The following guest post on Genesee County’s proposed Lake Huron water withdrawal is by Nick Schroeck. Nick wears several hats – attorney and regional representative at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, board member of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, and professor at Wayne State’s new Environmental Law Clinic. He is also a former Sea Grant Fellow with the Great Lakes Commission. Nick’s work focuses on water protection at the local, regional, and national level, working in courts, agencies, and legislatures. He has been evaluating the proposed Genesee County pipeline, which would take 85 million gallons per day from Lake Huron, as both a potential new withdrawal from the Great Lakes and as a policy choice that could waste public money and undermine regional cooperation in Southeast Michigan.
Genesee County has applied for a permit to withdraw, eventually, up to 85 million gallons per day (mgd) of water from Lake Huron for municipal purposes. Such a withdrawal is regulated in at least three ways: by Michigan’s permitting standards for withdrawals over 2 mgd, including part 327 of the NREPA and by the Safe Drinking Water Act; by the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact; and by the prior notice and consultation provisions of the Great Lakes Charter of 1985. For a detailed discussion of the applicable law regarding this permit request, see the comment letter that I helped to draft on behalf of the National Wildlife Federation, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, and other Great Lakes advocacy groups.
Genesee County and the City of Flint currently receive drinking water from Lake Huron via the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) system. Genesee argues that the new withdrawal would merely replace the existing use of Lake Huron water. Initially, that may be true. However, Genesee would like to eventually expand its system and sell water to neighboring communities. From a practical standpoint, so long as the treated wastewater is returned to Lake Huron, less an estimated 10% consumptive use, there will be an impact to Lake Huron levels, but that impact will be difficult to measure. Of greater concern than the potential for water quantity impacts to Lake Huron from this proposed project is that each new pipeline into the Great Lakes creates another “straw” that has to be regulated and monitored. Further, Genesee has not provided sufficient information regarding the conservation and efficiency measures that their new system will employ.
It is difficult to take the Genesee proposal at face value. They estimate large increases in water use over time. The increased population and commercial activity necessary for such large increases in municipal water use is not occurring at present in Flint or in Michigan generally. Recent US Census data shows that Flint has lost nearly 10% of its population since 2000. The only city ahead of Flint in population decline over that time period was New Orleans, LA. In fact, no city in Genesee County gained population from 2007-2008. And I find it very hard to believe that businesses and people are clamoring to relocate to Genesee County – if and only if – Genesee has its own water delivery system, independent of the Detroit system. Genesee County already has a good, reliable supply of fresh water. If anything, Genesee should seek to work with the DWSD to improve the efficiency of the current system and to work with users to implement stronger conservation practices. Genesee doesn’t need water as a result of shortages, contaminated supply, or booming population growth. It already has access to a high quality municipal water supply. Why then, is Genesee seeking a permit for this new withdrawal and a $600 million bond to pay for it?
I can only speculate. But since this proposal lacks necessity and financial cost-benefit, there must be another compelling reason. My belief is that Genesee County is really trying to negotiate better rates with the DWSD. The Detroit City Council recently voted to raise Genesee County water rates by 9.5%. The cost of 1,000 cubic feet of water is still pretty reasonable, from $13.07 to $14.32, after the increase. Being that Genesee announced plans for their proposed water withdrawal the same day that the rate increase was announced, this proposal seems more like a negotiating tactic than a serious proposition.
It is no secret that there has been a chilly relationship between many of the political leaders in southeast Michigan and those in Detroit. Water rates are another point of contention in a long line of disagreements from Cobo Hall expansion to stalled regional mass transportation. Certainly the current process by which the Detroit City Council sets water rates for the entire region is flawed. However, I’m convinced that the answer lies in greater cooperation amongst our communities and not in divergent proposals for separate water delivery systems. The economic assumptions behind and the potential environmental impacts of the proposed Genesee withdrawal render the proposal flawed, at best, and a cynical ploy, at worst. We don’t need to drive another wedge between Detroit and the rest of the region. We should seek to improve upon the efficiency and conservation measures of the water delivery system that we already have rather than spending vast sums of public dollars on projects that are completely unnecessary.