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Letter: Detroit's massive flooding an avoidable problem

The massive flooding of basements in Detroit and surrounding suburbs by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the Great Lakes Water Authority that has now occurred twice could have been avoided with good regional planning. 

The lack of planning has resulted in thousands of dollars worth of property being severely damaged. The losses of property owners will never be fully recovered. Moreover, there is no assurance that it will not happen again.  

The regional sewage system, owned by DWSD and leased to GLWA, mixes rainwater with wastewater and feeds into the DWSD treatment plant in southwest Detroit. The plant has never been capable of treating the flow from this combined system during very heavy rains, let alone the recent catastrophic downpour.

As a result, the system has pumping stationswhich jettison untreated sewage into the Detroit River when the treatment plant becomes overwhelmed. Failure of these stations results in sewer water backing up in the basements of properties served by the system, making them private retention basins.

It should come as no surprise that pumping untreated sewage into the Detroit River, thereby contaminating the Lake Erie basin, is a violation of the U.S. Clean Water Act. In 1977 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency commenced a lawsuit to require Detroit's compliance with the act.  

During the next 36 years, DSWD was placed under supervision of the Federal District Court and planning to improve the system began. Some improvements were made, but the mixing of rainwater with wastewater continued as the stations pumped untreated sewage into the Detroit River. 

Little, if any, effort was made to develop major public retention basins, used by some communities, as an alternative to polluting the Detroit River or retaining sewage in private basements, as now occurs. In 2013, the Federal District Court found DWSD in substantial compliance with the Act and dismissed the lawsuit.  

Around the same time Detroit's lawsuit started, Chicago began its planning and construction of a multibillion-dollar system of sewage-storage funnels and reservoirs. 

Some are 33 feet in diameter and run up to 300 feet below city streets, stretching 109 miles as part of a retention system that now can hold 12 billion gallons of sewage, and is being expanded to 20 billion gallons, according to the New York Times.

As much as 10 billion gallons of untreated sewage was released into Michigan waterways late last month, an amount easily accommodated by the Chicago reservoirs. 

Some have suggested investigating using the cavernous salt mines below the city. Whatever the approach, basements now being used as retention basins in cases of an emergency would remain dry and the Detroit River clean.  

The cost of developing one or more public retention basins for preventing homes and businesses from being subjected to recurring flooding from sewer backups will be high, but so will any other alternative to upgrading the regional system to provide the protection property owners deserve and need.

John E. Mogk, professor of law

Wayne Law School