Price hikes for Metro Detroit water bills to kick in July 1

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Water rates are set to increase Thursday with communities setting hikes that, in many cases, will be more than the 1.5% hike for water and 0.6% decrease for wastewater that the regional Great Lakes Water Authority is passing along.

The final water bill homes receive reflects charges from the community and the water authority. Local communities have water-related costs of their own and the Great Lakes Water Authority has no say in those final rates.

Shelby Township residents saw a 13% rate hike take effect in January, said David Miller, the township's director of public works.

High water use during the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in higher water bills for the Macomb County suburb of 80,000 residents. During the summer of 2020, the township exceeded its contractual peak hour factors on five occasions, Miller wrote in a water quality newsletter to residents.

"You can't put a number on COVID. People were at home and looking for something to do," Miller told The Detroit News. "We had never come close to those peaks in the 10 years prior to this. This was an anomaly."

The increases are set to kick in days after multiple Metro Detroit communities were hit hard with flooding and basement backups, prompting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare an emergency and pursue aid from the federal government. The governor meanwhile said she's continuing to pressing state lawmakers on an infrastructure funding plan. 

Birmingham also has hiked its rates aggressively. Water is now $5.30 per 1,000 gallons in the tony Oakland County suburb, up 7% from $4.95 in 2020. Sewer rates are up to $8.57 per 1,000 gallons, an increase of about 4.4% from the $8.21/1,000 gallon cost last year.

Birmingham attributes the price hike for water to increased maintenance costs, an increase in depreciation and a "new residential cross-connection inspection program," according to the city's website.

The increase in sewer prices is tied to a 6% increase in costs from GLWA and the office of the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner. 

In Detroit, Michigan's largest city, water volume rates will go up a modest 2% to $26.60 per 1000 cubic feet from $26.08 per 1000 cubic feet. Its disposal rate and sewerage service charge is unchanged from a year prior.

Bryan Peckinpaugh, spokesman for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said that "since 2016, the DWSD leadership has strived to keep rate increases below 4% and currently the combined increase has averaged 3% annually. This is one measure to keep that combined increase low, at 2%."

"Prior to the 2016," Peckinpaugh noted, "the average rate increase was 9% over the 20 previous years, with some years in double-digit increases."

The biggest change on the Detroit water bill in 2021 is the hike in drainage charges per impervious acreage. That's up 8% to $677 from $626. 

Peckinpaugh said that increase is "based on the annual volume to manage and treat the stormwater and pay down the debt on the nine wet weather treatment facilities."

Detroit is in the midst of a $240 million, two-year upgrade of its sewer system. 

“We are undertaking the largest water and sewer upgrade program in more than 80 years,” Detroit water department director Gary Brown said last month when the upgrades were announced.

So far, 50 miles of sewer collection piping have been replaced or lined, and more than 1,100 lead service lines have been replaced, the water department said.

Communities like Livonia and Highland Park say they will pass on the price hike from GLWA, but won't increase water rates on their own accord. Livonia has a 2% hike in its base rate and a 1.9% rise in its commodity charge, which is the cost to a customer during a monthly bill period from the volume of water delivered.

Highland Park's based fixed rate is rising about 1.5%, while its commodity charge is inching up 0.4%, according to a Detroit News calculation of water authority data.

"You've got to think about the residents you're taking that money from," Highland Park Mayor Hubert Yopp said. "(A price hike) is not what our community needs."

For Shelby Township, the water use exceedances came at a cost: a $1.8 million annual hike in the community's annual required revenue to the GLWA system. 

GLWA, Miller said, "compelled the Shelby Township Department of Public Works to enact certain safeguards to ensure these exceedances do not reoccur."

The community has adopted a mandatory irrigation ordinance restricting the time that homeowners can water their lawns and landscape and began construction of a $3.5 million gallon water reservoir and pumping facility. This is being constructed to offset future peak demands on the system and reduce long term rate increases from the GLWA.

Miller said that in six years, the $14 million facility will actually lower water bills. Having a store of water will prevent using GLWA water during peak hours, he said. It will hedge against system price hikes and provide an additional water source for emergencies, such as fires, he said. 

The township's irrigation ordinance was passed in March and is in effect from May 1 to Oct. 1 each year. Homes using sprinklers to water their lawns can only operate them from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., and even- and odd-numbered homes must alternate days.

While Shelby Township was dinged for high peak-time water use, GLWA says low water use actually increases per-capita costs for members.

"The only costs that vary with water use are chemicals to treat the water and electricity to pump the water, and those types of cost generally reflect about 10% of the annual budget," GLWA said in a statement. 

Fixed costs are the other 90%, and that includes personnel, debt service and maintenance.

GLWA said it sees a falling trend in demand. Its five water treatment plants can produce 1.7 billion gallons of water daily, but the most recent peak day saw 565 million gallons of use.

Rightsizing, GLWA said, takes two forms. In addition to decommissioning one of the five treatment facilities over the next "10 to 15 years," GLWA is replacing old, over-large machines at the remaining plants with machines tailored for the current workload. 

Staff Writer Hayley Harding contributed.

jdickson@detroitnews.com