Column: End the political games over water pipes

Stephen V. Pangori, DetroitNews

The Internet is amazing. With just a few clicks, we have the entire spectrum of human knowledge at our fingertips.

As much as that can be a boon, it is equally a detriment. There are certain things that should only be handled by well-trained and experienced professionals. One of those things is deciding what materials to use when replacing aging water and wastewater systems. The pipes that convey clean drinking water to our homes and carry wastewater away are critically important to the health and well-being of our communities. As our elected officials grapple with how best to spend local and federal dollars to repair and replace bridges, roads and pipes, they will seek the advice of engineers, planning officials and industry leaders to advise them.

The state Legislature is debating legislation that will force municipal planners and engineers to give preference to certain pipe materials, regardless if they’re up to the job or not.

What engineers know is that not all pipes are equal, and the materials used to make them can have significant differences in how long they last (known as service life), durability, reliability and cost. When engineers are designing underground systems, there are many factors to consider, such as what kind of soil the pipes will be in, how deep they are buried, the amount and velocity of the flow they will be carrying, and how much the pipes will cost.

Right now, there is nothing in Michigan state law that prevents engineers and their communities from selecting the pipe materials that will work best for them. Legislation being pushed by special interests would reduce the choice to one overriding factor: cost. Replacing pipe systems is expensive and cities, towns and counties are operating with limited budgets, and while costs must be considered, officials have to be able to consider all the costs, namely, that cheaper pipes tend to deteriorate and fail sooner than others.

This effort to force engineers to make critical decisions using limited options is not happening just in Michigan, but across the country. Special interests have been behind legislation in several other states, including Indiana, Ohio, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, where they seek to deny engineers and other professionals at public utilities from considering the specific needs of their communities when selecting materials for water, wastewater and storm-drainage projects.

Tying engineers’ hands by placing burdensome rules on their decision-making process puts our communities at risk. Water systems are too critical for political games, and I hope our lawmakers will do what their colleagues in other states have done: shut down the special interests.

Stephen V. Pangori is an executive vice president of Anderson Eckstein and Westrick, Inc. of Shelby Township, where he has practiced municipal engineering for over 30 years.