Karegnondi water system rooted in frustration

Jim Lynch and Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Thirteen years ago, it was just a pipe dream.

But the new Karegnondi Water Authority regional water system will be very much a reality this summer when Genesee County communities have a water source to call their own.

KWA is, in the most basic terms, an 80-mile system of pipes (60-66 inches in diameter) and two pumping stations that will send water to Flint and Genesee County for treatment and sale to other communities.

The system will draw its water from the same source — Lake Huron — used by the Great Lakes Water Authority that is currently serving Flint and Genesee County.

The new, regional water authority is expected to save KWA communities millions of dollars long term and put an end to high annual rate increases, its supporters say.

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City Councilwoman Jackie Poplar wants the project completed so “Flint residents can get fresh lake water and our higher water bills go down because this (crisis) is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver is less optimistic, waiting to see if KWA can deliver as it promised.

“The residents of Flint were told KWA was going to save money. So we’re waiting to see if that holds true,” Weaver said last week at a meeting of the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee.

Since 2010, when Flint joined four other municipalities in the creation of a new regional water authority, a tsunami of bad news has come out of the city regarding its water quality.

The interim use of Flint River water for 18 months beginning in April 2014 — while KWA construction was underway — contributed to lead contamination and possibly a spike in cases of Legionnaires’ disease.

But with KWA set to come online in late June or early July to bring water to many member communities in the region, and lead line replacement underway in Flint, some believe the water situation will improve. At the earliest, Flint is expected to draw from the KWA system next year.

“I think KWA is the answer,” said Greg Alexander, drain commissioner for Sanilac County, which has joined Genesee and Lapeer counties, along with the cities of Flint and Lapeer, to form the authority.

Project takes heat

The $300 million project appears $15 million under budget and that “solidifies the decisions that were made that Karegnondi was and still is the best long-term source of water and safety for Genesee County, Flint and the surrounding areas,” Alexander said.

The Karegnondi name comes from how Lake Huron was labeled on a map hundreds of years ago.

Only Flint and Genesee County have committed to purchasing capacity on the KWA line. The other communities, at this point, have merely agreed to be part of the authority, with an eye toward future capacity purchases.

Flint has a contract with the KWA, even though GLWA officials have made it clear they would keep the city on as a permanent customer.

And as an incorporating member, Flint cannot walk away from KWA without a financial hit should it want to. The city has agreed to purchase 18 million gallons of daily water capacity from the authority and is committed to an annual $7 million bond payment over 28 years.

However, a state task force charged with investigating Flint’s long-running lead crisis has called for an investigation into the creation of the new regional water system.

Six months ago, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an independent task force to review how Flint’s water contamination and public health dilemma came to be. In its released findings this week, the task force included hard questions about the KWA.

“This whole issue of the KWA — in an area that had overcapacity for water delivery, and a region of the state that was impoverished — we think there needs to be a full investigation of the history of KWA,” said task force co-chairman Ken Sikkema, former Michigan Senate Majority Leader.

Jeff Wright, KWA’s CEO and the Genesee County drain commissioner, said he welcomed questions on the authority and how it came together.

“KWA is a public authority, has been vetted by countless public agencies, its formation discussed at numerous public hearings, and approved by local elected officials in each and every part of our service area,” Wright said in a released statement. “Literally, everything related to KWA is a matter of public record.”

2003 blackout opened eyes

KWA was born out of frustrations experienced by communities at the northernmost end of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s service area in 2003.

That year, the Northeast electrical blackout proved increasingly problematic for communities the further their distance from Detroit. As one KWA official put it, Genesee County and its neighbors were the first to lose their water service and the last to have it restored.

“Hospitals had to cancel surgeries, clinics and food establishments couldn’t do anything without boiling their water,” Wright said. “We were literally shut off without water for several days.”

Wright has been the driving force behind KWA. Prior to his arrival as Genesee County’s drain commissioner in 2000, his predecessors had looked at the reliability issue in the late 1990s, but little came of their efforts.

The blackout galvanized the thinking of many regional officials about pursuing water independence, and that sentiment would only grow in following years when the rates charged to northern communities by DWSD began a steady rise.

“We hadn’t had a long-term contract with the DWSD since the late ’90s,” said Scott Kincaid, a Flint City councilman since 1985. “The concerns we’ve always had in our community is that we were Detroit’s largest customer. We were the farthest away, and our rates always seemed to be raised at a higher rate than other communities.

“We didn’t have any control. We didn’t have a voice on the water board in Detroit.”

Provider has contrary view

Late in 2014, DWSD became the GLWA. On Monday, a spokeswoman for GLWA took issue with Kincaid’s description of the relationship between Flint and its water provider.

Amanda Abukhader said Flint’s water rates were in the middle of the pack among DWSD customers, and the city was never in danger of paying the system’s highest rates. In addition, she said, DWSD officials suggested cost-saving measures, such as changing Flint’s connection point to the system, that were never utilized.

“We definitely put our best effort into negotiating with the City of Flint …,” Abukhader said. “We wanted to retain them as a customer.”

DWSD negotiated with its northern communities in an effort to placate them, but no tangible changes materialized, according to KWA officials. Along with the five current KWA communities, Macomb, Oakland and St. Clair counties considered participation at different stages.

In 2007, DWSD floated the idea of constructing a major water line extension from northern Oakland County to the Flint area for several hundred million dollars. To some, that proposal, which never came to fruition, was designed to halt any interest in a new, non-DWSD solution to the water issues, yet Wright said it had the opposite effect.

That year, Genesee and Oakland County officials created the Karegnondi Regional Water Planning group to officially get the ball rolling on a new water source. Early talks centered on creating a second pipeline to Lake Huron and, initially, those talks included the participation of DWSD, which also draws its water from there.

“By 2008, it was easily determined that we would be able to build a second pipeline to Lake Huron for ourselves for less than what we were purchasing water for,” Wright said. “And that would solve our rate and reliability issues.”

By 2009, many of the area’s elected officials were committed to breaking away from DWSD. Karegnondi officials applied for, and received, a permit from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality to withdraw up to 85 million gallons of water a day from Lake Huron. Signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, it was the first withdrawal permit issued under the terms of 2008’s Great Lakes Compact.

EM backed Flint switch

The KWA plan was to build a new water line from Lake Huron with an intake point near the border between Sanilac and St. Clair counties. The east-to-west pipeline would send water to a treatment plant in Oregon Township. If Flint opted to come on board — no sure thing at that stage — the city could treat water at its own plant, which had undergone a roughly $50 million upgrade in the late 1990s.

But Flint’s fiscal issues clouded that picture and led to the appointment of an emergency manager in 2011, meaning any decision about the city’s financial future would likely be made by state officials.

In 2012, Flint’s emergency manager was Ed Kurtz, who came to support the idea of Flint joining a new regional authority. He laid out his reasoning in a Nov. 6, 2012, letter to then-Michigan Treasurer Andy Dillon, whose approval was needed before Flint could proceed.

“... I am not an advocate for KWA, but for the best cost option for the next 30 or 40 years for the people of the City of Flint,” Kurtz wrote. “However, in our analysis of the options, KWA does several things that I think are in the best interest of the city ...”

Those included:

■Giving Flint “ownership in a water distribution system and the ability, along with its partners, to control its own water resource destiny.”

■Offering “additional economic development opportunities for the region by providing businesses with a source of low cost water.”

Both the state and DWSD were hesitant to let Flint leave — a move that could adversely affect all of the ratepayers in Detroit’s water system. To get Dillon’s approval, KWA had to overcome the findings of a state-commissioned report assessing the project and its costs.

Detroit-based Tucker, Young, Jackson, Tull Inc. estimated the total cost of creating the Karegnondi lines and treatment system to be $440 million. KWA’s own estimates were more than 30 percent less, at $300 million. The disparate numbers forced Dillon to make a decision, one that was helped along when the MDEQ gave its approval to KWA.

“(Tucker Young’s) largest customer was the DWSD and DWSD did not like the KWA project,” Dillon wrote in notes included among state emails released last month as part of a Flint water crisis investigation. “We didn’t assume that factored into (Tucker Young’s) findings, but it was on our radar. We didn’t believe the DEQ had any agenda so their conclusion together with (Tucker Young’s) reliance on some flawed assumptions, led us to side (with) the DEQ’s opinion.”

Now, with the new pipeline nearing completion and KWA’s estimates holding true, Wright won’t come out and say the project has been vindicated.

“All I can say is the proof is in the pudding,” he said.


(313) 222-2034

Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.