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2010-03-25 / News

Drain commissioner talks up water pipeline

BY ROBERTO ACOSTA

Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright shows a copy of the report which recmmends a pipeline be built to bring water to Genesee County. Photo by Roberto Acosta Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright shows a copy of the report which recmmends a pipeline be built to bring water to Genesee County. Photo by Roberto Acosta GENESEE COUNTY — Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright says local residents stand at a “crossroads” concerning a $600 million-plus water pipeline.

“Either we enter a 30-year contract with Detroit and have them set the rates or build our own system and have control,” he said during a question and answer session at his office.

Wright said the Genesee County Drain Commission — Division of Waste and Water Services purchased the 230 acres of property along Lake Huron in Sanilac County in 2002 to build a 65-mile-long pipeline stretching from Lake Huron to Flint. Eighty-five million gallons of water would be drawn from the lake into pumping station and to an inland reservoir.

Pipelines would supply water to treatment facilities for Flint, GCDC-WWS and the Greater Lapeer County Utilities Authority. Microfiltration treatment is planned for Sanilac County and the GLCUA.

A new treatment plant also is planned for the GCDCWWS, while raw lake water is expected to be delivered and treated at Flint’s existing plant. Information on the plan is available at www.karegnondi. com.

Wright said the total cost with engineering, construction, capitalized interest on money borrowed for the project, 1,000 workers to build the pipeline over three years and 30 employees to help monitor it 30 years into the future will come to around $1.4 billion. He said costs would break down along the percentage of water use by each area, with the largest chunks of funds originating from Genesee County (40 percent) and the city of Flint (38 percent). The cost if communities were to sign a new 30-year contract with Detroit would amount to $2.4 billion, Wright said.

The timing of this new pipeline is based on cost, reliability of the water system and economic feasibility for the area into the future, Wright said, as Detroit will build their own new water system with the money it receives from the city of Flint and outlying counties.

He said Detroit recently added $4 billion in capital costs for their own maintenance and a potential new pipeline over the next 30 years.

“Detroit will not build a pipeline, unless we agree to a new contract,” he said. “It’ll cost twice as much to our customers.”

With the building of the pipeline, Wright said water rates would increase around $5 to $7 a month over the next five years for local residents, but would increase $12- 15 a month over the same time period with a new 30- year contract with Detroit. He also said in 25 years, while Detroit’s rate continued to increase, the local water rates would fall 68 percent with a new pipeline.

Wright said a pipeline would initially reach 250,000 homes and businesses in the Karegnondi Water Authority, consisting of the city of Flint, as well as the counties of Genesee, Lapeer and Sanilac. He said there is the potential to reach more than 500,000 residents overall. He said Sanilac County agreed to move into the authority due to high arsenic and other toxic material in their water supply which services its communities by wells.

The idea of a water pipeline is not a new idea, Wright said, with discussions in one form or another for the past 30 years. He stated the reason it has become feasible is the continued increase in rates to the community. Wright said water costs went from $8 million a year in 2001 to $25 million in 2009, a 127 percent increase or 12.7 percent annually.

“That $25 million annually will pay for the construction of that new water system,” he said, adding the city of Flint and Genesee County use 10 percent of the water of 104 communities using Detroit’s water, but pay 20 percent of the costs.

Wright said the area is being priced out of bringing new technology and other jobs into the area with the prices they are being charged for water. He said Detroit customers pay $6 for 1,000 cubic feet of water, compared to $16.85 for residents in Genesee County.

He stated he’s pushed several ideas before the city of Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department in negotiations, including adding Detroit to the water authority and helping build a pipeline together, buying unfinished or non-treated water to clean but the city has not agreed with any of the possibilities.

“We’d be more than glad to listen to any proposal Detroit may have,” Wright said.

Having a say on how water is distributed in the future may be in the best interest of Genesee County, said Wright. He said with infrastructure in place, including roads, rails, air, and educational institutions, “the only thing we don’t have control of is our water supply.”

Wright said the area can’t be competitive for green technology jobs, such as ethanol production, or other growing fields such as food processing if they are priced out by increases from Detroit’s water authority.

“I believe that the water pipeline is a key part to draw those jobs into the area,” he said. Wright also sees the issues of public safety as a concern, with the current Detroit pipeline having to face 17 shutdowns in the past seven years due to various issues and nearing its life expectancy of 50 years.

He said the pipeline issue has come full circle, with Flint having done the engineering and land acquisition for the current Detroit pipeline in the 1960s, before selling it to Detroit and becoming a customer in 1966.

Anyone with concerns about the possible safety of Lake Huron should not be too concerned, said Wright, adding the city of Flint and counties of Genesee and Lapeer use 62 million gallons of water a day right now, 100 percent of which he said is recycled back into the lake after usage.

The county was granted a permit in August by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to withdraw 85 million gallons of water a day from Lake Huron.

Wright said his department has looked at taking water from the Flint River or groundwater as a possible source, but there is not enough capacity to service all customers and the costs would be elevated using water from the river or Saginaw Bay because of contamination.

The idea of the pipeline is one Wright said he’s talked about with thousands of residents in dozens of communities at township meetings, city council gatherings, Rotary Clubs, Chamber of Commerce meetings and other places. He said the response to the idea has been about “75 to 80 percent positive.”

He said town hall meetings will take place in the coming months to get the public’s take on the water pipeline.

Wright said the project is moving ahead at full pace, with a challenge from Cheboygan County Drain Commissioner Dennis Lennox recently withdrawn at the state level. He stressed the final decision on the pipeline will not come from his office, even though some public perception may see that as truth.

“This decision will be made by dozens of officials in these counties and communities,” he said.

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