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Detroit’s Vast Water System: A Tangle of Regional Resentment

Can water bring city, suburb together in southeast Michigan?

October 22, 2006 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

  A court-backed blue ribbon panel studying the Detroit water system is seeking an agreement between the city and suburbs that not only modernizes water distribution and treatment, but also could lead to a new era of regional cooperation and racial understanding.

A half-century of skirmishing between Detroit and its suburbs over control of one of the nation’s largest water and sewer systems, a network of plants, pumps, and pipes that serves 4.3 million people and has heavily influenced patterns of development across southeast Michigan, will reach a climax in the next six months.

Yet it’s unclear what the outcome will be. A court-backed blue ribbon panel studying the system is seeking an agreement between the city and suburbs that not only modernizes the system, but also could lead to a new era of regional cooperation and racial understanding, two of the principal elements southeast Michigan needs to be economically competitive in the 21st century. But partisan differences, and long standing urban-suburban rivalries could lead to even sharper divisions, undermining chances for southeast Michigan’s recovery.

In scope and complexity, the fate of the city-owned water and sewer system is a microcosm of the intensely difficult choices all of Michigan faces as it contends with new market signals in business, technology, education, energy, environment, population, and finance that are reshaping the nation. Just like the state’s great university system, or its clean Great Lakes shoreline, the Detroit water and sewer system is a public asset. But the water system has not been adequately leveraged to produce new patterns of development that are more energy efficient, environmentally sensitive, and fiscally conservative.

Instead, suburban leaders and residents have spent years accusing the city of mismanagement and levying high water and sewer rates, while leaving the suburbs with a $52 billion water modernization bill. City leaders fire back that the suburbs really have no clue about the costs and complexity of effectively operating a system that includes the largest sewage treatment plant in the country. Lost in the feud are lessons from other regions of the state and nation, which have used water systems to coax communities to cooperate, direct new growth to appropriate areas, and improve regional planning. Grand Rapids and Traverse City are two Michigan communities that have used their water systems to manage growth, and as a result improved regional prosperity. 

So Long, So Far To Go
The latest chapter of the long-running duel in Detroit, which has increasingly borne the burden of the region’s racial divisions and symbolized its zero-sum politics, has attracted some of Michigan’s most trusted leaders. Former Republican Governor William G. Milliken serves on the study committee. F. Thomas  Lewand, the former chief of staff to Democratic Governor James J. Blanchard, serves as special master to the federal court overseeing the case.

Watching vigilantly is 88-year-old Federal District Court Judge John Feikens, who’s been involved for almost 30 years, and is convening private negotiations among the region’s leaders over how to bring city and suburbs together. Appointed in 1970 by President Richard M. Nixon, Judge Feikens has already sketched the outlines of a deal that could end the city-suburb warfare over a system that supplies water to 125 communities.

Speaking at a regional forum on water in April, Judge Feikens suggested that the suburbs let Detroit turn a profit on the system in exchange for giving the suburbs a role in running it. “In the American tradition of making money, I don't see why [the city] should not be paid,” said Mr. Feikens. “I would hope that there could be built, ultimately, a regional water authority of some kind but that it would be the instrument of the region not just the city.”

Suburbs Fire Back
The immediate reaction of Oakland County Drain Commissioner John McCulloch signaled that such a deal won’t come easy. Suburban home and business owners have already paid for most of the system, Mr. McCulloch said. “But I don't think the ratepayers are going to be willing to pay additional money, over and above what they are already paying, in order to get greater input.” Suburban officials have complained of water service price increases in recent years, while officials of the water and sewer agency say some suburbs dramatically mark up prices once the city ships water to them.

Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has also expressed caution about an arrangement like the one proposed by Judge Feikens. Mr. Kilpatrick is under pressure from Detroit City Council members and some city residents not to “turn over” the city’s asset to suburbs. Matt Allen, a spokesman for Mr. Kilpatrick, told the Detroit Free Press this week that the mayor is open to regional cooperation “but the Water Department will never leave the control of the city of Detroit.”

Mr. McCulloch is part of the current talks, ordered by Judge Feikens as part of his nearly 30-year supervision of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Chaired by Tim O’Brien, a Ford Motor Company executive, the talks also include such state and regional figures as Doug Rothwell of Detroit Renaissance; David Baker Lewis, a prominent Detroit attorney; former Detroit Piston basketball player and businessman Dave Bing; and James Nicholson, President of PVS Chemical Detroit, Inc. and a prominent Republican from Oakland County.

Mr. Milliken, Michigan’s longest-serving governor and a longtime champion of state-city cooperation, expressed some optimism about the negotiations in an interview this summer. “It’s incredible how much the future of the whole area is at stake,” he said. “Detroit’s health is so vitally involved in the future of Michigan. I think if the negotiating process works well, everybody can benefit.”

A report from Mr. O’Brien to Judge Feikens on September 29, originally expected to contain a rough draft of a settlement proposal, instead asked the judge for further time to see what could be accomplished.

50 Years of Disagreement
The history of Detroit’s water and sewer system reaches back 170 years, but only in the last 50 years has the issue of race in largely African-American Detroit and the largely white suburbs complicated an already strained relationship.

Established in the 1830s, the municipal water system began a massive expansion of service after World War II as the suburbs exploded. Growth was facilitated by Detroit’s ability to issue bonds to extend service lines to increasingly remote areas.

But in 1955, Detroit water chief Laurence Lenhardt said the city would no longer add new suburbs in western Wayne County to the system. This would have stopped expansion at the 42 cities then buying Detroit water. In a history of the system published in Detroit’s MetroTimes in 2002, former department employee Russell Bellant described the reaction:

 “A firestorm ensued. Business, civic and suburban leaders as well as the three Detroit dailies began a several years-long review of how to best serve the water needs of the region. A six-county committee of political leaders, aided by the National Sanitation Foundation and the Detroit Metropolitan Regional Planning Commission concluded that the City of Detroit should build the water system. Summarizing the prevailing view at the time, the Detroit Times editorialized that ‘the reason for unification of the water supply in Detroit’s department is because the Detroit system has the economic base — its present facilities and paying customers — to finance expansion. No other apparent combination of communities has such resources.’” 

Mr. Lenhardt was forced out and the system continued to expand, ultimately serving areas as far removed as the City of Flint and northern Macomb County.

In the 1960s, the flight of whites from Detroit to suburbs accelerated, particularly after the 1967 riot in the city. The following year, Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh told a reporter, “The white noose has been constructed around the central cities and the sprawl keeps going further and further out with inadequacy of physical service and certainly a reluctance on the part of many of the people that live in the suburban area to really deal with the social problems that exist in central cities.”

Politics and Water, Michigan Style
By the 1980s, scandals over contracts for sludge disposal associated with the city system, rising rates for water service in the suburbs, and political opportunism made the Water and Sewerage Department a political target outside of Detroit, particularly during the reign of the city’s first African-American mayor, Coleman Young. A predecessor of Mr. McCulloch as Oakland County Drain Commissioner, George Kuhn, spent two decades arguing for a suburban takeover of the system.

The conflict took on a new tone when Republicans gained control of the governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature in the 1990s. Complaining loudly of alleged overcharging by the city, suburban legislators repeatedly introduced bills giving suburbs control of the system.

At a hearing on the legislation in 2002, Warren City Attorney George Constance charged, “There's no oversight or control of the Detroit water department.” The bill would have created a suburban-city oversight board for the system, with a majority of votes belonging to the suburbs.

“In many ways, this effort epitomizes a racist lack of confidence in the ability of a predominantly African-American city government to supervise such an important service to the city and surrounding areas,” wrote Marie Mason and Priscilla Dziubek of the Sweetwater Alliance.  One such bill passed the Legislature but was vetoed by Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm in 2004.

Should Ms. Granholm lose her bid for re-election this year and Republicans retain control of the legislature, prospects for such a bill becoming law will increase dramatically. Judge Feikens, however, has threatened to overturn such a change.

There are signs of potential conciliation. Many older Detroit suburbs do not see takeover of the water and sewer system as a priority, says Conan Smith, director of the Ferndale-based Michigan Suburbs Alliance, which represents 22 cities and 930,000 residents in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Washtenaw, and Monroe counties. “People are starting to see a connection between our social equity problems in southeast Michigan and our governance issues.  The biggest thing that came out of the Super Bowl (which Detroit hosted in January 2006) was that people recognized the region can join forces to meet big challenges. ‘Us. Vs. Them’ isn’t the dominant mentality of today’s leadership.”

Mr. Milliken added:  “It’s at a very delicate stage. But we all realize how much is at stake. I believe we can and we must come together over this if we’re to have a healthy future in southeast Michigan.”

David Dempsey, the Great Lakes policy advisor for Clean Water Action and a consultant to the Michigan Environmental Council, is the author of Ruin and Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader, and On The Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century. His most recent book is William G. Milliken: Michigan's Passionate Moderate. Reach him at davemec@voyager.net.

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