Madison HeightsJune 14, 2012
‘We’re here to protect Lake St. Clair’
By Andy Kozlowski
C & G Staff Writer
MADISON HEIGHTS — It’s a bit eerie at the bottom of the George W. Kuhn Retention Treatment Basin.
Rows of pillars tower over you, casting shadows from a suspended light that exposes only the immediate area. The rest is veiled in darkness. Cool and musky, the basin is cave-like, miles long, deep underground and encased in concrete. Warner Bros. even considered it for the villain’s lair in the new Batman movie.
In heavy rain, it’s deep underwater, and its access staircase is half-submerged. The largest filtering facility in North America, GWK has screens several stories tall. The screens rotate rakes up and down, carrying debris to a trough upstairs. There, in a warmly lit corridor, one can peer over bright yellow railings into the dizzying depths below.
“It’s like going to the moon,” said John Stange, supervisor of GWK and three other basins in Oakland County under the jurisdiction of the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office. “When you’re here during a heavy rain, it sounds like lions roaring,” as water first hits the structure.
It’s then that the basin’s all-important work begins.
“We’re here to protect Lake St. Clair,” Stange said.
In the nearly 40 years it’s existed, GWK has prevented billions of gallons of raw untreated sewage from reaching the Great Lakes via Lake St. Clair. Its sole purpose is to keep the Great Lakes, one-fifth of the world’s freshwater supply, clean and pristine.
In dry weather, runoff from 27 square miles across 14 communities is routed to the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant via a pipe at 12 Mile and Stephenson. When heavy rain causes sewage (over 90 percent storm water) to exceed capacity to Detroit, the excess flow tops a weir and is diverted to the 2.2-mile-long GWK basin. Here the solid waste is thoroughly separated and the water pumped back to Detroit.
If the volume is so high that it tops the second weir, the excess is disinfected by carefully controlled amounts of sodium hypochlorite, similar to swimming pool chlorine or household bleach. The chemical is dispensed through plastic pipes and titanium pumps connected to eight tanks in a secure room, with each tank holding 18,000 gallons.
From there the water, now clean, heads toward Dequindre. If it tops the third weir, it’s back to Lake St. Clair via the Red Run Drain, a tributary of the Clinton River at Hayes and Utica. And from there it’s off to the Great Lakes.
Before the basin went live in 1974, discharges went straight to the lake, unfiltered and untreated. GWK originally cost $30 million to build, paid for by federal funds and revenue generated by the GWK Drainage District, which serves Berkley, Birmingham, Clawson, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Madison Heights, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak, Southfield and Troy, plus the charter townships of Royal Oak and Village of Beverly Hills. An expansion in the early 2000s and in-system upgrades cost an additional $127 million.
Now it can handle three million gallons of water per minute, with the 16 fine screens (one-half-inch openings) and four emergency screens (two-inch openings) filtering out paper, rubber, rocks, organic matter and more, so that the water can be chemically treated.
“We’re the last line of defense between combined sewage and the Great Lakes,” Stange said. “We take a lot of pride in our work, and we’re dedicated here to ensuring that everything operates as it should.”
This is achieved, in part, with state-of-the-art technology that has attracted visitors from as far away as Mumbai, India.
Everything is monitored from GWK’s administrative facility at 1400 Ajax in Madison Heights, a red brick building among rolling green hills. In the control room, seven computer monitors track all activity at GWK and the three smaller basins in Birmingham and Beverly Hills. They also keep tabs on the weather and can be accessed by Stange remotely.
It’s intricate work, dealing with water levels that fluctuate by the minute, taking frequent samples at both ends of the treatment pipeline to make sure the right amount of chemicals are being applied: enough to disinfect while leaving only minimal residue. The heavy rain seems to hit most often past midnight, requiring some odd hours. At most, only a half-dozen people run the facility.
After a rain event, when the sewer levels are dropping, a powerful pumping system purges the basin of water, at which point the priority becomes cleaning the structure for the next event. This involves special plow vehicles to move solid waste, and cycling in four million gallons of fresh water to clean out the basin over an eight-hour day.
There are also two auxiliary generators to ensure operations continue in the event of a power outage, and odor control apparatus to neutralize any foul smells.
“It’s such an impressive facility,” marveled Gary Nigro, a basin operations engineer. “It’s a benchmark for retention treatment basins around the world. Consultants across the country catch wind of it and ask, ‘Can I come and see this basin,’ because there’s nothing else quite like it. When they try to design similar facilities in their own communities, this is the one they come to see how it’s done correctly.”
The positive impact can be seen right outside. Lush and green, the banks of the Red Run Drain teem with life, everything from pheasants to foxes. It wasn’t always this way.
“My father grew up in Warren,” Nigro said. “He can recall when he was a kid walking along the banks of the Red Run Drain, seeing toilet paper way up in the trees. That drain is normally a foot or two deep, but when you get a big storm the water can get 20 feet high. Back then, any combined sewage would flow right down Red Run Drain before the basin was built. It was a big cesspool.
“But that’s not the case anymore,” Nigro said. “You can walk along the Red Run Drain today and see an abundance of wildlife — lots of turtles and even beavers. There are all kinds to see.”
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