Michigan facing $13B tab to maintain water systems

The Associated Press and The Detroit News

Michigan’s water systems face $13 billion in maintenance costs over the next 20 years, part of a looming $384 billion bill nationwide to continue the availability of clean drinking water.

The estimate is from the Environmental Protection Agency and comes amid California’s historic four-year drought, which raised fears about the continued availability of something that most Americans take for granted.

It’s an issue that’s particularly acute in Detroit, which last year agreed to transfer its water system to the newly Great Lakes Water Authority in part to raise money for infrastructure. The 40-year deal pays the city $50 million per year and allows Detroit to maintain ownership of a system that has 3,000 miles of pipes and 2,000 main breaks per year.

“We’ve got pipes in the ground that are well over 100 years old and pipes that are going in the ground right now,” said Bob Daddow, deputy executive of Oakland County and a board member of the water authority that provides service to nearly 4 million residents.

“Unfortunately, Detroit has not done preventive maintenance by looking for problems before they become a sinkhole. That’s something we want to change.”

Michigan, which ranks eighth among states in population, ranked seventh nationwide in the EPA’s projected costs to replace pipes and renovate plants.

The Great Lakes Water Authority expects to spend nearly $3 billion over the next 20 years on capital improvements, according to a newly completed master plan. That’s atop the $400 million per year it now spends to operate the water system, Daddow said. There’s additional costs for sewerage.

Daddow said the authority agreement gave the water system a secure funding source to meet future needs. Activist Meeko Williams isn’t so sure.

He’s led efforts to fight the city’s campaign of water shutoffs that began last year. As of June, the city had about 25,000 delinquent residential customers while 32,000 were on payment plans.

“In Michigan, you have a Legislature that can’t meet up to fix the roads,” said Williams, director of the Detroit Water Brigade.

“What makes you think they’ll be able to meet up to (fund) water?”

The EPA’s nationwide repair estimate is dwarfed by one from the American Water Works Association, an industry-backed group, that predicts it will cost $1 trillion to replace all outdated pipes and meet growth for the next quarter century.

“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.

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 for drinking-water improvements is just a drop in the bucket.

The largest source of federal assistance is the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, which goes largely to small towns and mid-sized cities. Some communities that need the most help shun the program because it offers mostly loans, not grants.

Nationwide, project delays and other issues have contributed to nearly $1.1 billion in congressional appropriations from that fund sitting unspent, the Associated Press reported. Rather than investing in infrastructure, states nationwide spend about 1 in 5 dollars on salaries or other expenses not directly related to replacing leaky pipes or treatment plants.