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Partially treated sewage flows into Lake St. Clair as Macomb Co. prepares to spend $30M

Posted at 5:44 PM, May 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-02 10:20:06-04

CLINTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WXYZ) — Early Wednesday morning a number of municipalities began tracking millions of gallons of partially treated sewage that is being released and will ultimately make it’s way into Lake St. Clair — the same place more than half of locals receive their drinking water.

It’s a decades-old problem that is common knowledge to those who understand the flaws antiquated pipes pose for older Michigan communities. Despite those who are aware, including stakeholders in office, little has been done.

“Oh, it breaks my heart,” said Mike Gutow, the founder of Save Lake St. Clair, told 7 Action News Reporter Matthew Smith

Gutow is one of the biggest advocates fighting to clean up the lake that he grew up on. He brought 7 Action News to Harrison Township early Wednesday morning, where despite flooding, it doesn’t appear like water is reaching the break wall — it’s not because water is low, sludge from partially treated sewer dumps have created a marsh-like structure the length of two football fields.

“Our sewage overflows feed the algae growth, feed everything else — that washes into here,” said Gutow. “This has been tested by the state to be proven this does contain human waste.”

The waste Gutow is pointing out is part of what’s known as a combined-sewer overflow event. In Michigan the same sewer system that handles what you flush down toilets, shower drains and kitchen sinks also handles rain water. When flooding overflows the system, municipalities have two options: 1) dump partially treated sewer water downstream 2) allow basements to flood.

While neither option is ideal, the sound choice is to direct water to lakes and streams. Other options exist, but they cost millions of dollars. Some municipalities have spent millions of dollars to separate their sewer system from rain water collection, the other option — which is cheaper — is to create storage facilities for the water to be held until it can eventually be treated.

“We can’t keep dumping sewage,” said Candice Miller, the Macomb County Public Works Director. “We have to take care of ourselves. We have to be clean about this.”

Miller has quietly been working on a “fix” to Macomb County’s combined sewer system. The idea is to add an extra 30 million gallons of capacity to the county’s water treatment facility located at 9 Mile and Jefferson at what’s known as the “Chapaton Retention Treatment Basin.”

According to Miller, there is hope to begin construction by mid-2020. Design work has already been done to show how a two-prong approach would work.

The first step involves lengthening and widening the basin that currently holds back stormwater and sanitary sewer water from entering Lake St. Clair — the current basin holds 28 million, phase I would add 15 million gallons of capacity by creating a wetlands with gates that can hold back water during major water events.

The second phase includes a series of gates that would be added to current underground sewer pipes that will allow the county to control the flow. Research by the Macomb County Public Works team found that during high water events the pipes are seldom reaching capacity. By creating a gate that could close to slow the flow of water would allow them to hold an extra 15 million gallon, and bring the entire project up to 30 million gallons.

It’s not a complete fix. Miller contends that for $30 million they can cut roughly 75-percent of the partially treated waters they dump into the lake. However, a sewer separation would cost even more money. Miller told 7 Action News that she's already working to find sources of money ranging from federal grants to county money -- she's alrady got $3 million pledge from the state legislature, but is hoping to find more funding sources so the bulk doesn't fall to rate payers. That said, it won’t stop the dumping of other communities that ultimately send their water to Lake St. Clair.

She points out that the water Oakland County dumps on them is “two-and-a-half times worse than what we dump,” also pointing out they dumped 1.6 billion gallons last year, compared to Macomb County’s 350 million.

Asked whether cleaning up their own backyard is part of a strategy to convince others to join the fight, she said that MDEQ should consider changing rules on what’s legal to dump. Quickly adding that she too sees the issues with what their own communities have failed to fix.

“I’m not sitting here pointing the finger and saying you guys are bad, and we’re good,” said Miller. “We don’t have clean hands. I’m totally aware of that. That’s why I ran for this position. We don’t have to live this way. We don’t. We shouldn’t.”

As for Gutow, he told 7 Action News he applauds the steps being taken. He’d rather see something than nothing, but he also pointed out that movement by Macomb County can’t lead people to think the problem is fixed.

“Is the money worth it for $30 million to stop whatever they can stop from flowing into the lake?” he asked. “Absolutely. Is that the fix? No. It’s not. We still will need to do more to save this lake.”