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The future of Ann Arbor's drinking water will cost millions—but where will the water come from?

The Huron River in Dexter Huron Metropark
Caroline Llanes
Michigan Radio
The Huron River, from which Ann Arbor currently gets its drinking water

Ann Arbor city officials have options when it comes to the future of clean, safe drinking water... but no matter what, it'll cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Right now, most of Ann Arbor's drinking water comes from the Huron River, and some comes from a well plant on the southside of town. The water is pumped to and treated at a facility in the northwest part of the city. That treatment involves softening, disinfecting, and filtering.

One plan involves renovating and rehabilitating the city's water treatment plant. Built in 1938, the over 80-year-old plant would get around $108 million for much-needed upgrades.

The other plan would be for Ann Arbor to switch to the Great Lakes Water Authority—where Detroit gets its water. That plan would cost around $355 million.

Brian Steglitz is the manager of water treatment services for the city of Ann Arbor. He says there are positives and tradeoffs to both proposed plans. One factor that might push city council towards connecting to a regional water authority is pollutants in the Huron River.

"Things like PFAS in the drinking water supply, the threat of the dioxane plume as it migrates toward the Huron River... those types of water quality challenges, which we've been successfully dealing with over the past several years, would be one reason to consider an alternative," he said.

Steglitz says another crucial factor is the city's A2Zero plan, which is its plan for reducing carbon emissions with a goal of achieving carbon neutrality by the year 2030. The 50 miles to the Detroit River are no joke.

"Joining a regional water supply involves a lot of energy to move water a very large distance, so not nearly as a green solution as investing in the city's own infrastructure to meet council's vision of reducing carbon emissions," he said.

Another aspect of joining a regional water authority like GLWA is the city's autonomy and decision-making when it comes to its water.

"If you join a regional water supply, you're giving up a lot of autonomy in decision-making," Steglitz said. "Ann Arbor has prided itself on doing more than what the regulations require. You know, we set our own water quality goals that are a lot more stringent. We make decisions about sustainability and carbon footprint."

It can be difficult to plan for the future, Steglitz says, with so many unknowns. What other pollutants and contaminants will we discover? Will those impact the Huron River or the Detroit River? What does sustainability look like for the city? How the city plans for these challenges will have a generational impact.

"We really see this as a transformational decision that council will be making about the city's water future over the next fifty years," Steglitz said. He encouraged people to reach out to the city with questions, saying, "It's really important that we hear the community's voice in making these decisions, because it's going to affect the next several generations of Ann Arborites."

Caroline is a third year history major at the University of Michigan. She also works at The Michigan Daily, where she has been a copy editor and an opinion columnist. When she’s not at work, you can find her down at Argo Pond as a coxswain for the Michigan men’s rowing team. Caroline loves swimming, going for walks, being outdoors, cooking, trivia, and spending time with her two-year-old cat, Pepper.
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