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Regional approach needed on water quality

F or decades, officials in Macomb County have pointed their fingers at Oakland County communities upstream of the Clinton River as the culprits for their poor water quality and beach closings in Lake St. Clair, despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent in recent years to address sewer system overflows.

The accusations are reminiscent of many of the disagreements between Oakland County and its neighboring counties to the east: Oakland County's affluent communities are benefitting at the cost of their neighbors. In this case, it's effluent, Macomb County officials say, that is being routed to the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair from Oakland County's sewer system.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller has likened the situation to Oakland County dumping sewage on the heads of Macomb County residents. While we won't lambast Miller for hyperbole, we will take the opportunity to point out the work that Oakland County, with the assistance of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), has done to address water quality in relation to overflows.

Most recently, the American Council of Engineering Companies awarded the county for its Oakland-Macomb Interceptor Drainage District Repair Project, a $170 million project that rehabilitated a failing sewer system serving 800,000 residents in Oakland and Macomb counties. Millions have also been put into retention treatment basins in Oakland County to ensure that wastewater receives some treatment before it's released into tributaries during heavy rain events. That treatment involves screening, filtering and disinfecting sewer and rainwater that gets flushed into the combined sewage systems in more than a dozen Oakland County communities.

The DEQ, for their part, has confirmed that all releases – which total more than a billion gallons each year – receive treatment before being released into the Red Run Drain (a tributary of the Clinton River) or the Rouge River. That work has been further confirmed by watershed management groups which have specifically noted water quality increases directly downstream from the discharge locations.

Still, facts have a strange way of being ignored when faced with long held beliefs that someone has done you wrong. It's also worth noting that Macomb County has its own issues to address when it comes to combined sewer overflows and stormwater pollution, such as the 10 Mile Drain, a federal superfund site in St. Clair Shores where PCBs and other contaminants have entered Lake St. Clair through stormwater basins for several years.

No doubt, there is enough blame to go around and there's evidence for pointing fingers on both sides when it comes to water quality pollution. However, there are few more realistic solutions.

One of the most obvious answers – and most expensive – that has been proposed is to force Oakland County communities operating with combined sewer systems to upgrade to separate sanitary systems, which run stormwater and sewage through separate lines. While possibly good in theory, such an upgrade would cost anywhere from $1.5 billion to over $2 billion, according to engineers. Further, such systems may pose problems for surface waters, as runoff from stormwater is sent directly to local lakes, rivers and streams without any treatment. Such a fix is more of a pipe dream than a reality, considering the cost associated with maintaining the current system.

Other solutions suggested include implementing more green infrastructure to slow the flow of water into the system, and pushing the DEQ to increase water quality standards beyond the current requirements. While we have yet to see evidence that increased water quality standards alone would address the issue, such suggestions are reasonable. However, we believe such solutions are best if undertaken in a regional effort.

For too many decades we have witnessed officials in Oakland County spar with those in Wayne County on economic issues. While the county's relationship with Macomb County has traditionally been more cooperative, officials who talk about sewage and water pollution issues are quick to blame their neighbors for their problems, with few results.

While political games are expected, all officials would be wise to remember that water flowing downstream returns to where it came in the form of drinking water. In other words, with the majority of Oakland County receiving drinking water from the Detroit River or Lake Huron, we all have reason be concerned about contamination being sent downstream. Despite being in separate counties with different sewage systems, we all rely on the same water cycle and systems – a fact both politicians and residents shouldn't ignore.

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