Aging Water Infrastructure Results in Water Shut-offs

(Reposted from Great Lakes Town Hall)

By Melissa Damaschke, Sierra Club (Detroit, MI); and Maureen Taylor, MWRO (Detroit, MI)

The Great Lakes currently provide drinking water to over 42 million people. Yet not everyone in the region can afford this vital resource. Upgrading aging water and sewage infrastructure is placing an unaffordable cost on residents, resulting in water being turned off in thousands of homes in Detroit.

In addition, this aging infrastructure is causing pollution to our Great Lakes. According to the Sierra Legal Defense Fund’s “2006 Great Lakes Sewage Report Card,” cities dumped over 23 billion gallons of raw sewage into the Great Lakes in 2006.

The Detroit Wastewater Treatment Facility is the largest discharger in the Great Lakes basin, processing between 700 million and 1 billion gallons of municipal and industrial wastewater each day. Heavy rainfall events or melting snow often overload the system, causing sewage overflows. The city reported over 200 sewage overflows in 2005, earning it the lowest grade of “D” on the Sierra Legal Defense Fund’s Report Card.

A combined sewage overflow happens during and after wet weather events, when rainwater or melting snow overloads many combined sewer systems. In such instances, large volumes of untreated domestic sewage and industrial wastewater flow directly into local water bodies.

Pollution from combined sewage overflows causes considerable damage, including drinking water contamination, beach closings, algal blooms, basement backups, waterborne illness, closed fishing grounds, loss of tourism, and depressed property values.

The high cost of upgrading and expanding the aging sewage system, among other things, forced the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to raise its water rates numerous times in recent years. Water—a basic human right—became unaffordable to many residents, thousands of whom had their water shut off because of a failure to pay their bills.

The City of Detroit has now adopted the Water Affordability Plan, which when implemented will help protect low income residents from water shutoffs.

This story highlights the connection between sewage infrastructure and drinking water and the critical importance of maintaining both systems and keeping these basic services affordable and available in all Great Lakes cities.

Throughout the week, you will hear more about Detroit’s aging infrastructure and personal stories of people who have had their water shut off in a state that is surrounded by water.

See Great Lakes Town Hall for more stories and to post your thoughts.

(BTW, today is the birthday of Maureen Taylor, MWRO State Chairperson–Happy Birthday!)

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