Who’s at fault for Lake St. Clair pollution problem
By Stacy Gittleman
To make a visual statement on just how bad she sees the stormwater runoff problem coming from Oakland County that leads into Lake St. Clair, Macomb County Water Resources Commissioner Candice Miller stood at the mouth of the Red Run Drain on the shoreline at 13 Mile and Dequindre in early March of 2020.
Two months earlier, between January 11-12, the area received nearly five inches of rain, causing elevated sewer levels and the subsequent release of 774 million gallons of a combined sewerage overflow into the Red Run drain, a tributary to the Clinton River Watershed. The sewerage came upstream from Oakland County.
As the flushable wipes stuck to the vegetation along the shore and fluttered in the breeze in the background, Miller looked into the camera and implored Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner James Nash to do something to clean up Oakland County’s mess.
The incident is just one in a decades-long squabble between the water officials in Oakland and Macomb counties about what factors and sources are to blame for letting pollution enter the watersheds that feed into our main drinking water source – Lake St. Clair. When large rain events happen, such as the flooding we endured in the spring and summers of 2014, 2020 and 2021, stormwater and the debris and sewerage they carry with them cannot be completely contained in the retention basins meant to hold them, and billions of gallons flow downstream.
It cannot be helped that Macomb County rests downriver from Oakland County. But officials from Warren to Clinton feel that during heavy rains, their own sewer systems cannot keep up, much less with the added burden from Oakland County’s runoff that they say includes billions of gallons of raw and partially treated sewerage into the Clinton River watershed and ultimately into Lake St. Clair, the drinking water source for nearly four million people in southeast Michigan.
In October 2022, the Macomb County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance that stated raw and partially treated sewage is discharged routinely by Oakland County and is feeding into Lake St. Clair. The ordinance alleges that waterborne pollution coming from Oakland County is causing a host of problems including harm to lakeside property values, a decline in health to the water and therefore the people and wildlife that depend on the water, and beach closures and degradation due to the heightened presence of E. coli that also is causing unchecked growth of invasive, rancid smelling cyanobacteria (Lyngbya wollei), commonly known as algal mats.
The ordinance states that Macomb County is spending millions on their end to clean up the lake and Clinton River Watershed, and they are demanding Oakland County do the same and that the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) “take a leadership role and no longer permit this situation for the residents who are forced to live with sewage continuously flowing from Oakland County, and to provide funding to help finance corrective actions.”
But how accurate are these claims coming from Macomb County, and is it true that Oakland County is in continual violation of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits? Is it true that nothing is being done and it is in Nash’s office to remediate the problem?
In order to understand the challenge of managing our wastewater stream, we must go back in history to the 1800s, when the industrialized development of our cities and outlying towns realized the importance of moving human waste away from population centers and into bodies of water.
The older systems of moving wastewater are called combined sewer overflows, or CSOs. Mostly found in older neighborhoods and developments constructed before the 1950s, CSO systems collect both wastewater – anything that goes down the drain from residential and commercial bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms, and stormwater runoff – into the same infrastructure system. Under normal precipitation patterns, all this wastewater flows to a sewage treatment plant for treatment. The treated water is discharged back into the water system and filtered-out solid waste is sent to a waste treatment plant.
However, during large rain events, stormwater overwhelms the capacity of CSOs, causing back-ups into basements and overflow into rivers, lakes, and streams. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are 33 NPDES permits for CSO discharges in the Great Lakes Basin in Michigan. Nationally, CSOs are a priority of water pollution concern for 700 municipalities across the nation that still use these sewer systems.
According to EGLE reports, addressing CSOs is a priority for Michigan with respect to wastewater infrastructure. Since 1988, the number of uncontrolled CSOs in the state has declined from 310 to 76. The 23 remaining suburban CSOs will be corrected by 2025, along with a goal to correct high-priority outfalls in the city of Detroit by 2037.
If you live in a newer suburb, the grey infrastructure beneath you is a separated sewer system, or SSO. That means that the water from your home is routed to one set of pipes that bring wastewater to a treatment plant where the water and sewerage is filtered, separated, cleansed and disinfected before it returns to our waterways. A second set of pipes carries untreated stormwater runoff into storm drains and flows directly into the nearest body of water. That’s why it matters to limit how much fertilizer you apply to lawns, keep neighborhood storm drains clear of leaf debris and litter, and to be mindful of any oil spills or leaks from vehicles.
Though separated sewer systems are a better option than combined sewers, they still have their drawbacks. This is because as development expands and creates more impervious surfaces like roads, sidewalks and paved parking lots, rainfall cannot penetrate the ground but instead surges into our watersheds, carrying pollutants such as excessive fertilizer and animal waste with it.
Marie McCormick, executive director of Friends of the River Rogue, explains the importance of migrating from a CSO to a separated SSO, and why it is so complex and hard to attain for some communities. McCormick’s organization’s mission is the stewardship of the River Rogue, the 127-mile watershed that ambles through many communities in southeast Oakland County, including Birmingham.
She explained: “As we face wetter weather patterns due to climate change, there’s just too much water for the antiquated CSOs to handle. The fact that we have paved over many pervious surfaces with impervious roads, houses and parking lots doesn’t help matters either. So, the water has nowhere to go but into our overburdened sewer system.”
She continued: “There is a direct correlation between household income and existing and remaining CSOs. They are still being used in Inkster, Dearborn Heights, Redford, Detroit and Dearborn. Municipalities like this may lack the resources and funding to separate their sewer systems. That’s why the city of Detroit is not legally obligated to separate their sewer system until 2037. While there is a lot of work to be done, we are in a remarkably better place than where we were from the 1970s as far as raw sewerage runoff.”
Environmentalists like McCormick who serve on various local watershed advocacy organizations understand that beyond the essential need to keep our drinking water supplies clean, the tributaries that lead into our Great Lakes enhance the quality of life for the millions of Michiganders who live along the waterways, from kayaking to fishing and swimming.
Spanning 760 square miles from the top of Oakland County in Oxford and ambling down and through Macomb County, the Clinton River Watershed borders on some of the most populous cities in Michigan. Over 1.5 million people live near its shores, which empty into Lake St. Clair, a drinking water supply for nearly four million people. Fishing enthusiasts may know that this state-designated water trail is the last remaining cold water trout streams in southeast Michigan.
Stormwater runoff is the greatest threat to water quality to the watershed and ultimately, Lake St. Clair.
To catch and treat as much stormwater as possible, Oakland County operates four retention treatment basins (RTBs) in Acacia Park, Birmingham, Bloomfield Village and the state’s largest, which sits at the mouth of the Clinton River, the George W. Kuhn.
RTBs are a series of large storage tanks meant to hold and filter water streaming from combined sewers. During a large rain event, excess combined sewage gets sent to the RTB once the sewers become full. The combined sewage flows through screens that filter out debris such as sanitary trash. Then, a disinfectant is applied to allow adequate time to kill disease-causing organisms. In the basin, solids settle out and the skimming baffle prevents the discharge of floatable material and oils. Once the capacity of the RTB is exceeded, the treated overflow is sent to surface water resulting in a discharge that is protective of public health and the environment. When the rain event ends and there is capacity available in the sewer, the contents of the RTB are drained back to the sewer to be sent to the wastewater treatment plant.
The George W. Kuhn Drainage District in Madison Heights serves 14 communities, encompassing a drainage area of 24,500 acres upstream of the Red Run Drain, a tributary of the Clinton River. During dry weather, all flow is routed to the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant. But during heavy rainfall, high volumes of combined sewage exceed the outlet capacity to Detroit, causing excess flow to be diverted to the facility’s retention basins where it is stored, screened and disinfected prior to discharge to the Red Run Drain.
With retention basins that can hold 124 million gallons of stormwater runoff, the George W. Kuhn is regarded nationally as a state-of-the-art water treatment facility and is visited by water and sewage authorities nationwide to study the complex.
Candice Miller maintains that the George Kuhn Retention and Treatment basin is a thorn in Macomb County’s side. She and other Macomb County officials for decades have complained that too much overflow is dumped downriver, causing everything from beach closures to algae growth and an overall degradation to the water quality of Lake St. Clair.
This spring, Miller said Macomb County has plans to embark on a study with the University of Michigan and the Army Corps of Engineers to study the quantity of the stormwater flowing from the George W. Kuhn and into the Red Run drain, as she believes there is an excess of stormwater running from this drain into Macomb County that should be allowed and is causing flooding in Macomb County.
“We can’t even take care of our own flooding because our drains are so supersaturated with what’s coming from Oakland County. We want to know what they are going to do about that,” Miller said.
But Laura Verona, EGLE’s Wastewater Division district supervisor of the Public Wastewater Unit who oversees Warren for Oakland, Macomb, St. Clair and Wayne counties, dispelled the false notion that any effluent from the George Kuhn RTB or the Chapaton RTB in Macomb County is being released as untreated raw sewerage.
Said Verona, “Let’s say you have a pipe in a CSO and 90 percent of the width of that pipe is filled with rainwater runoff. The remaining 10 percent of the diameter of that pipe contains sewerage from homes and commercial buildings. All that water gets screened, skimmed and all the sewerage then gets settled to the bottom. Then the water is disinfected before it is released into our waterways. Our records show that the George Kuhn and the Evergreen-Farmington Sanitary Drainage District in Oakland County, as well as the Chapaton in Macomb County have very good compliance records and are operating the way they should according to their permits.”
Verona was referring to the Evergreen-Farmington Sanitary Drainage District in Oakland County. It is part of a $68 million cross-county project announced by the Great Lakes Water authority in February of 2021, that aims to divert about 48 million gallons of stormwater mixed with sewage from making it into the Rogue River and into Lake Erie. Newly announced enhancements to Evergreen-Farmington will secure additional wet weather flow capacity into the regional wastewater system as part of GLWA’s 30 year-plan for improving water quality into the Rouge River.
During the deluge storms of June 2021, EGLE reported four separate incidents of sanitary sewer overflow into the Upper Rogue on June 25, 2021, spilling 26,135,420 gallons into the waterway from the Evergreen-Farmington sanitary sewer.
Charles Hill, EGLE Water Resources Division (WRD) statewide coordinator, said when it comes to the discrepancies between Macomb and Oakland county water officials, his agency works to facilitate better solutions across the counties by sharing best practices. Regarding the ordinance that the Macomb County Commission just passed against Oakland County, Verona and Hill are reviewing the document and will address any inaccuracies they encounter.
“We want to best inform people of our position, and maybe there's a piece of public education that could help us understand what those discharges are,” explained Hill. “One common misconception is that these retention treatment basin facilities are releasing raw sewage. These retention basin facilities had to go through a design approval to meet water quality standards set by the Clean Water Act. Simply put: these are not discharges of raw sewage and these facilities are operating properly.”
Verona echoed Hill’s opinion. “Just as with the Oakland County retention basins, we have had good compliance history with Macomb County’s retention basins,” said Verona. “If there is a violation from a discharge, my staff evaluates the circumstances, and we take appropriate action.”
In comparison to the exceedingly wet summer of 2021, Verona said overall, 2022 was a dry year. Though the entire report on incidences of combined sewer overflows and sanitary sewer overflows for 2022 has yet to be released, Verona recalled that all retention basins in Macomb and Oakland counties had little activity.
“A common theme that year were a few big storms, one involving snow melt with rain in February, and others in June and August where both the Kuhn and the Chapaton retention basin in Macomb had discharges. But overall, it was a quiet year,” she said.
Both Hill and Verona agreed that as weather patterns which deliver a very large amount of rain in a short span of time following long stretches of nearly drought conditions become more common, storm system managers and those who plan and fund infrastructure projects are going to have to plan accordingly so retention basins can minimize spillovers.
Hill said that looking towards the future, the rains we endured in June of 2021, or the late summer of 2014, will no longer be regarded as once-in-a-century storms, and unfortunately, our CSOs were designed for just that.
“Those century or even quarter-century storms, that’s what the old data sets predicted, but we need to approach how we handle water runoff with a whole new set of data points. We are keeping an eye from federal resources on how to adjust these datasets, and also rethink how we create infrastructure for resiliency, and that includes green infrastructure,” Hill said.
“Every discussion on stormwater runoff needs to include green infrastructure planning,” stressed Verona. “The best way to prevent storm runoff is at the countless non-point sources where they start: from our roofs, lawns and suburban streets. Many can do their part by installing a rain barrel to their home downspout or create a rain garden. Municipal planning should include impervious surfaces to avoid overburdening the sewer systems.”
Though Hill maintained that separated and sanitary sewers may be a better alternative to combined sewer systems, and most who live in Oakland or Macomb’s newer developments have separated sewers, they are not without their drawbacks.
“Separate sanitary sewers are also subject to wet weather, and even though they're supposed to be designed to be tight and not accept infiltration or inflow, that's typically not the case. We deal with sanitary sewer overflows, and this is a bigger issue because now there are many more communities with sanitary sewer systems than combined sewer systems. “
Verona added that in many instances, to save costs, communities may use existing infrastructure from combined sewer systems to create a separated system, leading to problems like leaks and pipe breakages down the road.
“Though EGLE has data from treated effluent from retention treatment basins, we cannot say where the problem lies when we do not monitor measure or test the untreated water flowing into separated storm sewers,” said Verona. “Whatever the stormwater picks up as it flows over the land, be it excessive fertilizer, animal waste or even animal carcasses, that flows directly into the sewer and into our waterways in a separated system."
In its 2021 annual report on Combined and Sanitary Sewer Overflows, EGLE noted there were more events than usual due to the above-average precipitation.
The annual precipitation total for all of Michigan in 2021 was 33.52 inches, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the average rainfall ever since NOAA has been keeping records – 1895 –for Michigan is approximately 31.68 inches.
The most dramatic display of projected wetter weather was the unforgettable weekend of June 25-26, when five to seven inches of rain fell across metro Detroit, causing widespread power outages, and pump station failures which resulted in significant flooding.
In 2021, there were 383 CSO events reported for a total volume of approximately 46.74 billion gallons, but 37.96 billion gallons were discharged as treated and sanitized and disinfected to protect public health in compliance with the water quality standards as set by the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act of 1994. In total, there were 28 CSO events in Oakland County in 2021, and seven events in Macomb County, most emanating from the George Kuhn and Chapaton retention basins.
EGLE in 2021 reported the following three violations from Oakland and Macomb counties due to higher than permitted fecal and chlorine counts:
On July 25, 2021, the George Kuhn exceeded its (400 ml#/100mL) limit of fecal matter by reporting (1092 #/100mL). On June 27, the Birmingham retention basin exceeded its chlorine permit limit levels of 1.6 mg/L) by reporting 2.0 mg/L. In Macomb County on Dec. 11, 2021, the Chapaton RTB exceeded its chlorine permit limit levels of (1.5 mg/L) when it reported 1.58 mg/L.
In 2021 there were 294 Sanitary Sewer Overflow (SSO) events reported, releasing 293.4 million gallons. Of these, there were 42 in Oakland County in places like Troy, with most of them coming from the Pontiac treatment facility, and four were in Macomb County.
The 2021 report also stated that the George W. Kuhn Retention Treatment Basin discharged 3.1 billion gallons of combined sewer flow into the Red Run Drain that year, including one million gallons of raw sewage on June 26, 2021.
In reports filed by Nash to EGLE on activity in 2022 on behalf of the Oakland County Water Resources Commission, between December14, 2021, through December 12, 2022, there were 24 CSOs into the Kuhn retention basin due to rain events and snowfall. Of those overflows, 21 were contained within the retention basin while three discharges ran into the Red Run Drain. Nash’s office in this report maintained that the Kuhn did not violate its NPDES permit in these three discharges.
Nash said Oakland County in recent years has $144 million to treat and improve the effluent coming out of the George Kuhn and to increase its storage capacity.
“Once the water is treated in a full immersion process, it has a very low count of bacteria or contaminant," said Nash. "And the volume of that water is less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the total volume of the watershed, which is 228,194 square miles which includes the Clinton River Watershed, the St. Clair River, and the Lake St. Clair Regional sub-basin drainage area, which includes Canada. I don’t understand why Miller and other leaders in Macomb are focusing on this small amount of water when they need to be looking to other sources of contamination.”
Miller also is holding fast to her claim that the runoff coming from Oakland County from the Red Run Drain contains bacteria such as E. coli that is feeding the growth of invasive algal mats. Miller said Macomb County residents, especially those who have lakeside property, are dealing with the increased presence of Lyngbya, commonly known as algal mats. An invasive species, this unwanted vegetation is clogging up bays and shorelines along Lake St. Clair. They smell like garbage and ruin shoreline property for many homeowners in the area. Macomb County water officials partly blame poor water management practices for the presence of these blooms. They allege that high counts of E. Coli running from the Red Run Basin could be the culprit.
“The only thing that happens to sewerage water at the Kuhn retention basin is that it is shocked with chlorine to kill the E. coli, and then it is discharged (instead of going to a wastewater treatment plant),” said Miller. “We believe that putting sewage into a lake, even if you shock it with chlorine, is not a good practice. It's very bad for the environment. These algal mats are growing along the shoreline right where the Clinton River meets Lake St. Clair. They are so thick you’d think you can stand on them. And they are being fed by something. We can assume that there are nutrients coming out of the sewerage that’s coming down from Oakland County. I am not saying Oakland County is completely to blame, but they are a contributing factor.”
EGLE’s Hill said the reason for the algal mat blooms has more to do with things like animal droppings, including goose droppings and dog waste not picked up as well as excessive overfertilizing of lawns that cause nutrients to run into separate sanitary sewer drains.
“Algal growth, like the mats we are seeing, are typically indicative of a high nutrient content in receiving water, such as phosphorus and nitrogen compounds. Bacteria like E. Coli is a separate matter and do not contribute to the growth of algae."
EGLE aquatic biologists explain that lake vegetation that should be naturally decaying in undeveloped natural shorelines is instead building up against shoreline “hardening” that comes with extensive development. Because dead and decaying vegetation often floats, it ends up wherever the prevailing winds and water flow deposit it. They often build up in canals, boat bays, and launches, and against solid piers or jetties.
According to EGLE, invasive species such as zebra mussels have also created a hospitable environment for the algal mats.
Jennifer Hill, executive director of Friends of the Clinton Watershed, said in some part, algal mats are more likely caused by an excess of animal waste runoff from geese and dogs as well as nutrient runoff from excessive applications of lawn fertilizer.
“Data from our ecologists conclude that beach closings in our metro beaches due to E. coli counts are more tied to avian and bovine waste and not human waste,” she said. “So, things are being put into place, such as having dogs chase geese away from the shores. Also, E. coli is sequestered into the sediment where it is naturally recycled.”
When it comes to taking responsibility, Miller said Macomb County is aware that their “hands have been dirty” and they’ve played their part of polluting Lake St. Clair.
In a 2018 report, for example, the Macomb County Health Department recorded a total overflow of 3,436,112,000 gallons of water from Retention Basin/CSOs from the county's six retention basins. A few overflows did not meet up to the county's NDPES permit, that included a February 2018 overflow of 70,000 gallons into the Clinton Golden RTB that resulted in news reports from the time revealing that Clinton Township officials said human error was the reason tens of thousands of gallons of sewage made its way into the Clinton River.
A March 2022 report from Miller’s office of the Macomb County Department of Public Works reported that in 2021, the Chapaton Retention Treatment Basin and the Martin Drain Retention Treatment Basin discharged a total of 411 million gallons and 405 million gallons of treated CSOs, respectively, into Lake St. Clair.
“Our hands have been dirty but now we are trying to right wrongs with a multitude of infrastructure projects with the help of funding drawn from local, state and federal levels,” said Miller. “We are focused. We could have been spending this on something else, but we highly value our natural resources of the Great Lakes, and we believe this is the right thing to do. We feel strongly that we need to reduce combined sewer overflows and we are doing that.”
But she quipped: “Whatever is coming out of Macomb County’s drains and sewers, it is not being dumped on Oakland County. We want to know if Oakland County is doing the same, meaning what are they doing to control their combined sewerage overflows. Treating raw sewerage with just bleach, just because that’s what your NPDES permit says is okay, still does not make it right to then dump this bleached sewerage into Macomb County.”
Overall, Miller hopes there can be better communication between her department and Nash’s department, especially during extreme weather events as in June 2021. "It would have been helpful if the Oakland WRC notified Macomb County that an overflow discharge of five billion gallons of treated discharge was headed its way through the Red Run Drain," said Miller. "While some discharge overflows cannot be helped in the most severe weather events, in the future, I am hoping for better communication, especially since the state expects more events of extremely wet weather due to climate change.
"I am hoping that Jim and I can work together because climate change is happening," Miller continued. "Our infrastructure that includes combined sewers were built decades ago and were not designed for the development we have witnessed in both our counties. We are doing our part in Macomb. We’ve separated sewer systems. We are keeping on top and educating homeowners to look after their septic tanks. We store as much of the rain flow as our retention basins can hold until the rain event has passed and then slowly release it through 68 miles of sanitary sewer lines which transport waste from more than 800,000 residents and businesses to the Great Lakes Water Authority Water Resource Recovery Facility for proper treatment.”
Miller made note of some recent costly projects to migrate away from CSOs, the source of what she believes is the largest contributor to water degradation.
“The city of Mount Clemens completely separated their sewer at the cost of $20 million assessed to their residents. Now they no longer use a CSO that flows into the Clinton River. Clinton Township had a similar issue and they spent $30 million to separate their sewer system, and the city of Warren, which experienced so much flooding and millions of damages seen to properties as well as the General Motors Powertrain plant, has spent nearly $100 million to address their issues.”
Miller continued: "I fully understand that separating sewers is expensive and disruptive, especially in our older communities. But to show our commitment to eliminating CSOs, there are only three communities left in Macomb County which still have them: Roseville, St. Clair Shores, and Eastpointe. We have had explosive growth in the northern part of our county, and up there CSOs do not exist.”
As part of its improvement projects, the city of Warren is installing a bladder-like inflatable wet-weather detention basin at the Chapaton Pump Station. It is expected to be completed by the end of 2023, and will reduce CSO discharges there by 40 percent.
When inflated during wet weather, the device acts as a levee to temporarily store up to 3.5 million gallons upstream of the dam without risking basement flooding. As the dam is deflated, the flow is gradually released and continues toward GLWA’s wastewater plant in Detroit for full chemical treatment. During dry weather, the dam remains deflated to allow for normal wastewater flow to the Detroit wastewater treatment facility.
The project construction cost is $9.9 million and will be paid using federal, state, and county funding under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) with no anticipation of a sewer rate increase for residents and businesses in Eastpointe and St. Clair Shores. The 8 ½ Mile Drain Drainage District serves a total of 92,000 people in the two cities.
Similarly, a second project that will create additional storage of 3.6 million gallons of combined flow includes the installation of a weir inside the Martin Drainage District interceptor that serves 78 percent of Roseville and 22 percent of St. Clair Shores.
Other efforts to improve water include increasing green infrastructure like vegetation that holds back rainwater and acts as a natural filter. Macomb County in 2020 acquired more acres of the Anchor Bay Woods in New Baltimore, which county officials said was identified as one of the last remaining large areas with a flat mesic woodland in Michigan.
When it comes to its drain problem, a March 2022 report from Miller’s department announced that Macomb County had embarked on its largest sewer drain inspection in 2021 and it continued through 2022. The inspections included surveying 26 miles of the county’s largest sanitary sewers. An example of success as a result of this process is the retrofitting and “daylighting” of the Sterling relief drain, bringing the portion of this sewer up from underground to act as a natural stream, thus soaking up harmful nutrients and sediment from the flow before it has a chance to reach the Red Run Drain, the Clinton River and Lake St. Clair.
Though he commends Miller and Macomb County’s efforts to separate their sewers and create more flexible retention basins, Oakland County's Jim Nash continued to point to reports from EGLE, the Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and the Great Lakes Water Authority that state 88 percent of the bacteria in Lake St. Clair can be sourced from smaller storm drains in Macomb County.
“Once the water from the Kuhn hits the Clinton River, there are other inputs of pollution – from the Clinton River all the way down to Lake St. Clair. And those drains that keep bringing in pollution are in Macomb County,” said Nash. “The biggest problem and source of E. coli is from dry weather flow and smaller rainfall events, and even leaking septic tanks that let waste seep into tiny underground streams and tributaries because the drains are constantly leaking E. coli. I have approached (Miller) about this but she insists the problem continues to come from the CSOs. I'm guessing the repair of those drains will cost those who live in the area money. She doesn't want them to pay for that so she is going after us.”
Oakland County is keeping ongoing watches on the George Kuhn Drain, where dry weather screening in 2020 revealed suspected discharges into the Clinton River, according to Oakland County reports. Nash said Oakland County uses the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System to regularly investigate the condition of storm drains, which may be an open ditch, stream or underground pipe, in terms of bacteria levels and treat when levels reach unacceptable thresholds.
As they inspect the county drains, Nash suspects Macomb County water officials will find that failing and leaking underground septic tanks are contributing culprits to what’s contaminating Lake St. Clair.
Nash and other environmentalists and policymakers in the state agree faulty and neglected septic tanks are problematic for reaching cleaner drinking water supplies. According to EGLE, as of 2020, septic systems are used by approximately 30 percent of the state's households. As part of its Michigan Clean Water Plan, the state has developed a low-interest loan program and has allocated $35 million to support homeowners and communities in replacing failing septic systems or eliminating them altogether.
Government leaders contend that Michigan is the only state in the union that does not have a cohesive policy or regulations on septic tanks. Instead, there exists a patchwork of local ordinances pertaining to septic tank maintenance, upkeep and inspection upon the sale of a home with such a system. Both Macomb and Oakland counties have ordinances in place that do not allow the sale of a property with a septic system until it passes inspection.
Jennifer Hill, executive director of the Clinton River Watershed Council, said her organization is about to embark on a new study of leaking septic tanks in the county and is deploying a new monitoring tool that can detect underground leaks. Hill hopes to find the sources of where there might be illegal discharges that are happening either from unknowing homeowners or property owners that are illicitly discharging from septic systems.
“The Clinton River Watershed Council is very active in this area of concern, and we do a lot of research and data collection to understand how faulty septic tanks are impacting the watershed,” said Hill. “One of the potential impairments to water quality is eutrophication, meaning the presence of excessive amounts of nutrients. More data is needed to really understand how that's impacting the watershed.”
Kelly Karll, who for the past 14 years has served as SEMCOG’s manager of environment and infrastructure, said Michigan remains one of the only states in the country without a cohesive statewide sanitary code for septic systems.
“The presence of E. coli is so prevalent in all our waterways that nearly every one of them fails to meet up to the (federal) E. coli standard,” said Karll. “The issue is prevalent across the state when it comes to septic ordinances. Most people, when they go to buy a house, may not even know they are buying one with a septic system, and they don't even know what that is or what it entails. There is a huge need for educating the public about them.”
Though raw sewerage runoffs are rare and may become a thing of the past, there is still a long way to go to fix the state’s water infrastructure woes.
Karll said SEMCOG has a decades-long history of shaping water infrastructure policy in Southeast Michigan.
"SEMCOG has had a historic role in bringing people together across counties to share best practices and facilitate solutions that are not siloed into one county. Our efforts not only have an impact on water quality, but benefits to the public and the economic benefits to the region when we have good water quality. Since the 1970's we have worked very hard on policies and bringing people together to find solutions that address both regional and local problems. In the last few decades, southeast Michigan has invested $2 billion in CSO reduction,” Karll said.
At the state level, EGLE in 2020 launched its $500 million MI Clean Water Plan, which earmarks $293 million in grants for wastewater protection and improvement, clean infrastructure, septic tank remediation, and Stormwater, Asset Management, and Wastewater (SAW) grants.
EGLE’s Hill said the money is being managed through the agency’s water infrastructure funding and financing group. Deserving projects from marginalized communities with eligible projects tied to economic stability are eligible for grants that will cover from 10 percent to the full cost of a project.
While this money will be a help to some communities, Karll, cautioned that in order to continually fix and maintain 21st century water infrastructure in Michigan, the funds are a proverbial drop in the bucket. In reality, it will cost up to $3.5 billion – every year – just for the seven counties in southeast Michigan. This is a number that dwarfs the $1 billion that is coming to southeastern Michigan’s aid in the form of the one-time cash infusion from the federal infrastructure bill.
“SEMCOG just completed a study that examined investment needs for water infrastructure in the seven-county region,” Karll said. “Conservatively, I would say that we are looking at a need of 3.5 billion annually. And that’s just for the linear piping system. That number doesn’t include treatment plans and does not include upgrading in the case of those increasing large rain events. So, when Lansing announces in its Clean Water Plan it has set aside a one-time $293 million for projects statewide, that’s not going to make much of a difference. We will need 3.5 billion for proper infrastructure, and we will need that annually. When people talk about the large number of dollars in that once-in-a-lifetime infrastructure bill from the federal government – we need that once-in-a-lifetime funding on an annual basis."