Article courtesy of Eric D. Lawrence | October 26, 2014 | USA Today | Shared as educational material
DETROIT — Almost 10 billion gallons of sewer overflows poured into southeast Michigan’s waters in the historic August flooding, according to a Detroit Free Press review of data from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
That number includes more than 44 million gallons of raw sewage from sanitary sewers and almost 3 billion gallons from combined sewer and storm water systems, all untreated, raising concerns about deteriorating water quality in the Great Lakes system.
A full accounting of the total was not available immediately, but the Macomb County Health Department had posted information after the storm indicating 1 billion gallons of overflows had poured into Lake St. Clair or its tributaries, according to an earlierFree Press report. The volume affecting the whole region was 10 times that total, and the number now reported by Macomb County is more than twice the initial estimate.
Untreated waste acts as a sort of fertilizer for invasive plant species like phragmites and toxic algae blooms that clog waterways and can turn beachfront areas into stinking swamps. Raw sewage also can endanger the region’s drinking water with high levels of bacteria, adding to the algae problem that sparked a two-day water crisis in Toledo, Ohio, in August.
“It’s not really a good idea to dump 10 billion gallons (into the water),” said Carl Freeman, a biological sciences professor at Wayne State University, noting that improperly treated sewage is rife with harmful pathogens.
Although officials blame the huge sewage dump on the historic Aug. 11 storm that pounded the region with more than 5 1/2 inches of rain, the issue is a long-standing problem because of aging or inadequate infrastructure, development patterns and loss of wetlands. The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments reported in February that “60%-70% of the existing sewer system was built before 1970, which means it is at the end (or beyond) its useful life.”
The most immediate threat from raw or inadequately treated sewage is E. coli contamination, which regularly forces beach closures and also can be deadly. Seven people died and more than 2,000 became sick after E. coli made its way into the water system in Walkerton, Ontario, in 2000, according to a special commission that investigated the event.
E. coli bacteria are the most frequently cited contaminants of untreated sewage, but Freeman said he worries more about the many other pathogens, including enteroviruses, that can exist in sewage and for which regulators do not test.
And, Freeman said, chlorine does not eliminate the nutrients — the nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium — that boost algae and plant growth.
Dan Schechter, superintendent of engineering for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Wastewater Operations Group, noted in an e-mail that “because of bacterial contamination from storm water and sewer overflows, it is not safe to swim in the Rouge River or the Detroit River during and immediately following a rain event.”
Melissa Force, 49, of Harrison Township is keenly aware of changes in Lake St. Clair.
Force remembers seeing whitecaps cresting the seawall during storms when she moved to her lakefront home 17 years ago.
Today, the stagnant swamp that stretches along the shore has rendered her neighbor’s jet ski lift unusable and emits a stench that she blames for a range of illnesses.
“This is as bad as it’s ever been,” Force said. “It’s dangerous. It makes us sick.”
The recent massive sewage discharges also renew the debate over the best way to handle overflows — a recurring problem even in less severe storms. Sewer separation, which allows sewage from homes and businesses to be treated independent of storm water, is often held up as the best way of reducing overflows caused by major storms.
But Laura Verona, district supervisor for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Resources Division, noted that untreated storm water picks up contaminants before it flows into lakes and rivers.
“You kind of have to weigh all of the factors,” Verona said.
Either way, Doug Martz, St. Clair Channelkeeper and former chairman of the disbanded Macomb County Water Quality Board, said the region’s sewer system is not built to accommodate the kind of heavy rainfall that is becoming more common.
“If you don’t build a system that can handle a 3-inch rainstorm, you’re not dealing with the problem. You’ve got to fix the infrastructure,” said Martz, a proponent of separated sewers.
Mike Gutow, a 38-year-old St. Clair Shores resident, said sewage pouring into the lake, even partially treated, is unacceptable.
“Anybody who says that that partially treated water is OK, I invite them to come down here and jump in the lake,” said Gutow.
He pointed to the situation in Toledo this summer as evidence of the regional nature of the problem and the danger faced by anyone whose drinking water flows through the Great Lakes.
Officials in Ohio have blamed Michigan’s sewer overflows along with agricultural runoff as factors in the toxin scare that prompted a two-day drinking water ban in early August. The problem in that case was caused by a toxic algae bloom in Lake Erie, which supplies the Toledo area and parts of Michigan with drinking water.
Larry Vasko, the deputy commissioner of the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department, said partially treated sewage is “certainly not good enough” for protecting water quality.
As Gutow was surveying a muck- and vegetation-covered stretch of lake shoreline along Melissa Force’s Harrison Township property, he noted, “this is the damage to the system” when sewage overflows are discharged into the lake. The area is downstream of the Clinton River Spillway.
“You can’t keep pretending that this is OK,” he said. “If nothing is done, our lake to me is (eventually) going to be gone.”