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Metro Detroit water authority would like to keep Flint

Charles E. Ramirez, Jim Lynch and Jacob Carah
The Detroit News

Detroit — The director of Metro Detroit’s regional water authority wants Flint to remain a long-term customer despite the city’s commitment to draw from a pipeline due to come online later this year.

“I have extended an offer for conversation,” Sue McCormick, CEO of the Great Lakes Water Authority, or GLWA, told The News in a recent interview. “I have met with Flint Mayor Karen Weaver once and indicated that we would certainly be willing to take another look at what kind of agreement we would be able to come to.”

Three years ago, Flint announced it was leaving the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s system — which the GLWA now operates — to join the Karegnondi Water Authority, or KWA, a regional water authority based in Genesee County. Before leaving the Detroit system, then-Flint Mayor Dayne Walling said city officials and then-Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz concluded the KWA was in the best long-term interest of their region.

According to DWSD in 2013, Flint represented 6 percent of Detroit’s total water revenue. Metro Detroit water officials have said losing Flint’s business meant a loss of $10 million to $12 million annually.

In June 2013, KWA began construction of its pipeline, which is expected to cost at least $285 million and bring water from Lake Huron to Flint as well as communities in Genesee, Lapeer, Sanilac counties.

Meanwhile, in April 2014, the city began drawing water from the Flint River — an interim plan to provide water until the KWA system was up and running. When city and state officials failed to treat the water properly, it resulted in Flint’s lead-contamination crisis and state of emergency.

After a year-and-a-half of water problems and escalating concerns, Flint switched back to the GLWA system in October, which was still under control of the Detroit water department.

Asked last week by The News if the GLWA would keep Flint as a customer if its officials were willing to stay, McCormick answered: “Absolutely.”

Flint’s mayor told The Detroit News Friday she wouldn’t rule out the possibility of staying on the GLWA system.

“Right now, we don’t have much of a choice,” she said. “We’re on Detroit water, and I know that’s what the residents of the city of Flint wanted was to go back to the Detroit water. “You know you can never really say anything is impossible. There was was a time when we were told it wasn’t possible to switch back to Detroit, and we did. I never rule out anything.”

As an incorporating member of the KWA, Flint is financially tied to the project. The city is under contract to purchase 18 million gallons of water capacity daily. While Flint’s contract with KWA does allow it to cancel, doing so could be costly.

“That obligates Flint to the bond payment, their portion of the bond payment, at a fixed rate for 30 years,” said Jeff Wright, the Genesee County Drain Commissioner and the CEO of KWA. “That’s about a $7 million annual bond payment for 28 years.”

Wright said the authority has received no indication from Flint that it wants to leave KWA, but he said he has heard discussion about the city possibly returning to water from Detroit. But in each case, the talk has come from outside of Flint.

“There has been no discussion (of Flint pulling out of Karegnondi), none at all,” Wright said.

He pointed to an op-ed penned by former Wayne County Executive Robert Ficano last week that argued against Flint’s move to a new water provider by questioning the proposed savings.

Wright also took exception when the Environmental Protection Agency’s top official, Gina McCarthy, made her first appearance in Flint last week and criticized the city’s move away from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

“We are here today because a state-appointed emergency manager made the decision that the city of Flint would stop purchasing treated water that had well served them for 50 years and instead purchase untreated — and not treat that water — and by law the state of Michigan approved that switch and did not require corrosion control,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “All to save money.”

Flint area communities pay a combination of a fixed amount per month as well as an amount for every 1,000 cubic feet of water used. One thousand cubic feet — one unit — translates to 7,480 gallons. Costs were $6.35 per unit in 2001 but had climbed to $21.95 by April 2013.

Wright said annual rate increases for 14 years don’t qualify as well-served.

“KWA remains, as it was three years ago, the highest quality water source at the lowest possible price for the residents of our community,” Wright said.

But some community leaders said they like the idea of staying on as a GLWA customer instead of switching.

“It’s always in the center of our minds,” said the Rev. Allen Overton, a member of Concerned Pastors for Social Action and chairman of the Coalition for Clean Water. “We never should have left (Detroit’s water system).

“There should have been some conversation with Detroit, and there should continue to be conversation with Detroit to work that problem out, that whatever Flint needed to stay on the system should have happened. The officials here in Genesee County never should have pushed to change our water source.”

He said he thinks Flint officials should look at all of their options, including the possibility of remaining with Metro Detroit’s water system.

However, Overton said members of Flint’s churches aren’t calling for Flint to abandon the KWA.

“What I’m hearing from people in the city of Flint is that we need clean water and we need clean pipes,” he said. “They’re saying we don’t care where the water comes from, we need clean pipes and the infrastructure needs to be addressed before we consider where we’re going to get our water source from.”

Flint City Councilwoman Monica Galloway also said there’s little talk among her constituents about staying with water coming from Detroit. However, Galloway said she recognizes residents badly want to feel safe after nearly two years of uncertainty.

“I think they would be interested (in staying with GLWA) water only because they trust the water from Detroit,” she said Friday. “I don’t think they would have a problem maintaining that relationship.”