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Water resources commissioner warns of aging infrastructure

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published July 23, 2019

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HAZEL PARK — During a presentation at the Hazel Park District Library July 8 and July 11, Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash spoke about how clean drinking water is supplied and delivered, and how his office handles sewage and stormwater runoff.

He also shared his concerns about the region’s aging water systems, which by most estimates are well past their prime. 

“I speak to the public because the better all citizens understand how our water and sewer infrastructure works, and how it protects our health and environment, the more they will be willing to make the necessary repairs to ensure we have a sustainable system for generations to come,” Nash said after the event. “The reason I have partnered with area libraries is because they are in the information business. They have a significant place in most communities as a center for learning.”

Communities like Hazel Park and Madison Heights feature some of the oldest water and sewer infrastructure in Oakland County. Most of the structures are located underground, and many of them are between 70 and 100 years old. 

In the last four years, the county’s Water Resources Commission, or WRC, conducted an asset management program that used remote-controlled, closed-circuit cameras to analyze the condition of underground infrastructure. Several issues were identified and addressed. The WRC now claims that the overall system at the George W. Kuhn Drain — which includes a sewer detention treatment basin in Madison Heights, purifying water before it reaches Lake St. Clair — is in excellent shape.

However, concerns remain about the system’s longevity. And this is an issue not only in Oakland County, but across the United States, where the national water infrastructure investment gap — which refers to the level of investment now, versus the estimated actual cost of needed repairs and replacements to the water system — numbers around $82 billion. 

“In Pontiac alone, we have a significant majority of the underground water and sewer infrastructure between 80 and 120 years old, with some even older. Investments are needed, but often the most investments are needed in the communities least able to afford them,” Nash said. “Affordability is a serious issue on water, and we must pay attention to that as we address our long-term infrastructure needs.” 

The history of his office is a long one. Before it was called the Water Resources Commission, the WRC was known as the County Drain Commission, created by state law in the late 1800s because Michigan was mostly low-lying country that stayed wet too long to raise crops. 

That’s why the state stepped in, creating local authorities that built drains to lower the water levels so that crops could be grown without flooding downstream properties. The water would instead be diverted to local bodies of water, and eventually the Great Lakes, with properties being charged by how much stormwater they contribute. 

In 2009, Oakland County changed the title from Drain Commission to Water Resources Commission because offices in large counties like Oakland County provide many more services than just drains. The WRC currently has 370 employees and a budget of over $400 million, making it the largest office of its kind in the state, overseeing more than 300 drains across 18 communities, and also working on erosion control around construction sites and open land, as well as maintaining sewer interceptor systems in several regions, plus three sewer treatment plants and four combined storm/sanitary sewer storage and treatment basins. 

Developing ways to improve environmental protection regarding drinking water, waste disposal and stormwater programs are key responsibilities of the WRC, which also has staff on more than 50 lake improvement boards across the county, operating and maintaining court-ordered lake levels on 54 lakes in all.

To keep a good thing going, sound infrastructure is needed.   

“When these facilities were built, often in the very early 1900s, the technology and materials of these pipes, pumps and tanks were expected to last about 50 years. We are well past that period, and now we are dealing with that in many ways,” Nash said. “The new systems we are building use improved technologies, construction, operations and maintenance, so now they have a life expectancy of 75 to 100 years. 

“Overall, many of our suburban communities have newer water infrastructure because Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department expanded services in recent years,” he continued. “Some of our long-settled communities — like Detroit, Pontiac or southeast Oakland cities — have more significantly old infrastructure. As I said, the poorer communities — often de-industrialized cities — have not been able to keep up that infrastructure as well as the wealthier communities.” 

Tim Young, the water/sewer superintendent for the city of Hazel Park, said he was pleased that his city’s local library could host Nash’s presentation.

“Mr. Nash chose our city, Hazel Park, to share with our residents his experiences and challenges we face in this utility industry. The presentation topics had well-organized information that was easy to follow and understand. Even I — an 18-year veteran of the water and sewer industry — learned something new,” Young said. “The WRC has been a pleasure to work with over the years due to its leadership and dedicated employees.”

Randy Ernst-Meyer, the adult and teen librarian for Hazel Park, said that while it’s clear there are infrastructure issues, he feels reassured that the WRC is on top of things.

“Mr. Nash made it very clear what his office is doing to protect our drinking water, sewage and water runoff,” Ernst-Meyer said. “All in all, this was a very interesting evening.”

Call Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at (586) 279-1104.