Detroit begins first massive upgrade of water, sewer pipes since Great Depression

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News
Detroit plans to upgrade its water and sewer system with a $500 million effort.

Detroit — A five-year, $500 million effort was announced Thursday to replace water and sewer pipes throughout the city, an undertaking city officials say would be the first massive upgrade of water and sewer lines since 1930.

Mayor Mike Duggan and officials with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced a data-driven approach to upgrade the city’s water and sewer systems at a press conference in the city's Russell Woods neighborhood, one of the communities identified by the water officials as needing the quickest fix.  The approach is aimed at replacing or repairing the most vulnerable pipes first.

It's also the first major step in replacing an estimated 125,000 lead service pipes in the city, officials said. Lead pipes were at the center of controversy in Flint's water crisis.

Detroit's data-driven approach will assess individual neighborhoods that allow water officials "to figure out where are the oldest pipes," Duggan said. "Where are they most likely to break? And how do we put our investment in it?"

More than 50 miles of water main and sewer collection pipe will be replaced or lined this year. And projects aimed at better managing 37 million gallons of stormwater will be done to prevent flooding.

The water and sewerage department will replace existing lead service lines that often connect to older residences to the main water and sewer lines. Lead pipes can cause serious health risks if the pipes become corroded and particles enter drinking water.

It could take decades to get to all of the city's water and sewer pipes, officials said.

“We are responsible for 2,700 miles of transmission and distribution water mains and nearly 3,000 miles of sewer collection piping,” Brown said.

In 2018, the city upgraded 25 miles of water main, lined 22 miles of sewer piping and replaced 173 lead service lines. This was the most water and sewer construction in the past 15 years, officials said. 

In late 2017, the city started the data-driven approach with pilot areas in North Rosedale Park and Cornerstone Village by flushing the hydrants, detecting leaks in the water mains and placing cameras in the sewer pipes.

Water and sewer condition assessments have since also been done in Brewster Douglass, Brightmoor, Jefferson Chalmers, Miller Grove, Minock Park, Rosedale Park (south), and Riverdale.

The results of the assessments are being reviewed and designs are underway for the infrastructure that needs rehabilitation.

The data was used to design water and sewer upgrades for the two neighborhoods where construction will begin this year.

Palencia Mobley, DWSD deputy director and chief engineer, said "so far," the city has found that one out of every four miles of infrastructure needs "replacement or rehabilitation.”

The $500 million to pay for the upgrades will come from several sources. One is the leasing revenues from the regional water system, called the Great Lakes Water Authority, created during the city's bankruptcy. The city gets $50 million in annual lease payments.

Brown also noted a 94% collections rate from people who are behind on their water bills. That's up from 77% in 2016. That adds up to about $60 million in additional revenue. Further, the city's improved financial status allows it to borrow money from Wall Street.

Still, the city will need further assistance to meet a new state mandate that requires public utilities to dig up lead service lines and replace them all within 20 years. The rule is in response to the Flint water crisis.

Brown said the city will need "financial assistance" to step up its pace of lead pipe removal to meet the 20-year goal.

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN