GLWA to reveal findings from internal probe of outages during June rainfall

Amelia Benavides-Colón
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Great Lakes Water Authority on Wednesday is set to share findings from an internal review of power outages during torrential rains in late June that resulted in thousands of basement backups and a presidential disaster declaration. 

Interim CEO of GLWA Suzanne Coffey said the investigation, one of two launched by the authority following the June 25 and 26 rain events, examines every minute leading up to the outages that impacted GLWA operations and she's hopeful that the report "will have some answers for us."

Navid Mehram, Chief Operating Officer at Great Lakes Water Authority, talks about the history and function of the sanitary pumps, the pumps were constructed in 1930 and pumps 300 million gallons of water a day. The authority said it plans to share findings Wednesday from an internal investigation into flooding from June rainstorms. (Clarence Tabb, Jr./The Detroit News)

"The internal investigation is proceeding pretty rapidly," Coffey told reporters on Monday during a tour of the Conner Creek and Freud pump stations in Detroit, adding officials will give the water authority board an update on Wednesday and she anticipates the investigation will wrap up within a month. 

The probe is expected to answer whether there's anything the authority could have done to prevent sewer backups in the June storms and others in the weeks that followed.

The city of Detroit has fielded tens of thousands of flood claims stemming from the June rain events before residents of the city, nearby Dearborn and Dearborn Heights and the Grosse Pointe communities were hit with additional rounds of flooding in July and some again on Friday. 

The Freud and Conner Creek pump stations are responsible for pumping water out and away from the east side of Detroit, including the chronically flooded Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood.

Because of the power outage first reported to have occurred June 23 but later revealed to be June 22, Freud pump station was down five of eight pumps when rains hit June 25. Power wasn't restored to the station until June 30.

Coffey during the Monday tour credited climate change for the abundance of rain during the recent storms and stressed the two pump stations are set to undergo upgrades in an effort to prepare for future storms. 

"With the change in the climate, the intensity, these bursts that we're getting; this is what's creating a big challenge for us," Coffey said after Friday rainfall caused a third round of basement backups for some Detroit and Dearborn-area residents. 

"Things (the climate) have changed... and we're experiencing it now," she said. 

Suzanne Coffey, Interim CEO of Great Lakes Water Authority, discusses the needs for upgrades of the water infrastructure outside the Conner Creek pump station in Detroit.

President Joe Biden issued disaster declarations for Wayne and Washtenaw counties in response to the damage caused by the June rainfall. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials have been on the ground in Metro Detroit canvassing households to survey damages. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Friday requested a presidential disaster declaration for Oakland and Macomb counties as a result of the June storms. 

Coffey said Monday that the changing climate means renovations are necessary in order to keep up and keep Michigan residents safe. 

Coffey was appointed as the interim CEO earlier this month following the resignation of former CEO Sue McCormick, who announced plans for her departure amid fallout from the June flooding. 

"GLWA spent a tremendous amount of effort and focus on the regional waste water collection system in its first five years," said Coffey. "Making sure it's reliable and rehabilitating the system."

The Conner Creek Pumping Station faced electrical outages during rainstorms on June 25 and 26 leaving enough power for only three of its eight storm pumps to operate.

GLWA is conducting both internal and external investigations into how the outages occurred. 

The outside investigation, led by attorney Jeffrey Collins and assisted by engineering firms AECOM and Applied Science, will focus on pumping stations, power supply and power redundancy, procedures and employees. GLWA officials did not provide an estimate Monday of when that review will conclude.

Navid Mehram, Chief Operating Officer at Great Lakes Water Authority, talks about the history and function of the sanitary pumps, the pumps were constructed in 1930 and pumps 300 million gallons of water a day.

Meantime, $420 million in capital investment is being dedicated to Detroit's east side, with $285 million going toward sewer and drinking water infrastructure. 

Close to $250 million will be used to replace the Conner Creek Pumping Station located along East Jefferson and toward upgrading the newer Freud Pump Station located on Freud Street. 

Built in 1929, the Conner Creek Pumping Station faced electrical outages during rainstorms on June 25 and 26 that left enough power for only three of its eight storm pumps to operate.

The electrical outage was due to a seal break along one of the priming pump pipes that sprayed water onto a nearby electrical panel, said Chief Operating Officer of Wastewater Operating Services Navid Mehram. 

"Although that (electrical panel) is for one pump, because of the interconnection of the electrical system for the facility that took the house power," he said.

Each storm pump has the ability to power 1,500 homes at once, Mehram said. Due to their age, each storm pump at the Conner station requires 10 to 15 minutes of priming before they can be turned on and the pumps can only be primed one at a time. 

The Freud station, just five minutes south of the Conner Creek pump station, was built in 1955. 

The storm pumps at Freud do not require priming, officials noted, and it's control system was updated five years ago. The pumps are turned on via a remote location and become operable within five minutes. 

"That gives us a tremendous amount of flexibility to be able to respond to a storm and a rapid rise in water level," said Mehram. 

Looking toward the future, the Conner station will be completely rebuilt in a new location and will provide a better level of service, said Mehram. The project will take eight years to complete. 

"The Freud pump system is mostly going to experience electrical upgrades just to be able to expand our flexibility, architectural upgrades to improve the facility itself... and just overall pump rehab," Mehram added. 

A security guard stands in front of the Connors Creek pumping station.

GLWA, Coffey said, cannot solve the issue of flooded homes and neighbors alone.

"It was to be a coordinated effort," she said.

Coffey noted all regional and local pump stations have the same capacity issues because they were created to meet the same design target.

"You can have that localized flooding but when the local system gets overwhelmed it just can't even convey it to us, we might not have even started pumping yet," she said. 

Coffey said new regulations and design targets must be crafted regionally. For some, she added, it will likely mean separate pump stations for storm and wastewater. 

"The decisions that we make today will affect tomorrow. They will affect the level of service for decades," she said. "We have to come together to figure out what it is we need to do to be able to meet that future expectation even though it's changing rapidly."

On Friday, storms dumped 3 and a half inches of rain in Detroit over 20 minutes, causing street and basement flooding, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. 

A view of pump motors on the pump room floor.

The city, he said, received about 300 reports of flooded basements on Friday and another 50 complaints after rainfall on Sunday. 

"Most of the water receded pretty quickly," he said. "Once it receded we had crews out to address any clogged basements and talk to residents about their water in basement issues."