Detroit’s bankruptcy process has produced a tentative agreement for a new regional water authority. While there are political, economic and practical matters to work out, one local lawyer and environmental advocate hopes the deal leads to cleaner and greener operations. WDET’s Sandra Svoboda spoke with Nick Schroeck. He’s the director of the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic at Wayne State University Law School.
Nick Schroeck: With our environmental law clinic we’ve been working for the past several years on the pollution discharge permit from the Detroit Water and Sewage District where they discharge into the Rouge and Detroit rivers. So we’ve been working on making sure that they’re meeting their compliance. and that process has actually been ongoing for about 30 years where the city of Detroit was under federal oversight from federal courts because of this combined sewage overflow problem that we had. That means that our storm drains are connected to our sanitary sewers so when you have big rain events we would have these discharges: untreated sewage going into the Detroit and Rouge rivers. That’s really the focus. We’ve been working on trying to clean up those combined sewer overflows and through that we’ve gotten involved in the bigger picture of what’s happening with the Detroit Water and Sewer District.
Sandra Svoboda: And what’s happening with it has certainly been in the headlines in the last week with the new agreement for the Great Lakes Water Authority as part of the bankruptcy settlement.
NS: What we’re, I guess, hopeful about through this Great Lakes Water Authority is the idea we’re going to be investing $45 million a year into infrastructure. So that means we’re going to be doing work on fixing leaky pipes. We’re going to be doing work on making sure the sewage treatment plant is running at its optimal level. There is a lot of equipment there that is way past its expected life span and so hopefully those investments will make sure the plant operates at an optimal level which means fewer discharges, fewer problems, fewer amounts of pollution going into the Great Lakes.
SS: What do you think the priorities should be for the department?
NS: Well the main thing is providing good quality, safe drinking water to the region, and I think so far we’ve done a pretty good job, the collective we, of making sure that happens and really we do provide a good product. The water that we get is actually a pretty quality thing that we get but the No. 1 priority is making sure the systems are in place and the investments are made to ensure that we limit the amount of leakage where we have broken leaking pipes and we’re just wasting treated drinking water that’s going into the ground or going where it shouldn’t be. Fixing those leaks, making sure the system operates at an optimal level. As well as investments in the wastewater treatment plant where we still are having these combined sewer overflows when we have significant rain events.
SS: And how they can best do that keeping an eye on the green-ness of it all?
NS: Green infrastructure is something that we’ve seen adopted in other states. Philadelphia has a massive green infrastructure program that they’re working on. Other cities in Michigan like Lansing and Grand Rapids have invested a lot of money in green infrastructure, and when I say that it means things like diverting storm water. Instead of going into a pipe, we’re going to put it onto a parkland or open green space. We do have a significant amount of vacant property in the city of Detroit and there’s ways to utilize that property in an attractive way where the community has buy in and they look at it and say it looks like a park most of the time but occasionally it will be flooded when you divert stormwater there during a rain event. Those kinds of projects. Things like disconnecting downspouts from storm drains on people’s homes, even vacant homes. A lot of vacant homes still have downspouts that are connected to the storm drain, and that water just runs in there and causes problems at the wastewater treatment plants. Rain gardens: encouraging people to handle stormwater differently on their properties as well as we have a lot of surface parking lots in the city of Detroit, maybe transitioning those to the type of payment that allows water to seep into the ground instead of just running off into the storm drains. All those kinds of green practices are ways to keep stormwater from going to the treatment plant and save some money because it’s much less expensive that putting a big pipe under the ground.
SS: You sound fairly hopeful about the opportunities this deal might bring for infrastructure. Do you have reservations about anything?
NS: As you remember from your work with NextChapterDetroit.com, we actually sent a letter in several months ago asking for some transparency in the negotiations and discussions over the future of the water department. There’s a lot of concerns about staffing, whether or not jobs are going to be eliminated and cut. There’s been discussions going back for a couple of years about how they can kind of resize or rethink the wastewater treatment plan. But that means you’re talking about people’s jobs and their livelihoods, and so we want some transparency about that. We want discussions about who’s ultimately going to be responsible for making decisions about green infrastructure investment versus the old traditional grey infrastructure. Are these going to be public and open discussions? The new Great Lakes Water Authority. Are they going to have open meetings? Are they going to be discussing contracts, purchase agreements, that type of thing in public or is that going to be done behind closed doors? We really want transparency. We pay rates that support the system. There are user fees that are going to go into funding this infrastructure. That’s public money, public dollars and we should have a seat at the table and at least have openness and transparency so we all know these decisions are being made in the best possible light.