The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, November 29, 2019

Out of sight, out of mind... Michigan spurns spending to upgrade water, sewer systems

By Marty Mulcahy, Editor

Michigan, almost always in the bottom one or two states when it comes to road funding rankings, has simply been unable to find the political will to raise billions of dollars more per year to fix the state's crumbling streets and bridges.

Now a new study reveals a more insidious problem: the public health and economic consequences of the similarly chronic under-funding of water and sewer systems around the state, many of which are well over a century old and have never been upgraded. And the tragic consequences of the lead poisoning of Flint's water system may prove to be just the start of Michigan's troubles. 

"Keeping Michigan’s water infrastructure functioning properly — and keeping contaminants out of our water supplies — is essential to the state’s economy, public health and our quality of life," the report says. "However, relative to the rest of the nation, Michigan has for decades grossly under-invested in this crucial network."

San Francisco-based Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), an entity funded by green-friendly business executives, released the November 2019 study under the name of Michigan Businesses for Clean Water. The group describes its efforts as "a campaign to raise awareness of the economic importance of clean water to the State of Michigan. We are building a statewide movement of business leaders and Michiganders who believe that clean water is key — to their communities, their health, their economic well-being and their future."

The group cited a report by the Business Leaders for Michigan, a roundtable group of CEOs representing dozens of the state’s largest employers. The group found that Michigan spends $90 less per capita annually than the U.S. average on infrastructure for drinking water, and for treating stormwater, and upkeeping sewers and dams. The American Society of Civil Engineers, meanwhile, gives low grades for various Michigan water system components: drinking water (D), stormwater (D-) and wastewater (C).

Michigan, the Clean Water group points out, is surrounded by 84 percent of North America’s surface fresh water, and 18 percent of the entire world’s surface fresh water. And with droughts plaguing the West Coast and the Southwest, it said Michigan should have "a unique competitive advantage as companies and regions battle for market share in the water services sector, Michigan’s location is a unique competitive advantage."

But Michigan lawmakers over the years have been unwilling to suitably fund a fix for the underfunding problem. Last year, then-Gov. Rick Snyder proposed a water customer fee to raise $110 million a year which would mostly be devoted to water and sewer repairs. It would have raised about $600 million for 20 years, but it went nowhere in a tax-averse GOP-led Legislature.

This report from E2 focuses more on the business case for upgrading our water/waste systems. 

"As this report shows, investing in Michigan’s water infrastructure is crucial to protecting industries ranging from manufacturing to brewing that pump billions of dollars into the state’s economy each year," the group said. "It’s essential to protecting the reputation of 'Pure Michigan' as a water-based paradise for tourists (search Google images for 'Michigan' and 'water' and the results aren’t pretty)."

Following are some of the highlights from the report:

*"The statewide numbers are staggering," the group says of Michigan's mostly buried water and sewage infrastructure. The state has 150,000 miles of sewer, 38,000 miles of storm sewer pipe, 1.6 million inlets and catch basins, 725,000 manholes, 1.3 million septic systems, 500,000 lead service lines and 35,000 regulated county storm water drains, to name a few. "This sprawling system delivers 481 million gallons of drinking water — the lifeblood for all of us — to faucets in Michigan homes every day," the group says. 

*"Investing in water infrastructure can also create tens of thousands of jobs in construction and related industries," the Clean Water group said in its report that investing $12 billion on top of existing water infrastructure expenditures in Michigan over the next two decades "directly creates nearly 90,000 full-time job-years and generates $8.8 billion in total labor income across direct, indirect and induced effects — income that workers and their families can then re-inject into their local economies. But first, we must fix the system."

*Penny-wise, pound-foolish. "In Flint in 2014, for example, the drinking water supply was switched from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save a few bucks," Clean Water said. "Soon afterward, lead leached into the improperly treated water supply, children were exposed to the lead and a vast public health crisis costing at least $600 million and counting ensued. As recently as 2018, the state was spending $22,000 a day on bottled water for the city."

*Leakage. The report said Detroit, for example, simply does not have a handle even on how much its pipes are leaking. It said the city's water system loses 10-50 percent of its product through porous pipes. 

Sewage systems across the state leak, too, resulting in untreated wastewater seeping into soil and potentially contaminating groundwater sources. According to the Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality, in 2015 alone more than 4,100 septic failures were reported to local Michigan health departments, putting burdens on homeowners or others for upgrades.

The group estimates the amount of spending required over the next two decades to overhaul the state’s water infrastructure — including residential waterlines, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure — is an additional $12.2 billion on top of existing expenditures. This works out to about $610 million in additional, essential expenditures every year.  Significant economic benefits are expected to result from this spending. Nearly 4,500 direct jobs, more than 300 indirect jobs and more than 2,900 induced jobs would be sustained each year over the 20-year period of additional expenditures. That works out to nearly 90,000 direct, full-time job-years over the next two decades. Of the $610 million in additional expenditures over the 20-year period, $441 million each year would go into the pockets of workers who are directly and indirectly involved with the overhaul of water systems, the report said.