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Wastewater Management in Detroit, Michigan

Overview of Great Lakes Wastewater Management
The Great Lakes Watershed
History of U.S. Wastewater Management
Risks and Problems
Milwaukee, WI
Chicago, IL
Detroit, MI
Citizen Groups
Rehabilitation and Action Plan

Detroit lies on the edge western edge of Lake St. Claire in eastern Michigan. It is also in very close proximity to Great Lakes Erie and Huron. All three of these lakes are connected by river systems which separate Michigan from Ontario, Canada to the east. The Detroit River is notorious for pollution, and is an area of particular concern for citizens. (expand this thought..)

Detroit utilizes five water treatment plants to filter and clean water for drinking and other municipal uses. However, it has only one wastewater treatment plant for treating runoff and sewage before it is released into the environment. This plant services the needs of a 946 square mile area including Detroit and 76 other communities (DWSD 1). The water source for Detroit is the Detroit River, situated within the watersheds of Lake St. Claire, the Clinton River, Detroit River, Rouge River, and Ecorse River in the U.S. and parts of several watersheds in Canada (Detroit Water Quality Report, 2004). According to the 2004 Water Quality Report published by the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, the Detroit River “source water intakes were determined to be highly susceptible to potential contamination. However, all four Detroit water treatment plants that use source water from the Detroit River have historically provided satisfactory treatment of this source water to meet drinking standards” (Detroit Water Quality Report, 2004). The findings of contamination susceptibility were based on a study conducted by the Michigan Public Health Institute (Detroit Water Quality Report, 2004).

According to the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, newer suburban communities have separate sewer systems, while older metropolitan areas like the inner city of Detroit have combined sewer systems (DWSD 2). Detroit, like any U.S. urban center, has many sewer overflows each year. In 2001, Wayne County (which includes Detroit) dumped over 27 Billion gallons of untreated wastewater in about 180 Combined Sewer Overflow events. In addition, the county dumped over 62 Million gallons in 34 Sanitary Sewer Overflows (Dorfman, 48-9). However, the city of Detroit is focusing its efforts at coping with and reducing the harms of sewer overflows rather than eradicating them completely. In Detroit, CSOs and SSOs are a reality that are dealt with not at the source of the problem, but rather through the use of collection and retention facilities to cope with what seems to have become an unavoidable problem.

Dealing with Sewer Overflows:

To deal with overflows in the Detroit metro area, CSO retention basins are utilized: “A CSO Retention Basin temporarily stores wastewater flow that exceeds system capacity. The basin’s contents are released to the Wastewater Treatment Plant only after overall system flow has subsided and the plant is once again able to accept it. During its brief stay in a CSO basin, wastewater is screened and treated with a strong disinfectant” (DWSD 2). The Rouge River watershed has a total of 10 such basins, three of which are owned and operated by the Detroit Water and Sewer Department (DWSD 2). The other seven are operated by other communities within the watershed.

The three basins operated by the Detroit Water and Sewer Department employ a series of technologies and methods to lessen pollution in overflow events. For instance, in some cases, basin capacity is exceeded due to successive storm flows. When this happens, a portion of the water in the basin must be released into the Rouge
River, “but only after the wastewater has been subjected to prolonged settling, screening and adequate disinfection procedures” (DWSD 2). Furthermore, “Tipping Bucket technology is used to remove solids remaining in the basin after a storm event. Large reservoirs above the basin’s floor release water that allows pumps to move the mixture along to the Wastewater Treatment Plant for processing” (DWSD 2).  

The Detroit Water and Sewer Department has been monitoring dissolved oxygen, pH, turbidity, temperature, and bacteria levels in the Detroit River before and after overflow events since the year 2000. As of 2004, the Department reported that: “The CSO plume affects 500 feet; 20% of the Detroit River width” (DWSD 3). However, despite this seemingly alarming number, “public water intakes are not impacted by DWSD CSO plume (DWSD 3). Furthermore, “bacteria levels exceed standards within the CSO discharge,” but somehow, “no adverse impact on the biological community from CSO discharge has been observed to date” (DWSD 3). The Detroit Water and Sewer Department puts a positive spin on the issue, but other reports have not been so optimistic.

According to a report published by the Citizens Environmental Alliance, the Detroit wastewater treatment plant is the largest discharger of waste water into the Detroit River, and the city fails to comply with waste discharge limits year after year (CEA).Furthermore, permits that are intended to regulate the quality of waste water from direct dischargers like the waste water treatment plant, actually allow for toxic pollutants like PCBs to be discharged daily into the river (CEA). As of 2002, the entire
Detroit River was listed as “impaired” by the US Environmental Protection Agency for three water quality criteria: PCB’s, pathogens, and mercury (Detroit River Atlas). Combined Sewer Overflows “are the main contributors to the pathogen contamination in the river” (Detroit River Atlas).

Citizen Environmental Action:

Non-profit and citizen based groups are working to improve Detroit’s wastewater management practices and improve water quality around the city. Examples of such groups include: The Citizens Environment Alliance, The Lake St. Clair Direct Drainage Area Group, The Clinton River Watershed Council, The Detroit Riverkeepers, the Combined Downriver Watershed Inter-Municipality Committee, and the Lower Huron River Watershed Inter-Municipality Committee.

The Citizens Environment Alliance of Southwestern Ontario and Southeast Michigan has been very involved in fighting against pollution of the Detroit River. A citizens guide published in the Spring of 1991 urged citizens to get involved and "take some responsibility for the daily harm to which the Detroit River ecosystem is subjected" (CEA). According to this guide, "coordinated citizens' action must go hand-in-hand with international cooperation, to preserve and restore the Detroit River ecosystem for today and the future" (CEA). The Alliance encourages citizens to 1. educate themselves about the Detroit River, and 2. express concerns to elected officials regarding the quality of the Detroit River Environment (CEA).

Satellite image of Detroit
Satellite image of Detroit, MI

detroit CSO basin
Hubbell-Southfield CSO basin, Detroit, MI

the Detroit river
The Detroit River
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