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333 million gallons of sewage spilled into the Grand River last year. The fix will cost $250 million

Sewer System in Lansing
Posted at 9:48 AM, Jul 23, 2021

LANSING, Mich. — Lansing's sewer system spilled over 333 million gallons of untreated combined sewer overflow into the Grand River last year, according to state data.

The state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy tracks spills from hundreds of Michigan cities and counties. Lansing ranked 4th for the most sewage overflow.

The reason: Lansing's storm sewers and its sanitary sewers are connected. The city is already more than a decade past one state deadline to fix the problem.

The new deadline is 2033. But it will take hundreds of millions of dollars of work to meet it.

"We're seeing raw sewage enter the river, just about every time it rains," said Fred Cowles, an environmental engineer and the president of the Middle Grand River Organization of Watershed. "Since the first of the year, almost 150 million gallons of raw sewage have entered the river from the City of Lansing. I find that unacceptable."

Lansing was rated 4th for the most sewage overflow
Lansing was rated 4th for the most sewage overflow

You may not notice the overflow when by the river as it typically looks like discoloration in the water. It can contain sanitary products, debris, ecoli and other toxic particles.

Dan Beauchamp, one of the engineering specialists at the state who put the 2020 combined sewer overflow report together, explained that "combined sewer overflow" happens when one pipe is responsible for collecting, or "combining" stormwater runoff and wastewater.

"So most of the time, all this flow goes to the wastewater treatment plant where it's treated prior to discharge," said Beauchamp. "However, during periods of heavy precipitation, the capacity of these pipes can be exceeded."

What happens when it rains?

Essentially when it rains too much, rather than have the combined sewers take their flooding to your basement, they were designed to have their flooding dump out of these combined sewer overflow pipes into bodies of water.

There are 17 of these overflow pipes in Lansing.

"Now in Michigan, we have a CSO, a combined sewer overflow policy, that requires that municipalities with combined sewer overflows have to fix that," Beauchamp said.

By law, Lansing has to fix their sewage overflow problem. All Michigan cities were ordered to go this back in the late '80s and early '90s, and they were all given a deadline.

"Lansing was given until 2019 to solve the combined sewer overflow problem in the Grand and Red Cedar Rivers, and they failed to do so," Cowles said.

When must Lansing complete the sewer changes?

Cowles worked with the state up to 2002 to fix this overflow issue. When Lansing didn't meet their 2019 deadline, he pushed to be a part of the process again but was denied.

"It's not right, we shouldn't be putting raw sewage into the river," Cowles said.

The state pushed Lansing's deadline to fix sewage overflow to 2033, which Cowles believes is "much, much too long."

The city faced no repercussions for missing its deadline.

The people of Lansing deal with the consequences daily.

Paul Brogan is the owner of the kayak rental company River Town Adventures. He shuts down his business every time there's significant rain because of the overflow.

"You can't deny that there's definitely a lot of frustration to it," Brogan said. "That we still haven't completely fixed this issue, when other cities in the state have done that."

The 2020 Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy report shows that while sewer overflow is slowly getting better.

"They've completed 72 percent of the sewer separation in Lansing, so they still have 28 percent to go," said Beauchamp. "And that's what's making up the 300 million gallons of sewage discharge, but they have done quite a bit so far to fix that issue. I think the estimated cost for that remaining 28% is upwards of $200-250 million."

What is holding Lansing back from getting these changes made?

Fixing the sewage overflow problem will be expensive.

"What we're trying to do, and we've been doing this since the mid-90s, is separating the sewers," Andy Kilpatrick, the city's director of public service. "So as opposed to having the combined sewers where you have sanitary flow and storm flow, we're putting an additional pipe in the ground. And so at that point in time, we only have storm flow coming out of these pipes."

Kilpatrick said the city is two-thirds of the way done with the sewer project.

"We spent about $250 million so far doing this, and in today's dollars, it's about another $250 million between now and 2035 to completely eliminate the combined sewer overflows into the rivers," he said.

From now until their deadline, the city plans to complete two new drain projects a year.

Sewage rates will go up 4 percent every year until the project is complete. Which is something the state took into consideration when coming up with the 2033 deadline.

"So, unfortunately, a lot of these infrastructure programs or projects, cost millions and millions of dollars to construct," Beauchamp said. "Affordability is one thing that we generally try to look at as part of our projects while trying to get as much protection for the environment as absolutely necessary."

Fixing sewage overflow in the Grand River will have a hefty cost, but Cowles doesn't think that excuses the fact that the city hasn't finished.

"Clearly it takes a significant investment... but the city made a conscious decision not to comply with the requirements of a duly issued permit with date-specific requirements," Cowles said. "And if the city failed to meet the 2019 date, what's to say they're going to meet the 2030 date?"

You can check the latest sewer overflow dates on EGLE's website.

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