Detroit needs $2.2B to fix stormwater system, officials say

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — The city's water department intends to visit tens of thousands of homes in low-lying areas to address drainage issues as it works on a $2.2 billion proposal to rebuild the city's aging stormwater infrastructure. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown said the house-by-house plan, dubbed "Hardening the Basements," will start with 20,000 households that experienced basement backups and flooding in June. 

The temporary fixes are expected to be rolled out as Duggan's administration works on a $2.2 billion stormwater infrastructure proposal.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, left, and Gary Brown, Director of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said they plan to roll out a house-by-house plan to address drainage issues, beginning with 20,000 households that experienced basement backups and flooding in June.

Sections of the city were hit hard by torrential rains in late June as were portions of neighboring communities including Dearborn and Dearborn Heights and some of the Grosse Pointe communities. The rains flooded thousands of basements, neighborhood streets and freeways, resulting in a federal disaster declaration. 

"The sewage coming up from the drain is a much bigger problem than anyone anticipated,” Duggan told The Detroit News Wednesday during an interview at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

"We didn’t have flooding across the city but along the east side near the river, and west side of the Rouge River near the Dearborn border," said Duggan, noting it's impacting about 10% of the city. "The higher-level part of the city didn’t have a problem but every time it rains, the water is just pouring down the streets to the lower-level houses."

The mayor said adding check valves to homes will cut off drains as sewage starts to bubble up and prevent it from reaching the basement. The valve is about $25 and have shown to be effective, Duggan said. Sump pumps, which would cost hundreds of dollars to install, would be added if water is entering from outside the home, he said. 

"Then, we need to have some major pipe capacity from the east and west side that takes the combined sewage and sends it straight into the river during the storms as opposed to into your basements," he said.

The Michigan Department of Transportation, Duggan said, is working on a better system for pumping underpasses which are the first to flood. The Great Lakes Water Authority is in charge of getting the pumps working and Detroit is working on preventing flooding in individual homes.

The city hasn't begun visiting homes yet to add valves or pumps. Officials are working to identify funding for the effort and finalize a project plan to be released prior to winter.

Duggan noted Dearborn is working on a plan to direct some of its stormwater to the river and “we’re going to do that on the east side as well."

DWSD Director Gary Brown sits down with reporter Sarah Rahal at the Mackinac Policy Conference on Wednesday, Sept. 22, at The Grand Hotel.

A long-term fix to separate stormwater from sewer water is pegged around $2.2 billion and that “can't be passed on in rates. Our residents can’t afford it,” Brown told The News, stressing the city needs help from federal or state to fund the project.

"The pipes aren’t big enough for the amount of rain," he said. "In dry weather, the system’s perfect because it’s only handling sewer but the intensity and frequency of the rain is going to continue. The long-range plan is separate the two.”

The Michigan Legislature passed a spending budget Wednesday that includes $10.5 billion for the state's water and climate resiliency projects amid heavy rainfall. 

Systems in Oakland and Macomb counties from the 1950s, Brown said, were built separately and can’t be compared to Detroit’s system was built in the 1800s.

The post-bankrupt city, he said, "didn't wake up one morning and find itself here."

"It worked its way over decades. While it was working its way there, it didn’t have the dollars to invest in infrastructure, people, technology," he said. "So now we’re catching up."

The Great Lakes Water Authority is investing $200 million into fixing their portion of the stormwater system in Metro Detroit. It also provides DWSD with $50 million each year.

"In reality, I borrow $500 million over four years, I create a capital improvement plan to improve the system and I pay for it with $14 million of my $50 million lease," Brown said. "So, essentially the suburban communities are paying to upgrade the system.”

Brown said Wednesday that "90% of the system" worked fine during devastating rains in June. Investigations into pump failures from the rainstorms are ongoing. 

There are 500 Detroit water department employees running daily operations and an additional 500 contractors working on flooding issues, he noted. 

"I have a $100 million a year capital plan to help improve the system and that work is going on now," Brown said. "Despite the noise, we want residents to know we’re working every day on rebuilding this system.”

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_