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The future of Southeast Michigan's drinking water (part 1)

If you live in southeast Michigan, chances are you get your water through Detroit’s municipal water system.

Detroit owns and operates the system that serves more than three million people. That’s long been a major source of tension between the city and suburban communities.

Some recent events have pushed questions about system’s long-term future into sharper focus. And it’s shaping up to be a battle.

In 2006, the state government and county governments got federal money to build a state-of-the-art, real-time drinking water monitoring system that serves more than million people in southeast Michigan.

But those funds have dried up, and no one set up a long-term funding source for the system, which costs about a million dollars a year to operate.

So, do some quick math. If everyone the system serves chipped in another 33 cents a year, everything would be fine, right? In theory, yes, says Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel.

“I’ve heard everything from 25 cents a year to a dollar a year per household. Whatever that might be, it’s very minimal.”

BUT—here’s the catch. All water rate hikes have to go through the city of Detroit. But some suburban officials don’t want to raise rates at all—they think Detroit sets the rates too high already.

And there, in a nutshell, is the reason a region blessed with an abundance of water still fights over it. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was built to serve—well, Detroit. But over the past 50 years, its service area has changed dramatically—Detroit’s population has plummeted, and the metro area has sprawled. And that’s become a problem.

One didn’t have to spend long at this week’s Detroit City Council to get the sense that Detroiters are passionate about maintaining control over their water department. Many call it one of the city’s remaining "jewels:" something the city has built and managed over nearly 200 years—one which Detroiters still disproportionately bear the legacy costs of. And they see increasing evidence that suburbs want to take control away.

At least, that’s how Detroiter Lee Gaddies sees it.

“Oakland and Macomb counties don’t want to build their own water department. They can’t afford to do it. They have attached on to the city of Detroit’s asset that the city of Detroit has built. Therefore, they are customers. They have no right to ownership.”

But suburban officials have long contested that view, and an agreement reached earlier this year reflects that. It re-organized the Water Board to provide for some suburban representation—though Detroit continues to oversee day-to-day operations.

But even bigger changes may be in store. The department has been under federal oversight since 1977 for intermittent wastewater violations. Recently, a federal judge ordered stakeholders to come up with a plan to fix those ongoing problems—all within the next 60 days.

Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh is one of the people tasked with crafting that plan. He says it’s important for Detroit to keep control of the system.

“We will fight to the death to make sure that the city maintains control of the water and sewerage department. But at the same time, we want to be in compliance. We want to get out from under this judge’s order, and we want our water to be safe.”

Pugh doesn’t think the end goal is to wrest control away from Detroit.

“I don’t think that’s even an issue…that we lost ownership or control.”

But others see things in a more sinister light. They warn of impending moves to completely take over the water system—and possibly put it in private hands.

Those issues are set to be decided over the next two months—two months that will be crucial in shaping a water system that serves millions of people.

Many observers see red flags in a federal judge’s order to craft a plan for fixing the Detroit water department in the next 60 days. They read the Judge’s suggestion that officials ignore the city charter and union contracts as a warning—that the system will be regionalized, and possibly handed over to a private corporation. We’ll hear more about this on Tuesday on the next Environment Report.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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