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Sewer overflows declining, but heavy rains still push sewage into streams

Billions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewage are still fouling the state’s rivers, lakes and streams, despite years of work by state and local officials and voter approval in 2002 of $1 billion in bonds to upgrade sewer systems.

April’s torrential rains brought a reminder of Michigan’s sewage problem, straining so-called “combined” sewer systems and pushing an estimated 1.5 billion gallons of raw or partially treated waste into waterways.

Environmental officials point to positive trends in the sewage figures and say little-noticed bills passed at the end of last year’s hectic “lame-duck” legislative session could get loan and grant money more quickly into the hands of communities that need to upgrade storm and sanitary sewer systems.

The legislation allows the Department of Environmental Quality to shift money from the long-standing State Revolving Fund into a new fund because the old one, which uses 80 percent federal funds and 20 percent state money to provide low-interest loans, wasn’t lending money quickly enough.

“Local governments weren’t in the position to take on more debt,” said James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council.  “And all the federal rules applied a significant disincentive to use the fund. People weren’t really taking advantage of it.”

Communities with good credit ratings and strong financial management often were able to borrow money to upgrade systems with better terms in the private capital markets, experts said.

Of the $1 billion in bond money approved by voters, a surprising $654 million is still available even as communities continue to confront sewage releases.

The new program will use only state money. But communities can still borrow money at from the State Revolving Fund, which lends money at below market rates.

Last month’s heavy rains demonstrated the need for more state money to help communities upgrade sanitary and storm sewers, said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association.

Citing preliminary DEQ data, Nystrom said April’s heavy rainfall overtaxed sewer systems, resulting in 1.5 billion gallons of raw or partially treated sewage being dumped into the state’s rivers, lakes and streams.

The state’s aging underground sewer structures usually are “out of sight and out of mind,” said Nystrom, whose association is made up of heavy construction companies and suppliers.

“But this month, during catastrophic flooding, more of us are becoming aware of what is lurking in Michigan’s greatest natural resource after a heavy rainfall – sewage,” he said in a written statement.

Not all sewer systems are alike. The traditional concept of a sewer is known as a sanitary sewer, which is meant to carry only sewage to a treatment plant.

Michigan, however, still has a number of "combined" sewer systems. These systems take both sewage and stormwater coming from street drains and carry it to a treatment plant. The problem is that combined systems can be overwhelmed by heavy rainfalls, leading to releases at overflow points of stormwater mixed with sewage.

The most common and largest overflows come from older combined sewer systems.

Billions of dollars needed for sewers

A 2011 report by the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund Advisory Committee found that the state had a “serious shortfall in the resources needed to sustain Michigan’s aging sewer systems.”

The report cited a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency study that estimated it would take $7 billion to fix Michigan’s aging sewer and water systems.

But the 2011 committee said the EPA report was based on responses to a survey of communities, “suggesting the actual needs may be much greater.”

Under the new legislation, communities can receive planning and design grants of up to $2 million to upgrade sewer systems. The current program, known as S2, limits grants to $1 million.

A 10 percent match is required by local communities for the first $1 million and 25 percent for the second $1 million.

Environmentalists and local community officials say they think the new loan and grant programs are a step in the right direction, although some caution details are still sketchy.

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Rich Bowman, director of government relations in the Michigan office of the Nature Conservancy.  “Ultimately, what we want communities to do is build infrastructure to clean up the water.

Progress seen in figures

Environmentalists and state officials say the state revolving fund has been an important element in the state’s effort to reduce the number of points where sewers can overflow and dump sewage into waterways.

Communities have borrowed $3.9 billion from the fund since 1988 to build 467 sewer improvement projects.

A 2011 DEQ report found that the number of overflow points has been reduced from 613 in 1988, the year the fund was created, to 140 in 2011. (2012 figures are not yet available from DEQ.

Almost 28 billion gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage went into waterways in 2011. Of that, 21.6 billion gallons was partially treated sewage by Detroit. That was reduced substantially to 4.6 billion gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage in 2012. Of that, 3.6 billion gallons was partially treated sewage by Detroit.

Most of this big improvement had to do with less precipitation in 2012. DEQ said the Detroit area had the wettest year on record in 2011.

State officials say Detroit has made much progress in reducing flows over the past several decades. The city’s wastewater treatment system partially treated about 11 million gallons of sewage overflows annually between 2005 and 2011 into the Rouge River, up from about 2.5 billion gallons from 2000 to 2004, according to the DEQ.

Prior to 2000, the combined sewer overflow went mostly untreated into the Detroit and Rouge Rivers.

Detroit is expecting to treat those discharges to meet state and federal water quality standards by April 2019, said Peter Ostlund, field operations section chief at the DEQ.

“Everything’s pretty much rain dependent,” Ostlund said. “We’re never going to have zero (discharges). But Detroit is eliminating a good portion of its untreated sewage.”

Riet Schumack lives in the Rouge River flood plain in Detroit’s Brightmoor neighborhood. She said smelly sewer overflows during spring and fall storms regularly flood her backyard vegetable garden.

“I’m told it’s not even safe to wade in,” Schumack said. “I rarely grow anything that I can eat unwashed or uncooked. “To me, it’s a sign that we’re not managing our watershed properly.”

But she doesn’t blame just the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which has an overflow outlet point upstream from her home. Schumack sees it as a regional issue. “I think a lot of our problems come from upstream in Southfield, which has (stormwater runoff from) a lot of businesses and parking lots,” Schumack said.

MORE COVERAGE: Thousands of failed septic tanks threaten Michigan’s waters

While heavy rains in April swelled the Grand River to a record level in Grand Rapids, Mike Lunn, the city’s environmental services director, said the city did not dump any untreated sewage into the river.

It did discharge 435 million gallons of partially treated storm overflow from a treatment basin into the river. But environmentalists credited the city’s upgraded sewer system with preventing raw sewage from entering the river.

The city has reduced the number of overflow points in its system from 59 to four since 1991, Lunn said as it spent about $320 million to separate its sanitary and storm sewers. Less than $20 million of that came from the State Revolving Fund, he said. The rest came from federal grants and loans and user fees.

Clift, of the Michigan Environmental Council, said the future challenge for state environmental policymakers will be in dealing with the effects of climate change on the state’s sewer infrastructure.

“We’re doing better,” he said. “What we’re up against, unfortunately, is changes in the weather patterns. We’re getting more precipitation in the winter and spring and less in the summer and fall.”

Clift said communities need more structures in which they can capture stormwater runoff in the winter and spring and use it for farm irrigation in the drier summers to boost the agricultural economy.

More stormwater also could be diverted into wetlands, recharging the state’ aquifers, he said.

“We’re getting better -- but we’re not quite there yet,” Clift said.

Rick Haglund has had a distinguished career covering Michigan business, economics and government at newspapers throughout the state. Most recently, at Booth Newspapers he wrote a statewide business column and was one of only three such columnists in Michigan. He also covered the auto industry and Michigan’s economy extensively.

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