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High-tech water warning system sits unused in Southeast Michigan

city of Detroit skyline
James Marvin Phelps
A group of Native Americans

Metro Detroit once had a high-tech water warning system designed to detect chemical spills in real time. Now, it sits unused.

Built in 2006, the system was made up of a series of water monitoring devices at 14 plants from Port Huron to Monroe, mostly along Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. The sensors sent data to computers utilized by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Macomb County and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

The system was designed to detect terrorist threats, such as chemical spills, as well as man-made contaminants from an area of Ontario, Canada known as "chemical valley" along the St. Clair River.

"There have been documented leaks and spills from that area, that we wanted to know when they happened and how soon we can respond to them," said Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Northville.

The project was funded with $3.2 million from the state of Michigan and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The plan for when the initial money ran out was to shift the cost to the customers in the communities utilizing the system. But when the money dried up, communities started dropping from using the system. Maintaining the system would have cost around $1.2 million, which equated to 25 cents per household annually.

As the network of communities crumbled, in 2011 Heise introduced a bill to try and save it. The legislation failed. He says a missing key component was support of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.

"Frankly, the politics of that time, they were not interested," Heise says. He said they did not want to be accused of raising rates or adding fees to water bills.

Doug Martz is the former head of the now-defunct Macomb Water Quality Board. He says he began pushing for the warning system more than a decade ago, after learning from Native Americans on Walpole Island in Ontario, that they had to close their water intake more than 700 times in 16 years due to spills. Spills that Martz says the U.S. was not informed about.

"That's when I first started pushing, 'well, we need to do something to protect drinking water,'" Martz said.

Now, bits and pieces of the system remain. Five municipalities, including Detroit and Macomb, still use low-level versions of the monitoring, detecting basic things such as the amount of dissolved materials. But the high-tech components, including mass spectrometers and gas chromatographs that detect contaminants in real time, are not in use.

Amanda Abukhader is with the Great Lakes Water Authority. She says two of Detroit's water plants still use the warning system, but have opted out of using the sophisticated equipment, simply because it did not perform as it should have.

The GLWA said in a statement:

The water warning system is currently up and running , with communities able to participate on a voluntary basis...Regardless of the water warning system, the Great Lakes Water Authority, formerly DWSD, monitors our source water...While the warning system is an added benefit, GLWA ensures that all water is tested throughout the treatment process. We conduct testing and monitoring to ensure that we are able to meet our responsibility on an ongoing basis so the communities we serve are never without quality water.

In light of the Flint water crisis, both Heise and Martz say they are pushing to get the full system back up and running.

Heise says he is reintroducing his failed 2011 bill that would restore funding to the system with a 25-cents-a-year surcharge to residential and business water bills.

"Even if you want to call it a tax, I don't think people are going to complain if they have to pay 25 cents a year for this level of security," he said.

Martz says restoring the warning system is vital.

"We're all in this together, and the public needs to be assured, especially with what's happened in Flint and other parts of the country, that our drinking water's safe," he says.

You can listen above to the full interview with Representative Kurt Heise on Stateside with Cynthia Canty.

Paulette is a digital media reporter and producer for Michigan Public. She started as a newsroom intern at the station in 2014 and has taken on various roles in that time, including filling in as an on-air host.
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