Billions of water gallons wasted in the region
This past November, Michigan's new governor, Gretchen Whitmer, was elected, with her slogan, “Fix the damn roads,” playing a key role for both Democrats and Republicans who are sick of driving on broken, decaying roads. The line was catchy and popular in much of the state, and certainly a necessity in southeastern Michigan, where roads are crumbling faster than they are being fixed, much less patched, and “dodge the pothole” has become our number one road game as the weather has fluctuated rapidly between record sub-zero temperatures to 50-plus degrees, and then back to below freezing again.
But road repairs are not the only game in town. Engineers say, “Look below.” There are a number of other infrastructure fixes that are essential to good public quality of life for residents, including having clean, safe drinking water, stormwater drainage systems, and working sewage systems. Over the last several decades, politicians have touted the mantra of cutting taxes at the cost of these “under the road infrastructure systems,” along with repeated financial slashes to the maintenances of bridges, deep gouges to the education of our children and state revenue sharing with local communities.
“Government is what paves your roads, polices your communities, are your judges,” said Professor Charles L. Ballard, Department of Economics, Michigan State University.
Yet, Ballard said, the government in many ways, has shirked that responsibility, whether notoriously in the city of Flint, where an economic decision to switch from the Detroit water system to an inferior source from that drew water from the Flint River, leading to the Flint water crisis, or by allowing roads, bridges and other infrastructure in the state to crumble before our eyes, and to not invest in police and fire, K-12 education, higher education – the basic necessities of a civilized society.
“Twenty years from now, if historians can look at this with a clear eye, allowing infrastructure to crumble was a spectacular failure of leadership,” Ballard said.
From an economic point of view, he said, “This was really stupid. Especially in the last nine years, when the economy was growing but the percentage of the economy we spent of state and local activities on police and fire, K-12 education, higher education – economists call it the tax effort,” the index of the ratio between the share of actual tax collection in gross domestic product and taxable capacity.
“This has been a 50-year effort, not just a recent one,” Ballard continued, noting it is a nationwide problem, not just an issue in Michigan, although Michigan is at the bottom of states which invest back into their infrastructure. “The way to win elections is to cut taxes. But we're paying the bill for that philosophical adventure, and we will continue to pay that bill, for decades. The elephant in the room is you can't squeeze blood from a turnip.”
A key example, Ballard pointed out, is that Michigan's general fund budget in 2020 will be 35 percent smaller than it was in 2000. And that accounts for increases due to inflation. That means there hasn't just been a slow death by a thousand tiny nicks, but wholesale slashes – of programs, entitlements, services, management, upgrades and repairs.
“If we had begun fixing roads, bridges, sewers, the water system for the last 20 years – we wouldn't have had all these busted water mains, sinkholes like last year in Fraser (in December 2016, at 15 Mile and Utica roads),” Ballard said. Pointing out he likely feels similarly to many others, “When I had to have two (tire) rims replaced, I would rather have paid my taxes than have to fix my rims. It's the pothole tax,” using a popular euphemism.
Further, the Flint water crisis, which exposed over 100,000 residents in Flint in 2014 to lead contamination which had leached from lead water pipes into the drinking water after Flint changed its water source from treated water from Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to water from the Flint River in an effort to save the economically depressed city money. Unfortunately, officials – acting in a hurry and trying to save money – failed to apply corrosion inhibitors to the water pipes, leading to the lead contamination and an enormous public health danger. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children are believed to have been seriously exposed to drinking water with high lead levels, and are experiencing continuous health problems.
Ballard said not only were the problems and issues preventable, but should have been foreseen.
“What happened in Flint wasn't a technological problem – it was a financial problem,” he said. “Their economy couldn't provide the revenues necessary, and the state hasn't provided the revenues necessary, to provide them with clean and safe drinking water.
“Our obsession with tax cutting is seen all over the state – (drinking) water is just one area.”
As Ballard pointed out, all of our other infrastructure has been equally neglected, which has led to not only water main breaks, but leaks – which ultimately results in lost revenue for local municipalities, which can only charge for water that is metered at a home or business, not the water that is sent from water providers to the municipality. The difference between what is sent and what is received at meters is the lost water, and lost revenue.
Water travels to each of our homes and businesses through water mains, some that have been in the ground for almost a century-and-a-half. For each of us to have drinking water, the water leaves water treatment plants from Detroit Water and Sewerage Department or Great Lakes Water Authority in Detroit, accessing water from Lake Huron, the Detroit River or Lake St. Clair, treating and purifying it, and then pumping it to local municipalities through large water mains.
But along the way, some of the water is “lost” or “unaccounted” for, whether from water main breaks, leaks in the pipes that are dilapidated along the way that are unknown, or leaks that occur at transmission points, from fire department use, which is taken from fire hydrants before water can be metered, and even from inaccurate metering. All of this water is money that no one will ever see or receive – it is truly money lost down the drain, literally and figuratively.
“Besides failing infrastructure, inadequate and inaccurate metering is also a part of the problem,” said Carol Miller, PhD, PE, professor, civil and environmental engineering, Wayne State University, and director, Healthy Urban Waters. “Because of that inaccuracy, you have to be careful in how you use the data acquired from water distribution centers and municipal collectors.
“Water loss is an important problem in most water distribution systems, but especially in aging water systems, with aging pipes that can have leaks – especially small leaks that are difficult to pinpoint and can be hard to determine if it's even worth digging up the pipe and fixing it before they become a major problem.”
Because the pipes are underground, it's a version of what is “monkey see, monkey do” – what is unseen is unknown, and therefore, until it's known as a problem, it's not a problem.
Miller pointed out that the large water main breaks make the news – “where the joint is visible. That gets a lot of attention, and it should. But the smaller breaks and leaks, the ones that we don't see, are also important,” and may actually be a larger source of lost revenue.
According to the National Resources Defense Council, aging water pipes in Detroit leak more than 35 billion gallons of water each year, costing residents more than $23 million each year. In response, DWSD proposed capital improvement programs for water and sewage system projects that focuses on maintaining the “quality of water provided to residents, improving water system reliability by replacing aging infrastructure to reduce the growing incidence of main breaks; ensuring environmental protection for all Detroit-area residents through upgraded treatment facilities; improving employee safety through system modifications; and increasing efficiency of services to all customers by taking advantage of new technology.”
Robert Daddow, deputy Oakland County executive, represents the county and its water and sewer ratepayers on the Great Lakes Water Authority, noted that Detroit “is such an enormous entity it has over 3,000 miles of water mains.” He said the large water main which broke outside of Cobo Center in January 2019, right before the media opening of the North American International Auto Show “was built in 1875 – it was almost 150 years old, and it was a cast iron main.”
Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties depend on a healthy Detroit in every sense, as its regional water provider, so when its infrastructure fails, it costs more than just the auto show and its attendant businesses money – it is a financial calamity on the entire region. It is estimated by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) that fifty-three percent of the state's economic activity occurs within 20 miles of downtown Detroit – pointing out the necessity of plugging the holes in the underground infrastructure.
Bonnifer Ballard, executive director at the Michigan section of American Water Works Association, wrote a recent editorial that Gov. Whitmer's administration is “off to an encouraging start with her vow to improve Michigan’s aging infrastructure, including plans to upgrade water and sewer systems that are 50 to 100 years old,” and that while a lot of the focus has been on fixing the roads, “The delivery of clean, safe water to homes and businesses is the 'invisible infrastructure' that often gets short shrift in public discussions, though it gained international attention from the lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water. Just as smooth, accessible roads are essential to a state’s economy, so is a safe and reliable water supply… Gov. Whitmer’s Rebuild Michigan Plan acknowledges that the state underfunds its water and sewer systems by $800 million a year.”
In the ASCE's 2013 Report Card for American Infrastructure, they gave the nation's drinking water infrastructure a grade of D, stating that “The water industry, unfortunately, has deferred asset maintenance for decades, and a high percentage of its structures are approaching the end of their service life. Now the bill is due.”
The good news is that asset management plans and capital improvement plans have begun in many communities, including in Detroit. Suzanne Coffey, chief planning officer, GLWA, explained that GLWA, which was established about three years ago, “enlisted the assistance of a water audit to judge the best practices for the water system, and to judge the health of the system. Losses are a part of it. It's something that had not been part of it before, and now we're going to do it comprehensively every year.”
Despite the impression there are a lot of water main breaks – especially during freeze-thaw periods – “not a lot of water is lost to breaks,” Coffey said. “It's less than half-a-percent that's lost due to breaks. For us, it's most on the connections, which is where most of the leaks occur,” referring to pipe connectors to local municipal conductors. “The audit allows us to quantify where we need to focus our attention.”
Coffey explained, “Where pipes come together, where you have pipe coming off another pipe – we call it a service main, it's a bigger pipe; our pipes are called transmission mains because they transmit the water, and then the communities have water mains, which service mains to the end user. That's where there can be leaks and losses.”
Under the auspices of GLWA, asset management programs have been developed for the region by Black & Veatch, a leader in engineering and consulting services in water infrastructure out of Kansas. Daddow said Black & Veatch had completed a phase one service study in fall of 2017, notably for three communities that are not metered – Detroit, Highland Park and most of Dearborn, which showed “how much water is being produced for those three communities, how much water is lost, and how much suburban entities have to bear to offset those losses.” They are in the midst of developing a phase 2 service study.
Water loss varies greatly by community, depending upon how much capital improvements have been done. In Michigan, there is no set standard that has to be met.
“Not every state has a set standard for water loss, although some states have set a standard,” said Olivia Olsztyn-Budry, director of engineering and environmental studies for Bloomfield Township. She said the average water loss for municipalities in states that have required reportage of water loss is between 10 and 15 percent, meaning that between 10 and 15 percent of the water that leaves a water treatment plant never makes it to a water meter, or is never metered – it's “lost.”
Amy Ploof, chief engineer for Oakland County Water Resources Commission, confirmed that. “What most communities do is measure how much is coming from GLWA and how much is used, and the difference is the amount lost,” she said.
Jim Nash, Oakland County water resources commissioner, said the Oakland County Water Resources Commission operates drinking water operations for about 19 cities and townships in Oakland County, which GLWA provides and they facilitate. “The biggest are Pontiac and Farmington Hills; the smallest are Keego Harbor and Southfield Township,” Nash said.
Ploof said about 1.7 billion gallons of water per day flow into Oakland County, with each community using a different amount. “For example, the city of Farmington Hills purchased over two billion gallons of water in 2018.”
She explained that each community served by GLWA has various points of connection for metering. “GLWA has transmission arms to the communities, and the Water Resources Commission operates for several Oakland County communities as the operations arms. Each one of the connection arms has a master meter and measures how much water is going into each city and township, and then there are meters in each home that measures how much water is used.”
Customers only pay for what is metered.
Ploof said water loss, by and large, falls into two categories: water main breaks and leaks, and apparent loss, which she characterized as unauthorized uses or metering inaccuracies.
In communities that are newer, such as Lyon Township or Commerce Township, the water mains and pipes are newer, so breaks and leaks are less frequent, Nash pointed out. “Pontiac is 80 to 120 years old. We're in the process of replacing all of those pipes. It's a 20-year program, and we're in year three, starting with the oldest, most in need areas.”
Birmingham, he noted, is just as old, but he said Oakland County does not handle their water system, with their Engineering Department handling their own replacements, such as the Old Woodward/Maple Road replacement project in the summer of 2018, which saw wood water mains likely from the late 19th century unearthed.
In order to rectify metering issues, Ploof said they read meters on a set schedule for each of the communities they cover, including Bloomfield Hills, which has a water loss rate of 4 percent, she said, and Farmington Hills, with only a 1 percent water loss.
“A goal for our estimated bills is 2 percent, and we typically achieve that,” Ploof said. “We're involved in a water meter replacement project in Pontiac in order to ensure that meters are accurate. Water meters are very accurate, and can measure within 1.5 percent typically.”
Bloomfield Township, Olsztyn-Budry noted, is in very good shape. “We average only 5 percent loss,” which is primarily attributed to water main breaks, “which happen in every system,” she said; water use during construction, because it has to be tested and flushed; a small issues of discrepancy with meters, where there could be thefts, such as unauthorized uses, noting that “there have been past cases, though they've been pretty limited. We've seen situations where buildings have been built to bypass the meter and go directly into the building.”
Fire uses are a small part of the township's water loss, as is illegal fire hydrant use. “It's illegal to use fire hydrants,” Olsztyn-Budry pointed out. “We have a permit process for when it's authorized under very specific purposes, with fees to the township and specific equipment.”
As other experts have noted, it's small leaks that can be the biggest culprits to a system, and ultimately, the costliest, because they can be hidden underground and go unnoticed.
“A system can leak. It's under pressure,” Olsztyn-Budry said. “They're under the surface and there may be cases where it can be a pinhole leak, and we may not be aware of it until it comes to the surface, and we see surface water, bubbling water, and have visual cues to investigate.
“Not every water main is a geyser. Some are slow leaks, until they get to the surface and we can investigate.”
What do those leaks, main breaks, meter thefts, and fire usage cost the township annually? Olsztyn-Budry said it varies, because water rates vary each year. Bloomfield Township purchases its water through the Southeastern Oakland County Water Authority (SOCWA), a 12-community member water distribution authority. In fiscal year 2018, water rates to Bloomfield Township residents paid $5.20 per 1,000 gallons, with Olsztyn-Budry reporting the the township's water purchase varying from 228,000 million cubit feet to up to 275 million cubic feet of water. “Assume about a five percent loss every year on that,” she said.
Bloomfield Township has had a capital improvement plan since 2005, called the Water System Asset Management Plan, replacing and upgrading their water mains.
“So all of this has helped minimize the loss of water and the loss of revenue out the door,” Olsztyn-Budry said. “As an older community, we've been very proactive.”
Bloomfield Hills is in the midst of replacing all of its older water mains right now, city manager David Hendrickson said. “In about two years, there won't be a lot of old mains.”
Beginning with the fiscal year 2018-2019 budget, the city replaced all of the water mains in the southwest part of the city, he said, along with some stormwater sewers, for a cost of $4 million. For their upcoming fiscal 2019-2020 year, he said they will spend “nearly $3 million dollars in various other areas of the city to continue our aggressive approach of significantly improving our infrastructure.”
The work was done to replace six-inch mains with eight-inch water mains, “or if they were at the point where they were old enough, we needed to replace them,” Hendrickson said. “We monitor where our water breaks are, and how frequent they've been, combined with their age and size, and that's how we determined what to replace.”
Austin Fletcher, Birmingham assistant city engineer, said “It is extremely difficult to quantify water loss accurately due to numerous factors that contribute to water loss,” with the city experiencing an approximate yearly water loss of seven percent, which he said equates to approximately $125,000 of lost revenue a year.
Birmingham has an ongoing rolling five year capital improvement plan “that has been in effect for over 30 years. As part of that plan, the city budgets and spends between $1 million and $2 million annually on water main improvements,” Fletcher said.
He said the city has replaced all residential water meters within the last five to seven years, “which has contributed to a reduction of the city's overall water loss by approximately two percent. The city also actively tests one-third of all of the fire hydrants within the city every year to ensure that they are operating correctly.”
GLWA's Coffey remarked that these communities are doing excellently, especially Bloomfield Township, because they have so many connection to their water system.
When they did their recent audit, GLWA's water loss was at 6 percent. “We want to drive it down even further,” Coffey said.
“It varies widely, and there is no number that is a benchmark,” she said. “There is no one-size-fits-all. Having so many transmissions and connection points makes it more difficult. That's where there are difficulties.”