Saturday, March 14, 2009

DWSD, Genesee County Discuss Sharing Cost of Water System Improvements

Reprinted with Permission from Michigan Construction News

Dragline - Editorial Comment & News Analysis

March 13, 2009
By Guy Snyder

Keeping Things Fair

Good drinking water at a reasonable price has been fundamental for civilization for thousands of years. Arguably water, sewage control, and roads were the underpinnings of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately for the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department there are signs its regional system is beginning to crumble. This week in Flint its representatives worked hard to patch things up but we suspect the numbers aren’t in their favor.

* * *

Drops in the Barrel

Meetings were held this week between Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright and officials from the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department. They focused on the future of the county’s drinking water, as well as the city of Flint’s. There’s been considerable displeasure expressed about DW&SD water and sewage rates, especially for its outlying communities. If you recall, even Mr. Wright complained last fall about a then newly instituted 15% price hike.

This time around the DW&SD has come up with a deal. If Genesee County will pay part of the construction cost of additional water supply lines, it will be given “special status.” This would qualify it for a major price cut — possibly as much as 50% — for water.

Yesterday the drain commissioner’s office reported it was still crunching the deal’s numbers. Even if they add up to Genesee County’s favor today, we still think the DW&SD’s critics have been making valid arguments. In the long run it may well be in the county’s best interest to opt out and build a modern water supply system of its own.

In our November 18, 2008, Dragline, we discussed Mr. Wright partnering with John P. McCulloch, water resources commissioner for Oakland County, to create a regional water planning group called the Karegnondi Water Authority. Its mission has been to investigate another water system that would not also serve Genesee and Oakland counties, along with the city of Flint, but Macomb and Lapeer counties as well.

A consultant was hired last fall but not named. It still hasn’t been named. The mystery firm was supposed to have delivered a report a couple of months ago. But we haven’t seen it. Our latest research indicates a final draft is slated for release next week. Okay, we’ll look for it. Surprisingly, the Karengnondi Water Authority has yet to establish a web site. (Does it even have a staff?) Must be the final draft is to appear on Mr. Wright’s web site. Or would it be Mr. McCulloch’s?

Don’t you love governmental transparency?

Even so, back in November the general news media was broadcasting a project estimate of $350 million for the new water supply system. The comments came anonymously from the usual “government sources.” The figure was supposed to cover a water treatment plant, 60 miles of water transmission tunnel and main, and related support facilities. The system would be designed to draw as much as 150 million gallons per day.

Genesee County had already purchased a 230 acre site with a 700 foot long shoreline on Lake Huron, north of Fisher Road, in Sanilac County. The properly had formerly been owned by Detroit Edison.

This week no money has been mentioned about what Genesee County would pay for the DW&SD’s new water supply lines. Still, the cost of the entire proposed system has been pegged at $750 million. Presumably the county would have to pay for the portion that traverses Genesee County. It wouldn’t surprise us, though, if it turned out to be a capital investment close to the entire price of a new, independent system.

If it is, participation by Mr. Wright would require a deeper plunge into Genesee County’s pocket. That’s because the cost of the Karengnondi Water Authority system mentioned above would be split by a minimum of four counties. Perhaps even five ways, if the city of Flint is included.

The decision’s not up to us. But even without looking at the DW&SD’s “offer,” if we were the Genesee County Drain Commissioner we’d be strongly motivated to reject it.

The manner in which the deal’s being presented by the general news media arouses suspicion. What may seem a favorable break on water rates today could disappear after the new DW&SD water lines are finally in the ground. We also suspect Mr. Wright and the city of Flint will find greater respect for their concerns from the Karegnondi Water Authority than they currently do from the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners.

We mentioned last fall’s 15% increase. In late January of this year the water commissioners approved wholesale rate increases averaging 8.9% for water and 2.4% for sewage for its suburban customers, including Mr. Wright. The increases are to take effect on July 1st if they win the approval of the Detroit City Council. The council was supposed to take them up yesterday but our deadline for this column closed before we could find out if it did.

In case you missed our explanation last fall, Karegnondi was the name the Petan Indians gave to Lake Huron. It was used in the first known comprehensive map of Michigan and its Great Lakes, drawn in 1656 by Nicholas Sanson, the royal geographer of France.

Michigan Construction News is published by Guy Snyder (Snytco, Inc.) every Tuesday and Friday, and provides news about upcoming construction projects, and an editorial called the "Dragline." A summary of each edition is also available to those who subscribe. Michigan Construction News is supported by advertisers and by "Friends of Michigan Construction News." I look forward to reading Guy Snyder's twice-weekly newsletter, and encourage you to read and support this valuable news resource. Click here for more information about becoming a supporter of Michigan Construction News. - Peter Cavanaugh

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