Mount Clemens to sell water to neighboring Clinton and Harrison townships, and Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

“We’re always open to talking to other communities about their interest in” buying water from the city, Brown said.

A few months ago, Mount Clemens officials outsourced the oversight of its water and sewer plants to F&V Operations and Resource Management.

“We’re working on defining our capital plan and make the most efficient investments that we can,” Brown added.

Among infrastructure improvements in Warren, construction was completed in May on replacement of the water main and new pavement along Martin Road, between Van Dyke and Hoover Road. Price tag: $3 million. In 2013, pressure reducing stations were installed at 14 Mile and Mound roads, and at 14 Mile at Schoenherr roads, at a cost of $819,000.

In Fraser, an outcry by some residents about water rates has made the water/sewer bills an issue in this year’s City Council election.

“It’s a very touchy subject, absolutely,” said Councilman Paul Cilluffo, who is running for mayor this fall. “A lot of people don’t understand why it costs so much.”

Some are calling for formation of a task force to examine water and sewer costs.

Cilluffo said the city has improved the monitoring of utility pipes to reduce the amount of water leakage.

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is, by far, the largest supplier of water service in the region. DWSD provides water to 125 communities; from Flint in the north to Monroe County in the south, and west to Ypsilanti.

On its community outreach website, DWSD notes that water main breaks and sewage overflows require costly repairs.

“Focusing investment where it is needed most and following through on long term rehabilitation programs is key to gaining traction in the continuous process of infrastructure renewal,” the department said.

Federal spending on water infrastructure across Michigan is expected to be $612 million this year. However, the estimated investment that officials say is necessary for the next 20 years is $13.8 billion.

Oakland County Deputy Executive Robert Daddow pointed out the Great Lakes have half of the world’s fresh water.

“We’ve got quite a lot of water. The quality of the water from DWSD has never been the issue,” said Daddow, a board member for the fledgling Great Lakes Water Authority.

Delivering water to more than 125 communities – serving approximately 4.5 million people – the Detroit system is one of the largest in the country. Estimates to repair and upgrade the against water and sewer system are upwards of $500 million.

The Great Lakes Water Authority was formed — amid some controversy — via a lease agreement signed between Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties earlier this year. The fledgling authority takes effect Jan. 1 if all conditions are met. It ends decades of U.S. District Court oversight of DWSD that began in the 1970s and continued over issues such as governance and setting of rates, by transferring assets and debts to the new authority. In exchange, suburban communities will pay Detroit $50 million a year for 40 years to allow Detroit to finance $500 million to $800 million to fix the city’s aging system.

The lease gives the suburbs a bigger voice in operating the Detroit system and setting rates. It also establishes a $4.5 million fund to assist low-income customers in paying their water bills.

Buying power

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Anthony Marrocco wants to go a step further.

Marrocco recently announced he intends to form a Macomb County water authority to provide “negotiating muscle” in contracting with the GLWA. He said the Public Works office is contacting the 18 communities in the county that contract directly with DWSD for water service. Marrocco hopes those cities, townships and villages band together, saying he is certain savings can be achieved and to also tackle water pressure control problems and construction projects.

“My office has the ability to coordinate the necessary functions to make such an authority a reality and in the process save our ratepayers substantial money and mobilize our resources to place water service on a more reliable and sustainable basis,” the county public works commissioner said.

“We could create our own hybrid model, based on several possible statues that we are reviewing.”

Wayne County is the state’s largest user of public water, and the largest user of water for industrial uses. Oakland County is the largest irrigator of golf courses. Macomb is fourth and Wayne is sixth.

In total water use, Wayne County is third, Oakland is 17th and Macomb is 44th.

Digital First Media’s Charles Crumm of the Oakland Press contributed to the report.