After the July 10-11 rainfall, 26.8 million gallons of treated combined sewer overflow was discharged from the Chapaton Retention Basin. Other retention basins in Macomb and Oakland counties also discharged into drains that lead to Lake St. Clair.

After the July 10-11 rainfall, 26.8 million gallons of treated combined sewer overflow was discharged from the Chapaton Retention Basin. Other retention basins in Macomb and Oakland counties also discharged into drains that lead to Lake St. Clair.

File photo by Kristyne E. Demske

Debate continues over treated combined sewer overflows into Lake St. Clair

By: Kristyne E. Demske | C&G Newspapers | Published July 24, 2020


MACOMB COUNTY — When a record rainfall of more than 2 inches hit the metro Detroit area July 10, it caused basements to back up, streets to flood and local utilities to retain — then treat and discharge what couldn’t be retained — combined sewer runoff into Lake St. Clair.

Forty percent of Michigan residents drink water that comes from Lake St. Clair, said Mike Gutow, a St. Clair Shores resident who heads a group called Save Lake St. Clair. The group is concerned with cleaning the lake of muck and high levels of E. coli.

Several days after the rain event, Save Lake St. Clair posted the results of how much treated combined sewer overflow, or CSO, had been discharged into Lake St. Clair by Oakland County, calling for pleasure boaters and swimmers to take care when using the lake to swim or fish that weekend.

Calling itself a “public service announcement,” the July 15 post stated that Oakland County reported discharging 375 million gallons of water from combined sewers that had been retained and treated into the Red Run Drain, which enters the Clinton River and ultimately flows to Lake St. Clair.

During that same rain event, according to a report of discharge filed by the Macomb County Public Works Office with the state of Michigan, there was 26.8 million gallons of discharge from the Chapaton Retention Basin and 26.2 million gallons discharged from the Martin Retention Basin. So far this year, there has been a total of 168.4 million gallons of treated runoff discharged by the Chapaton Retention Basin in Macomb County and 241 million gallons discharged from the Martin Retention Basin. The city of Warren Wastewater Treatment Plant also discharges into the Red Run Drain and flows into Lake St. Clair, and it has discharged a total of 39.5 million gallons in 2020 — twice in January and once in July — some of which were diluted raw sewage.

The city of Warren is in the process of building a new detention basin and force main to prevent the discharges from occurring.

The post continued, “Oakland has now officially dumped over 1.5 billion gallons of combined sewage overflows into Lake St. Clair already in 2020 with no recourse or action to help clean the shoreline. We are only seven months into the year.”

The total discharge by Macomb County for 2020 is 448.9 million gallons.

“They will say a dumping has occurred, and they won’t report the numbers, and that makes a big difference if you’re going to the lake or not,” Gutow said.

Gutow said there is a delay between when the discharge occurs and when it is reported, which could have a big impact on the quality of the lake when pleasure boaters or swimmers try to use it.

The Macomb County Health Department tests beaches at Lake St. Clair Metropark and St. Clair Shores Veterans Memorial Beach on Mondays and Wednesdays through September, but if the beach was tested on a Wednesday and a large rain event happened to lead to a treated CSO discharge on a Thursday, recreational users of the lake might not know there could be higher levels of E. coli closer to shore near the end of the drains.

“You might not get the results back right away, and also, the wind direction can change how everything flows on the lake really quick,” he said. “If we have an eastern wind that pushes it all to shore, that changes a lot of the dynamics of it.”

Gary Nigro, chief engineer with the Oakland County Water Resources Commission, said the county’s permitted treated discharge of CSO does travel down the Red Run Drain into Lake St. Clair.

The WRC released about 520 million gallons in 2019, 1.6 billion in 2018, 1.1 billion in 2017, 1.5 billion in 2016, 600 million in 2015 and then 2.5 billion in 2014, 2 billion of which occurred in a single rain event Aug. 11, 2014.

“It all depends on the amount of rainfall that falls in a particular year,” he said. “It’s very cyclical.”

Fourteen cities in southeast Oakland County have a combined sanitary and storm sewer system, he said.

“The rainfall dictates how much is discharged from the facilities,” Nigro explained. “It meets the clean water standards of the state of Michigan and the federal government.”

Oakland County hasn’t had an untreated combined sewage overflow discharge in more than 30 years, he said. Instead, what it releases is a permitted treated discharge of water that cannot be held in the George W. Kuhn drainage district.

Dan Heaton, of the Macomb County Public Works Office, explained that a retention basin works by holding water during a rain event until it can be released back into the sewer system. So for example, during the July 10 rains, the Chapaton Retention Basin held 30 million gallons, but there wasn’t room to hold the remaining 26 million gallons. The 26 million gallons was treated as permitted and then released, or discharged, into Lake St. Clair.

In Macomb County, the cities of Eastpointe and Roseville and about a quarter of the city of St. Clair Shores have combined sanitary and storm sewers. Most of the remainder of the county has separated the two sewer systems.

Gutow said the alternative to discharging in the lake is for sewage backups in the basements of residents’ homes. Unfortunately, it happens even with the discharges, he said.

“We have the tools and the resources and the people capable to change this whole thing from happening, yet we never do anything because it’s more convenient and people say it costs too much to change over,” he said.

The city of St. Clair Shores received 60 reports from residents whose homes experienced water backed up into the basement from the July 10-11 rainstorm, according to City Manager Matthew Coppler.

“It looks like some of the properties, their system was overwhelmed by water and wasn’t able to get out to the sanitary sewer,” he said at the July 20 St. Clair Shores City Council meeting.

Compounding the problem is that some homes have sewer leads running from their home that are clogged by tree roots or other debris. St. Clair Shores Department of Public Works Director Bryan Babcock said the best way to protect a home from sewage backups is to dig up the old clay lead line and have it replaced with a line that includes a six-inch cleanout. But before a yard is completely dug up, Babcock recommends residents call DPW for advice.

“I’ve worked with a lot of residents. A lot of times we’ve said, bring your video to us,” he told City Council. “A lot of times with frequent cleanings, you can take care of the problem. You don’t have to replace the sewer lead.

“If you get it cleaned every single year, it’s not a big problem. It’s a good way to protect your house.”

Gutow said not fixing the CSO problem isn’t really saving anyone money  — it’s just putting the burden on the homeowners.

“How many houses have always backed up? That costs millions and millions of dollars to fix all of this every time this happens,” he said. “We’re on trend, we’re going to dump 2.5 billions of sewage overflows if we (continue) on pace. Every year, it seems to be getting worse and worse.”

Nigro said the WRC is working closely with communities in southeast Oakland County to promote the installation of green infrastructure to mitigate runoff in rain events.

“It’s possible we can help control the amount of runoff that leaves everyone’s sites from the rain event,” he said. “There’s climatologists coming that are saying there are going to be more rain events coming and more intense rain events.”

The system is only designed to carry so much capacity, he said, so when basements back up or a discharge occurs, “there’s this perception that something must have failed, and that’s not the case.”

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller’s office has a permit pending with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, to reduce discharges at the Chapaton Retention Basin by about 75% by adding 30 million gallons of retention.

“This would be a huge step forward in improving water quality not only in Lake St. Clair, but in the entire lower Great Lakes system,” Miller said. “We have been waiting almost a year for EGLE to approve this permit. Meanwhile, we continue to discharge CSOs. EGLE has stated that they intend to deny the permit, even though it has been endorsed, unanimously, by the St. Clair Shores City Council and the Macomb County Board of Commissioners. It is beyond disappointing that the state agency charged with protecting our water quality says discharging treated sewage into the lake is OK by them.”

Heaton said if the project was already completed, Chapaton would not have discharged at all during the July 10-11 rain event. He also pointed out that Oakland County discharges more than the three Macomb County entities combined into Lake St. Clair.

Gutow said he understands the water has been treated, but he also questions the safety of putting it in the lake.

“Would you be willing to send your kids into a pool of treated sewage water? Would you let your dog drink out of a treated sewage pond?” he asked. “Look at what the cost is on the citizens dealing with this every time it rains.”