Last portion of KWA pipeline installed

Jacob Carah
Special to The Detroit News

Columbiaville — A trench that runs 12 feet deep on either side was cut through soggy mud next to a field of rolling hay bales.

Near there, Jeff Wright, Genesee County’s drain commissioner, watched as the last portion of a 36-inch diameter ductile iron pipe was lowered into place Saturday. That pipe, no longer than a few yards, completed the Karegnondi Water Authority’s nearly 80-mile pipeline to Lake Huron.

“Thirty-six months ago, we started this project,” said Wright, KWA’s chief executive officer. “We’re here, and the last piece of pipe is going in the ground, and I feel great.”

Wright said credit is due to the people in his office, contractors and suppliers who allowed for the controversial pipeline to be completed “on time and under budget,” totaling $285 million, down from the $300 million projected cost.

“For a project of this magnitude, that’s really something,” he said. “The time part is great but the under-budget part is even greater.”

The drain commissioner said he anticipates KWA water coming to Flint residents “by this time next year.”

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

In April 2014, the city switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. It was a cost-saving move meant to provide residents water until KWA was expected to come online in 2016. But corrosion control was not added to the water being pumped from the river, causing lead contamination that poisoned residents.

Flint itself can’t tap the new regional water system until the city meets testing criteria established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which isn’t expected to occur until next year.

Flint was expected to connect to KWA water via a 72-inch pipeline that is no longer available because it is now being used to deliver water from Detroit’s Lake Huron supply, which the city reconnected to in October.

Building a new connection line between the KWA and Flint water treatment plant is expected to cost between $9 million and $12 million.

Wright said the next phase of the KWA project will be to complete “the additional pipeline inside the city (of Flint) because of EPA and DEQ requirements. We hope to have that go just as smoothly, so we’ll have Flint and Genesee County on Lake Huron water.”

Rejecting criticism about the pipeline’s cost, Wright said: “The bottom line is the first day Flint is online with KWA, they’re paying less for their water than they do when purchasing from the Great Lakes Water Authority.

“The criticism I’ve heard is made up in people’s minds. We’ll be providing the highest-quality, lowest-cost water to Genesee County and Flint.”

For now, the GLWA will continue to provide drinking water to Flint through the end of June 2017, providing Flint safe drinking water until it can tie into the KWA system.

Wright said the KWA pipeline allows the people of Flint and Genesee County to “control their own destiny.”

“Once the initial expenses are paid down, we’ll have the lowest-cost fresh water in the state of Michigan, lower than anyone else,” he said.

Wright said the pipeline also has provided additional benefits to the area, including the 1,400 workers involved in the project, many of them from southeast Michigan.

“This put a lot of people to work, nearly $90 million in payroll,” he said.

Wright said when he ran the first time for county drain commissioner in 2000, he campaigned against building a new pipeline.

“I thought it was too expensive, and at the time, I agreed with Detroit’s rates,” he said. “I didn’t think that in over 10 years’ time, they would raise their rates by nearly 40 percent.”

Last month, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver and Gov. Rick Snyder announced the city would move forward with a plan to join the KWA.

That decision had been in limbo since Weaver took office in November. She had previously declined to sign off on moving to the new regional drinking water authority, saying it was a questionable deal for Flint that was reached without adequate local input.

Weaver and Flint City Councilman Eric Mays are listed as members of KWA’s board.

For Wright, Saturday’s milestone was a “happy” one, but he sighed when asked about the current situation regarding the city’s water crisis and KWA.

“Somehow, we’ve gotten to a place where facts just seem to go right out the window, and people feel like they can say whatever they want, and somehow that becomes the truth,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”