Flint cites costs in plan to stay on Detroit water

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

Flint — Flint is poised to stay with the Detroit area water system in part for the same key reason that city officials wanted to leave it three years ago — to save money.

When Congress approved $100 million for Flint in December, the city was forced by federal and state rules to review its alternatives for spending the money on water infrastructure. The cash was targeted at addressing the lead contamination crisis that followed the city’s switch from the Detroit-area system — now called the Great Lakes Water Authority — to corrosive Flint River water that wasn’t properly treated.

The original plan was to use much of the new federal money to upgrade the obsolete Flint water treatment plant so it could handle Lake Huron water coming through a new pipeline for the Karegnondi Water Authority. But Flint couldn’t join the new Genesee County-based water system until August 2019 at the earliest, according to a Jan. 31 city letter sent to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The delay, a price tag of $58.5 million to update the treatment plant and apprehension about switching to a new water source for the second time in five years proved decisive, according to Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, the EPA’s regional administrator and a city consultant.

Weaver called staying with the Great Lakes authority a “public health issue of staying where we were making a lot of progress” in improving the water quality. The state forced the city to switch back to the Detroit-area system in October 2015 when lead contamination was finally recognized, and lead levels have fallen below federal action standards even as residents are urged not to drink the water yet.

“It was a good fiscal decision. This was an opportunity to really give us a new infrastructure for the city of Flint,” Weaver said, noting the federal aid could be directed at fixing the city’s damaged water pipes and repairing system leaks.

The cost of staying with the new Karegnondi system was an estimated $108 million — with $58.5 million for upgrading the treatment plant and $50 million for storing water for Karegnondi at the facility, said John Young, a consultant for Flint who helped negotiate the Great Lakes authority deal.

“Clearly, Flint officials were not going to put themselves in a position that they would have another reliability issue associated with the new plant because some of their pumping facilities were quite dated,” he said.

The cost to upgrade the Flint facility could be even higher because construction at outdated facilities often results in further unanticipated expenses, said Robert Kaplan, acting administrator at EPA Region 5 that oversees Michigan.

“In many respects, it is like a museum of water treatment,” Kaplan said about the treatment facility built in 1952 that requires upgrades to meet today’s environmental and public health standards.

“As my experts tell me, water systems hate change,” he said. “If you change an entire water source, you need to change many, many things.”

Flint’s City Council still needs to approve Weaver’s recommendation for the 30-year agreement with the Great Lakes authority to take effect. The state, EPA Region 5 and other involved authorities already have said they support the Great Lakes authority deal, which would use the Karegnondi system as a backup for the Detroit-area authority.

How the deal was done

The decision by Weaver to recommend staying on Great Lakes authority water and amending its agreement with the Karegnondi authority was nearly a year in the making.

A year ago, Weaver told The Detroit News that she was willing to “look at other options. We owe it to the people to really, really look at this.”

As federal aid for Flint became more likely, the state Department of Environmental Quality and the city reached out to the Great Lakes authority to assess all options as required on the state aid application.

When Great Lakes authority Chief Executive Susan McCormick met with Young, she said she wasn’t expecting much. A last-ditch April 2013 meeting between Detroit area water leaders, Flint officials and Gov. Rick Snyder’s office failed to avert Flint’s decision to leave the Detroit system.

“Call me a bit jaded, but we have been through this before,” McCormick said she told Young.

But the Flint consultant convinced her the city wanted to take a fresh look at its options, which included the Karegnondi authority and upgrading the Flint facility as well as perhaps tapping into existing Genesee County water systems.

“Coming away from that meeting, I felt there was something brand new involved,” McCormick said. “It prompted us to look at how these two independent systems (Karegnondi and Great Lakes) could also provide redundant backup service to each other.”

The $108 million estimated cost of renovating Flint’s dilapidated plant and storing water there was too much to overcome when clean water was already flowing into Flint from the Great Lakes authority, Young said. When the state-required study was done, the cost of upgrading the Flint treatment facility and the delay involved in switching to the new water source were too much, he said.

“And to have to make that switch just causes more anxiety and more distrust to the people, and we shouldn’t have to deal with that anymore,” Weaver said.

Karegnondi pact addressed

Because of the city’s long-term commitment to the Karegnondi authority, a deal was struck with the Great Lakes authority to address Flint’s $7 million-a-year commitment on bond payments, Young and McCormick said. The Detroit-area system would pay a $7 million credit for the Karegnondi bond obligation payments for 28 years in return for the Karegnondi system becoming a back-up system for the Detroit-area system.

Under the proposed 30-year contract, Flint remains a member of the Karegnondi authority and gets 11.5 million gallons of treated water a day from the Great Lakes authority pipeline connected to Lake Huron. About 0.5 millions gallons a day of raw water from the Karegnondi authority’s Lake Huron pipeline would be treated by the Genesee County Drain Commission as a backup service for Flint.

The treated Karegnondi water would also be a backup source for Great Lakes authority customers west of its Imlay pump station. This redundancy is a safeguard if an emergency hits those communities and Flint, McCormick said.

The move frees up money that Flint had raised for treatment plant upgrades and invests it in repairing the city’s buried infrastructure.

“We can now use all of that money to upgrade the distribution system that deteriorated pipes through the Flint system, both the lead service lines and other pipes,” Young said.

Weaver agreed, saying it is more prudent to use the federal money to “fix our system, to right-size our system because we were losing a lot of water through leaks and breaks.

“So this was an opportunity to to really give us a new infrastructure for the city of Flint,” the mayor said.


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