GLWA: Up to $20 billion in infrastructure fixes needed to lessen Metro Detroit floods

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — The Great Lakes Water Authority believes it will take anywhere from "$5 billion to $20 billion" to shore up the regional infrastructure enough to prevent heavy storms from flooding basements in Metro Detroit, officials said.

Interim GLWA CEO Suzanne Coffey said Tuesday in a meeting with The Detroit News editorial board that "we have to come to terms with the fact that climate is changing."

Coffey said the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy requires GLWA to build a system that can convey "an event that statistically should happen only once every 10 years."

That amounts to about 1.75 inches of rain in an hour, far less than the six inches of rain that fell in three hours in some sections of Metro Detroit on June 25 and 26, leading to massive flooding, lawsuits and a presidential disaster declaration. 

Suzanne Coffey, interim CEO of Great Lakes Water Authority, said in a Tuesday editorial board meeting with The Detroit News that infrastructure upgrades for the water system to curb flooding in Metro Detroit could run between $5 billion to $20 billion.

Weeks after the storm, GLWA's founding CEO Sue McCormick resigned her post

Coffey was elevated to interim CEO, and said Tuesday it is "certainly my intent" to apply for the permanent job.

"Resiliency in the face of climate change" is GLWA's top priority, but on Tuesday Coffey admitted that has limits. 

"I don't know how we design a system large enough and technically feasible for a 1,000-year event," Coffey said.

"But to take a big step forward, not for a 1,000-year event, but for 100-year events, it'll probably take somewhere between $5 billion and $20 billion, depending on the approach you take," she added. 

But improving capacity on the system end won't be enough, GLWA officials said. Local communities are built to the same standard, with pipes designed to convey 1.75 inches of rain in an hour.

One can't change without the other, Coffey said. That would have to be "coordinated."

Bill Wolfson, GLWA's chief administrative and compliance officer, said the authority is "trying to change laws" in Lansing "to be included in the definition of municipality," so as to go for federal infrastructure monies it can't pursue now. 

Coffey also noted additional flooding after mid-July and late-August storms in Detroit. 

"We are seeing this more and more as a pattern," she said. "The rainwater is what's creating the issue."

Though there were problems at the Freud and Conner Creek pump stations in Detroit, where only eight of a possible 16 pumps between the two facilities were used during the June rains, the flooding itself covered a wide swath of Wayne County, from Grosse Pointe to the east to Dearborn to the west, and the central portion of Detroit. 

"Nobody was spared in that thing," John Zech, GLWA's board chair and Wayne County's representative on the board, said during a GLWA meeting on the floods last month.

An investigation commission by GLWA into the June issues with the pump station is ongoing. 

More:Flooding in Metro Detroit inevitable despite pump outage, consultants say

Asked to give assurances that basements won't flood the next time it rains, Coffey said she could not. 

"I can't say we can convey any event Mother Nature throws our way," Coffey said. "That would not be responsible...but we will be on it. We will do our best with the equipment we have."

Navid Mehram, chief operating officer of GLWA's wastewater division, said the authority had made several fixes since the summer storms. Power quality is monitored at the pump stations now. 

If power is interrupted, GLWA will know it "instantaneously," Mehram said. 

"That information is communicated across the organization, and we're able to respond quicker," Mehram said. 

"For good, consistent operation of those pumps, we need utility power," Coffey said.

GLWA leadership has met regularly with its counterparts at DTE Energy to discuss the issue. 

"I think we need to start now" the discussions on how to upgrade the region's flood capacity, Coffey said. "You can't go spend $5 billion-plus, and not have a really good plan. 

"But we need to get a study going, and we need to commission something that really looks on that broad scale," Coffey said. "I wouldn't think that the study would take five years, but it certainly will take us through next summer."