Is a cleaner Grand River worth road construction hassles?

By Dave Dempsey

For what seems like forever, drivers in downtown Lansing have had to navigate an obstacle course of orange cones, inconvenient detours, thumping construction noise and clouds of dust. It’s all the result of a 30-year, $700 millionplus project to stop the dumping of the city’s raw sewage into the Grand River. Is the project worth it?

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says so. The City of Lansing says so. “The change is dramatically reducing the overflow of sewage into the rivers and creating a cleaner, greener Lansing,” the city said in a news release earlier this year. Ingham County Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann says so. Now that this multigenerational project is past its halfway point, however, maybe it’s time to look more closely.

Lansing’s sewage history is the starting point. Like most Michigan communities in the 1800s, a growing Lansing routed its sewage and street runoff directly into local rivers and streams without any treatment. The point was to get the poop away from the city center. Those downstream could deal with it.

When the city built its first sewage treatment plant in the 1930s, so-called “sanitary” sewage from homes, commercial enterprises and industries began getting some treatment under dry weather conditions. But major rain storms and sudden snow melt overwhelmed the capacity of the sewage plant, forcing a ghastly mixture of sewage from toilets and floor drains along with storm water into the Grand and Red Cedar rivers and Sycamore Creek. In the 1950s, like other cities, Lansing ceased constructing combined sewer systems, opting instead for separate piping for sanitary waste and storm runoff.

The damage was done, however. By the late 1980s, Lansing had an estimated 40 overflow locations that at times sent hundreds of millions of gallons of raw sewage into the rivers. The public was shocked to learn from news media that Michigan cities at times dumped untreated human wastes directly into their local waterways. Federal and state environmental agencies were cracking down on the practice. The Clean Water Act’s goal of making all of America’s waters swimmable and fishable was unattainable without addressing the sanitary and storm sewers.

In 1992, Lansing officials succeeded in getting a special blessing from the state — 30 years instead of the 15 that Grand Rapids to complete the project. That spread the cost out over a longer period of time, but it also spread out the time of construction.

Downtown Lansing resident Margaret Schulte says that while she supports the clean water goals of the project, “It seems like every street in downtown Lansing is always impacted, and you never know, from day to day whether a street will be open for business or not. It’s a hassle, and I can only imagine what it is like for an outsider. If I were them, I’d give up quickly and head out of the Capitol City as fast as possible. Can’t we plan this out a little better?”

Critics say the 30-year project is just taking too long. Relax, says Drain Commissioner Lindemann. “Thirty years is not too much of a hassle. It’s not too long for us to suffer inconvenience. Remember, it took us 200 years to get to the point where our health was threatened. Even if the rivers didn’t need to be protected, the infrastructure has to be updated to meet current demand and satisfy our public health security needs.”

He adds that the project will help replace antiquated sewer pipes. The average life of a concrete pipe is between 60 and 80 years, but about 80 percent of the 2 million miles of sewer pipes in the 48 contiguous United States are over 100 years old. Drinking water systems are also aging. “The distance between the quality of life we know today and being a Third World country can be measured in the age of this infrastructure,” Lindemann says.

Is the project working? Depends. In 2006, Lansing officials boasted that the first half of the project had reduced raw sewage overflows 33 percent to about 392 million gallons annually. But this year has produced some major dumping. Storms on March 8 and 9 flushed 31.5 million gallons of sewage overflows into the Grand; on April 2, 24.4 million gallons; on April 27 and 28, 42.7 million gallons, on April 29 and 30, 22.4 million gallons; on May 27 and 28, 35 million gallons; on June 6, 19 million gallons, and on June 19 and 20, 65.5 million gallons. That’s over 220 million gallons in four months. Five Lansing overflows have happened since then, although the amounts have not yet been reported to the state.

Melissa Soule, marketing manager of the Nature Conservancy of Michigan but speaking for herself, has her own question about the separation project: Namely, will it be able to cope with one of the effects of climate change — more frequent intense rain storms, which might lead even the separated sanitary sewers to overflow? When the project was designed, the prospect of climate change seemed far off. But scientists are now predicting more frequent heavy rainfalls in the region, including a rise of 50 percent to 120 percent in storms of 2.5 inches or more in 24 hours in Chicago by later in the century. “Is this a fix for 30 years ago or for 30 years from now?” Soule says.

Lindemann concedes even the CSO project won’t be enough to restore a completely healthy river. It’ll take additional changes in city design and practice to contain and treat water pollution, including constructed wetlands, rain gardens, bio-swales and other natural or soft structures in the city. He says there are more mechanical structures that can be added to the stormwater and sewer systems to extract pollution before it discharges to the river as well.

Is it all worth it? Yes, Lindemann says, pointing to two photographs of the Red Cedar River on the MSU campus in 1966 and 2001. “The improvement is clear.” But he adds, “There are still pollutants that make our rivers unsafe for human contact.” The Lansing sewer separation project is part, but not all of the answer.

(Dave Dempsey advised Gov. James Blanchard on environmental policy from 1983 to 1989. He is author of a book on Michigan’s conservation history and is communications director for the nonprofit organization Conservation Minnesota.)