GLWA CEO McCormick stepping down following flooding

Detroit — The head of the Great Lakes Water Authority plans to step down following weeks of severe flooding that damaged homes and roadways in Metro Detroit and prompted public outrage over the region's infrastructure.

In a resignation letter to the authority’s board of directors Tuesday, GLWA CEO Sue McCormick said she had initially planned to meet with the board last month to review her employment and her plans “to pursue other options available.”

“While I remain flexible, I look forward to working with Chairman (John) Zech to finalize a date for my departure,” she said in the letter obtained by The Detroit News. 

While her position is “at will,” McCormick noted she is required to give 60 days’ notice of resignation or retirement. She added it was her hope to develop a transition plan that would allow for a “smooth succession.”

“While I am extremely proud of all the GLWA team has accomplished in its first five years, I also recognize that now is the time for me to make my future intentions public as we all move forward,” McCormick said.

Great Lakes Water Authority CEO Sue McCormick

The revelation comes as McCormick faced questions Tuesday from Detroit's council in response to a Monday report by The News that revealed a power outage at the Freud pump station in Detroit sat unfixed for two days before the "1,000-year" rain event hit June 25 and before the authority contends it knew about it.

McCormick said she was unaware of the power outage that compromised the major city pump station days ahead of June's rainstorms. She told the City Council that the electrical issue was not immediately reported to GLWA leadership and that an investigation into the rain events is underway.

She expects that probe will provide clarity on who knew what, and when.

"We have begun our independent investigation. I anticipate ... it is quite possible that we will find that there may be something somewhere in the system where someone knew (of the outage)," McCormick told council members, adding "but no one at the leadership was aware."

McCormick previously said this summer's heavy rainfall overwhelmed the GLWA regional system and was not caused by any single pumping station or any single element within the regional system, adding she doesn't believe the flood could have been prevented.

Storms in late June devastated communities in Macomb and Wayne counties, but hit the Grosse Pointes, Dearborn and Detroit hardest. Another storm in mid-July reflooded some of the impacted homes.

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.

McCormick has said she didn't learn about the outage until the morning of June 25. DTE Energy said it assisted Detroit Public Lighting Department in addressing the outage, which the utility company said occurred when a third-party contractor hit an underground wire and damage a cable and conduit leading from the Ludden substation to Freud.

DTE has maintained Freud still is on the Detroit Public Lighting Department electrical system. Freud is one of 40 remaining locations that need to be transferred to the DTE system under a 2014 agreement Detroit entered with the company.

In her letter Tuesday, McCormick said she is supportive of internal and independent reviews of the flooding. She added the authority's board should strive for effective and affordable future system functions as well as investments in improved power and water utilities.

Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel said he learned Tuesday evening that McCormick had submitted the resignation letter to the authority's board and he welcomed that decision.

“I think it’s time for new leadership and a new direction,” Hackel said. “I wish her well, but it’s probably a good thing for all involved.”

Meanwhile, residents in Grosse Pointe Park — one of the areas served by the Conner Creek and Freud pump stations — have filed suit over flooding damage on the premise that officials should have been more prepared. 

GLWA estimates it will cost $250 million to further improve Freud Street and Conner Creek pumping stations. The authority said it plans to spend $1.7 billion over the next five years for water and sewage improvements in the state, including $285 million slotted for next year.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department officials said they have received about 25,000 flood claims stemming from the June 25 and 26 rain events. The department has 33,000 overall between June and the separate rain event earlier in July, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesman for DWSD.

Gary Brown, director of Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department, told the Detroit City Council earlier this month that a separate investigation of issues involving the pumping station on Freud Street took place after heavy rains in 2016. Since then, Brown added, $30 million has been invested into the station "to rebuild those pumps and those pumps worked as designed."

McCormick said after the 2016 failure, water officials reconstructed some pumps.

On Wednesday, Brown said in a statement that the water authority would conduct a national search for a new CEO.  

"Sue’s resignation today creates an opportunity to focus on improvements in the regional system to address climate resiliency," he said. "Detroit residents and businesses and GLWA’s regional customers must have the confidence that when it rains, the regional system is fully functioning.

"While no sewer system can prevent backups from all rain events, we must do better together."

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller said in a statement Wednesday that McCormick did "the right thing."

"The GLWA has an opportunity now to do a nationwide search for an operational expert who can get the most out of existing infrastructure assets and advocate for the investment needed to position our region properly for the future," Miller said. "The independent investigation will most likely show other management failures, which will need to be addressed going forward."

The water authority issued a statement late Tuesday night confirming a "pending leadership retirement at the utility" to The News but said there would be no “additional information until after GLWA's Board of Directors meeting at 2 p.m. on Wednesday."

McCormick is the first chief of the GLWA, overseeing 40% of the state's water customers, or 3.9 million people.

The water authority was forged during Detroit's historic bankruptcy following months of talks between regional officials. It started its independent regional operations in 2016 separate from the City of Detroit but signed a 40-year lease for control over the DWSD treatment plants, major water transmission mains, sewage interceptors for $50 million per year.

Twitter: @SarahRahal_