Detroit, Flint, Guest Post — April 25, 2017 at 6:54 am

Detroit’s water system and the roots of the Flint Water Crisis


The following guest post was written by Dennis L. Green, a retired certified Professional Engineer from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). Dennis graduated from Cass Technical High School’s Electrical program in 1963 and received his Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Lawrence Tech in 1969. After graduation, Dennis went to work for the Detroit Water Department, Engineering Division where he began as a Junior Engineer and worked his way up to Head Water Systems Engineer for Facilities Design. He served on the AWWA Technical Advisory Workgroup for communications and designed the new wholesale metering system that ended the rate suits and won the HART Controls Foundation international 2003 Plant of the Year award for his groundbreaking application of their data protocol. In July of 2000, Mayor Archer delegated his emergency powers from the order issued by Federal Judge John Feikens to him in order to mitigate the loss of 3/5 of the secondary treatment at the wastewater treatment plant from a fire in an electrical building. Dennis wrote to me, “Engineers are judged by their failures. Success is taken for granted. We were facing a year of $25,000 daily fines, but I managed to avoid them, so you never heard of me.”

The opinions expressed in the following essay are those of Dennis. It’s a compelling story that sheds a great deal of light on the history of the DWSD and the role that history has played in creating the collective shame that has come to be known as the Flint Water Crisis. It’s particularly important on this, the three-year anniversary of Flint’s switch to the Flint River for its drinking water. That decision, made by Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointed Emergency Manager, led to the poisoning of the city’s drinking water with the powerful, colorless, odorless, flavorless neurotoxin lead.


Journalists have examined the Flint water crisis from many angles but all too myopic to see the root cause. The severity of the event in Flint leads to the assumption that its cause is as unique as its scope. That’s not true. The incidents, actually the multiple incidents, in Macomb County, as well as the EPA violations of the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant that led to federal intervention, all have a common root cause. To understand why we have so many unnecessary failures of our water services, we must review the history of DWSD.

In the beginning, there was the Detroit Water Department. The municipal system was created in the 1800’s because private suppliers were failing to deliver safe drinking water. In the 1950’s, as Detroit overflowed its borders, suburban growth was too much for local wells. With no access to good water sources or the financial strength of bond major projects, the suburbs turned to Detroit. Through the expansion into the suburbs, the Detroit Water Department retained its focus on quality of service. It was run by a Chief Engineer who had civil service tenure and who was required to hold a Professional Engineer’s license (PE) from the state of Michigan. A PE license requires an oath to protect the public health and safety. Similar to the tradition of the federal government, an appointed Board of Water Commissioners (BOWC) provided oversight and a balance of power to the executive. Tenure allowed the Chief Engineer to stand up to political mischief in conducting business in accordance with his oath without retribution, and the BOWC made sure he didn’t lose sight of political realities in expansion and investment.

In the mid 1950’s Detroit was outgrowing its treatment facilities, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) was predicting a megalopolis from Detroit to Port Huron, and air raid drills has kids practicing “duck and cover” for fear of nuclear attack as the Cold War heated up. Detroit was looking for another source of water, and they wanted it to be north of the polluting chemical plants in Sarnia and far enough from the likely ground zero of a nuclear attack, the Rouge industrial area, to survive. Concurrently, Flint was similarly outgrowing the capacity of the Flint River and was looking for another source. The Genesee County Drain Commissioner fought to build their own system, but he lost out to the engineering and economic advantages of joining with Detroit. (Neither did it help their cause when a bribery scandal broke out in their drain commission.)

When I joined the Engineering Division of the Detroit Water Department in 1969, Detroit Water people sat on many of the committees of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), which writes the national standards for the industry. On my first day, my supervisor proudly showed me catalogs that bragged about meeting “Detroit” standards and offered “Detroit” model valves and hydrants for those who wanted the best products rather than AWWA minimum specifications. During my first week, I witnessed visitors from as far away as Japan touring the department to learn about our methods. I later learned that the Northeast Water Treatment Plant had been designed entirely in-house except for one architect, whose job was to make sure its appearance was not overly Spartan.

The advent of the EPA triggered an enormous expansion of the wastewater system, and the stress of designing an entire water treatment plant (some employees struggled to re-adapt to a normal wage after years of overtime on the water plant project) led to a decision to employ consultants for the Wastewater Treatment system expansion and the new Lake Huron Water Treatment Plant. In the early 1970s, the Capital Improvement Plan annual budget of Detroit’s water and sewerage projects was approaching a billion dollars, and the contracting that involved presented a temptation politicians could not resist. The Charter Revision Commission re-created the Detroit Water Department as the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD) in the new Detroit City Charter in 1974. Although both DWSD and Public Lighting Department formerly had similar structures, the PE mandate was removed only for DWSD, but the Chief Engineer was replaced by a Director nominated by the mayor. With mayor appointing the majority of the BOWC, the approval of the nomination was a foregone conclusion. The idea of the board choosing the CEO was rationalized with the tired old excuse that “We should run it like a business.”

I mentioned that the BOWC majority was appointed by the mayor. Three of the seven represented Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties. The largest customer of DWSD, Flint was overlooked. There was some interest in fixing the problem during the Archer administration, but the political motivation to finish the job was missing. Detroit could ignore Flint because they were bound by a 50-year agreement. Flint paid for the portion of the pipeline to carry Lake Huron water from the county line into Genesee County, and that agreement also gave it exclusive rights to DWSD water for the entire county. Flint was operating as miniature DWSD selling water to its suburbs. The added markups did not go unnoticed by the Genesee Country Drain Commissioner who lost the bid to control the county’s water supply. Since Flint’s rates were derived by a formula, DWSD staff always thought their accusations of gouging were a deflection from their own markups.

Coleman Young was the first mayor to appoint a DWSD Director, and it didn’t take long before water services became a means to an end instead of the mission of the department. Young’s obsession was affirmative action, and unable to compete with the auto industry for talent, Detroit turned to quotas. A large complicated bureaucracy was built to enforce those quota which devastated efficiency. Performance suffered as it became merely an obstacle to deal with on the way to goals for Local Economic Development (LED), as it ultimately was called. Instead of money laundering, we had identity laundering: Millions of dollars’ worth of equipment was purchased through brokers to put a Detroit address and a minority name on sellers adding compounding markups. (A typical example was the cancellation of substation transformer purchase from Westinghouse bid at roughly $48,000. The same transformer was then purchased through a Detroit-based minority-owned janitor supply company for roughly $76,000.) Then, austerity-forced cross-the-board cutbacks for staffing in Detroit made it impossible to get contracts through the Human Rights Department before the bid expired. Contractors soon realized that attending fundraisers allowed them to make friends in high places that could expedite donor’s paperwork when called, and the ensuing extortion system sent one mayor to prison (others just weren’t caught). The cost of complying with escalating EPA regulations and double-digit inflation created a perfect storm for rates, and the suburbs declared war. Neglect of the metering systems made suburban charges a wild guess, with the emphasis on wild, so the suburbs sued claiming overcharging. The rates were the excuse, but the real motive was the fight for the patronage. Detroit was never more than 25% of the retail customer base, but it was demanding from 40% to as much as 80% of the contracts, plus 100% of the staffing until residency was abolished by the state. Even when the metering issues were resolved, the fight continued with the ultimate victory in the formation of the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA). Interestingly, when the meters were fixed, some of the loudest critics were found to have been under-charged.

Meanwhile, the tail was wagging the dog in Flint. Genesee Country, through it’s drain commission, was gaining dominance over Flint and protesting the lack of a backup source of water. The water main to Flint was aging, but the second source was never built due to a combination of tight budgets and a lack of the development (i.e., customers to share the cost) along the route predicted by SEMCOG. The lack of response by DWSD opened the door to the creation of the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA). KWA’s proposals went through several iterations, but no matter who did the engineering, every version either failed economically or operationally. When Flint’s contract with DWSD expired, DWSD made a final offer that beat the rates claimed by KWA in the latest report, but they declined. One, they had already invested millions and would have to default on the bonds, and two, the battle was really about control, i.e., patronage, in the name of serving their customers. (Two consultants were hired by DWSD to review their reports. The first called it fraud. The second, instructed to take an optimistic look, called it debatable and lacking details on aspects delegated to their customers.) The cost of their pipeline was a third of the one proposed by DWSD, and that was enough to distract everyone’s attention from the fact that KWA’s plan failed to deal with the second source issue merely replacing one vulnerable system with another. They had claimed that the DWSD system would be their backup, but that is not feasible either from an engineering or economic perspective. Water cannot remain potable sitting stagnant in the pipe, there’s no place to dump such a large quantity to flush it, and DWSD is not going to pay to maintain a system that is idle producing no revenue. The KWA system has no present or future plan to address backup, which was the rationalization for its creation! Governor Snyder signed off on the plan without any independent vetting.

I must digress for a bit: One of my projects in the late 1970’s was a metering facility to connect to a new interceptor sewer on 15 Mile Road at Hayes. There was a lot of ground water in the excavation, so the contractor left the de-watering pumps running over the weekend unattended. The pumps caught up and then some, extracting sand from below the sewer causing it to collapse. The shifting pipe opened the next seam allowing sand into the pipe causing it to zipper open for hundreds of feet. Lining the pipe would cost more and reduce its ultimate capacity, so DWSD opted for frequent diligent maintenance of the joins to prevent sand from flowing in. LED costs were dramatic for DWSD projects. (I presented evidence of them as much as tripling total projects costs to the City Council.) You can’t eliminate chemicals or energy costs. You can’t miss bond payments. All you can do to hold down rates, which were being set by political fiat rather than accounting calculations, is cut people, especially maintenance because the effect take time to show up, and run up debt sending the bills to the next administration. A maintenance personnel deficit becomes a work deficit. Lack of inspection probably led to the first collapse but certainly played a part in the second one. That maintenance failure was the rationalization for the Macomb County commissioner to step in to purchase and take over. DWSD put up token opposition, but there was much laughter in the halls of DWSD when they paid for a system that was not producing enough revenue to cover its maintenance costs. Did they raise the rate and do the maintenance to prevent another collapse? The evidence says that they did not.

When you analyze the Macomb interceptor collapse or the Flint water crisis (which is more than just the lead problem) following the decision tree from the disaster all the way back to the first bad decision, it always is a case of patronage putting the customers’ interests secondary or worse. When Detroit water was run by an engineer sworn to protect the public health and welfare, it led the industry with a worldwide reputation. When turned into the DWSD obsessed with patronage, it became a laughingstock in a few short years simply by changing the top leader who promptly gaged and hamstrung the engineers and accountants. The GLWA is built on the same failed model as DWSD with the ultimate power in the hands of political appointees answerable to politicians with agendas beyond water services. Eventually, I expect it to degenerate in the same manner once the heat to perform is off. No credible experts give KWA a chance of benefitting its customers. If you examine any successful water authority, the common element is accountability directly to the customers. Commingling water revenues or authority with other divisions of government opens the door to diversion of funds to unrelated agendas. In my opinion, because water is essential to life, it is immoral to tax it for other purposes either directly or indirectly through making contractors jump through hoops to score political points. Another reason for the independence of water authorities is that engineering an efficient system requires adapting to the terrain, which seldom follows the arbitrary lines politicians draw on maps.

The Flint River

In Michigan, you cannot get a permit to build a bridge or a building without submitting plans sealed by a PE to ensure the safety for the people using it. A PE is liable and can be sued and their license revoked, which is not a perfect guarantee against negligence or corruption, but it’s as good an incentive as any. Strangely, if that building is a water treatment plant, there is no similar requirement for certifying the safety of its product. A governor cannot waive the seal requirement on the plans for a bridge, but he can and did approve the construction of the KWA. The MDEQ (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) basically is a law enforcement agency that has been delegated the authority to enforce environmental laws and regulations. A Chief Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court without a law license or degree would be unthinkable, but a MDEQ Director with neither a license nor degree in chemistry or engineering was routine with a lobbyist deciding the fate of the people of Flint. After much thought, I’ve concluded that the only way to protect the interests of the customers of our water authorities is by:

  1. Divorcing water authorities from other divisions of government (to prevent diversion of funds to unrelated agendas).
  2. The customers voting on the choice for the CEO (to provide direct accountability but with the tenure of the election cycle to prevent hasty decisions).
  3. The customers voting on the water authority to serve them on as small a political division as practical, most likely by local precinct (so that people on opposite sides of the street that is a political boundary don’t pay different rates and unnecessarily pay for redundant pipes just to separate the billing).

As long as decisions regarding the health and safety of the people are made by politicians not accountable to the affected parties, more sewage spills, sinkholes and poisoned water is inevitable.