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Macomb County's Miller wants answers about Conner Creek pump station failure

Macomb County Public Works/YouTube screengrab

Why did the Conner Creek pumping station on Detroit’s east side lose power and fail during last Saturday’s torrential storms,exacerbating serious flooding?

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller says people deserve answers from the Great Lakes Water Authority, which operates Conner Creek and the Detroit area’s regional water infrastructure. Macomb County is a GLWA member.

Miller says she’s heard “unconfirmed reports that backup generators did not automatically turn on, that gates outside the facility wouldn’t open and that GLWA employees assigned to Conner Creek did not make other attempts to break down the gates and turn on generators.”

Miller admits that water systems are not built to withstand the amount of rain Metro Detroit got last Saturday — up to seven inches in some spots. “But if there was any human error as well, by not getting into the plant and flipping on the generator or whatever happened there, we need to know,” she says.

Miller says we need to know exactly what happened at Conner Creek, “because we need to be prepared for the next time we get a heavy rain event like that.”

“I hope the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) provides some answers,” Miller says. “Don’t go to the default position about worrying about litigation, OK? We’re all too worried about litigation.”

The GLWA did not respond to any of Miller’s specific allegations. But in a written statement, Chief Operating Officer Navid Mehram says it’s “not uncommon for unanticipated operational issues to be associated with an event of this magnitude.”

Mehram goes on to say that Conner Creek experienced only a “partial disruption in service,” the station was never completely offline, and that GLWA employees had restored full operations within an hour.

He says the GLWA has begun an “after-action review that will examine the regional system's response to this unprecedented rain event, during which more rain fell within 13 hours than typically falls during the entire month of June. It is important to note that the system functioned to its design capacity, the amount and the intensity of the rain received would have overwhelmed any combined collection system." 

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department director Gary Brown told the Detroit City Council Tuesday that it will bring on an independent engineering firm to evaluate what happened at Conner Creek. A similar investigation happened after a 2016 rainstorm that also resulted in significant flooding, which Brown said led to $30 million in improvements at the pumping station.

Miller says the Conner Creek shutdown “had a severe impact to the wastewater management upstream, including into southeast Macomb County.” It shut down one pump station at the Macomb/Wayne County border to prevent more flow from deluging Conner Creek, forcing pumps at the nearby Chapaton pump station to work overtime. That forced operators there to discharge treated sewage from its basin, and open up a bypass to allow for excess flow.

Miller suggested that was at least partially why Macomb County’s southeast suburbs didn’t experience as much basement flooding as nearby Wayne County communities, such as Detroit, the Grosse Pointes, and Harper Woods.

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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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