Politics above water quality

February 25, 2020

Unfortunately, sometimes I must defend Birmingham and other Oakland County communities against baseless attacks on our commitment to protect our water resources.

In January a green sludge impacted the shores of Lake St. Clair in Macomb County. Joining public speculation, Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller suggested it contained raw sewage and stated to local newspapers and others that it was “highly likely… (Oakland County) played a role in the sludge” and “these (Oakland County) CSOs are having a direct, negative effect on the lake.” These statements are reckless and have no basis in fact.

My office operates the George W. Kuhn Retention Treatment Basin (GWK), which commissioner Miller has falsely blamed for this occurrence and other pollution. The GWK plays a vital role in protecting water quality. Like the three CSO basins in Macomb County, the GWK operates under federal permit to treat the gravity-fed combined sewage flow before it enters the environment.

Containing the largest screening system in America, the GWK removes and collects any solids over half an inch, ceiling baffles skim floating waste, the large underground tanks (124 million gallons total) slow flow to allow solids to settle out, and all those solids are collected and sent to Detroit’s sewage plant for treatment. The remaining flow contains no solids and is treated with chlorine to kill the remaining bacteria. About 85 percent of storms never leave the GWK and are treated in Detroit, only the largest 15 percent cause treated overflows. The GWK water flowing into the Red Run Drain and destined for Lake St. Clair is cleaner than the water already in the drain or lake.

Experts, like Oakland University Professor Dr. Scott Tiegs, told me this year’s lake sludge was natural lake turnover of dead weeds, with an invasive cyanobacteria called Lyngbya bringing much more volume. It had unprecedented impact because of lack of ice, high winds, heavy rain and 100-year record high lake levels. Climate change and invasive species impacts like this will only grow over time. Macomb County Health Department testing showed plant matter with minor animal and human e. coli bacteria, but no raw sewage.

Recent studies by the Department of Environment, Great Lake and Energy, the US Geological Survey, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments and the Great Lakes Water Authority have all shown human and animal bacteria and nutrient loads are expected in these waters but that there is no correlation between GWK releases and Lake St. Clair contamination issues.

Most of the nutrient load comes from the St. Clair River, not the watershed. In fact, this shallow lake has a water turnover rate (travel time of water through the lake) of only seven days, compared to 40 years in Lake Superior.

A 1984 National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration report points out that 97 percent of the flow into Lake St. Clair comes directly from the St. Clair River, while only three percent of the lake’s water comes from the entire watershed (US and Canada). Of the watershed’s three percent, the GWK flow accounts for a fraction of one percent. This treated flow has an insignificant part to play, considering all the untreated separated stormwater systems, agricultural runoff, animal/bird shore waste, failing septic systems across the watershed and loss of water purifying wetlands on the lake.

To continue addressing the issues facing our water resources on a regional basis we must foster collaboration, but this kind of unjustified finger-pointing does not help. If commissioner Miller produces new evidence that Oakland County plays a role, I will consider other actions, otherwise she is putting politics above water quality.

Jim Nash
Water Resources Commissioner
Oakland County

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