Can a stormwater study help Metro Detroit communities get along?

A new study is looking for ways to promote regional stormwater cooperation in southeast Michigan, where floods in 2014 and 2021 caused more than a billion dollars in damage in each instance.

There’s a “clear consensus the stormwater issue is getting worse,” said Carol Miller, director of Wayne State’s Healthy Urban Waters program. According to the 4th National Climate Assessment, extreme rainfall and flooding are likely among the most serious impacts of climate change in the Midwest.

Miller and colleagues from the University of Michigan and Michigan State University are working on the Michigan Center for Freshwater Innovation study. The goal is to see how flooding could be mitigated by pooling resources, especially land, which might be used to sequester stormwater and reduce the pressure on regional sewer systems during heavy rains.

The Great Lakes Water Authority and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department will be helping investigators with surveys and data gathering. Researchers will also be hosting listening sessions and bringing community members into advisory committees to produce a plan for local governments and utilities, which they expect to have completed within the next two years.

This effort could help communities move past the sometimes-bitter infighting that Miller says is “to be expected” for a system as large as the one served by the GLWA. 

In April 2022, several communities in Macomb County threatened to withhold payment to GLWA because of Highland Park’s water debts, which they said were inflating their own costs. And Warren Mayor Jim Fouts said in December 2022 that he was considering building a “dam” or “blockade” at the city’s border to stop sewage discharges from coming down the Red Run Drain from neighboring Oakland County.

Miller says an important part of the Center’s work will be mapping land for future stormwater projects, looking at vegetation, soil type, planned development, existing sewer pipes, and legacy pollution that could be released if the ground is disturbed. 

These maps can then be used to find sites for either green infrastructure, like retention ponds and rain gardens, which slow water movement into sewers to prevent flooding, or gray infrastructure, such as storm sewers or underground reservoirs.

Several recent stormwater catchment projects along the Rouge River are part of an effort to reduce basement and roadway flooding on Detroit’s west side. But Miller says that projects in more “upstream” areas outside of Detroit could do more to keep precipitation out of the system. 

These could help prevent flooding and sewer overflows when combined sewer and stormwater systems like Detroit’s receive too much water and discharge untreated or partially treated sewage into waterways. A 2022 Erb Family Foundation study supports Miller’s conclusion, finding that green infrastructure in metro Detroit may make the most sense in outlying areas.

Upstream solutions could also give the city better choices when dealing with combined sewage and stormwater. For example, Bryan Peckinpaugh, spokesperson for the DWSD, recently told Planet Detroit that the city’s plan for a “relief sewer” on the east side of Detroit would send untreated, combined sewage directly into the Detroit River. This would keep it out of basements, which would pose a serious public health threat, but send it into waterways, where it also presents a serious public health threat.

Yet, it may take a trusted authority to get communities to a point where they can move past their conflicts to work towards solutions that benefit the entire “sewershed” or drainage area that flows into the regional systems.

“I do believe that it’s very important that there is an identified champion… that has the respect of communities involved in these decision-making efforts,” Miller said.

Although the GLWA and Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) perform this function in some ways by mobilizing regional resources and setting rules, Miller suggests that a new agency may be needed to build a consensus for the best path forward on stormwater management.

This entity might resemble the International Joint Commission, where Miller serves on the Science Advisory Board. This quasi-governmental organization has operated since 1909, marshaling resources in the U.S. and Canada to address cross-border issues like Great Lakes water quality and air pollution. Appointed commissioners operate independently of their national governments and traditionally work by consensus.

“I think the IJC has been very successful because of the long-term vision and not steeped in any four-year or two-year political leadership,” Miller said. “People know that they can count on it and not worry about ‘oh, in two more years, we have different political leadership, and it’s going to change again.’”


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