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Environment & Climate Change

Cities are dumping sewage into Michigan rivers. Will climate change make the problem worse?

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
Eighty cities have combined sewer systems. That means the pipes carrying the stuff you flush down the toilet and the pipes carrying stormwater runoff are hooked together.
A bridge over a murky river has a drain with bars across it.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
An outlet pipe on the Grand River in Lansing.

Each year in Michigan, billions of gallons of raw or partially treated sewage end up in the state's rivers and eventually in the Great Lakes. That pollution can make people sick. There are two causes. One is poor sewer systems. The second is heavy rains. 

And climate change could be making the problem worse.

We visited one of the cities working to fix the problem.

The Grand River cuts through downtown Lansing. As kayaking and canoeing became more popular, River Town Adventures went into business, renting canoes and kayaks. But it has to close up shop some days because of heavy rains.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Paul Brogan owns River Town Adventures which rents kayaks for paddling the Grand and Red Cedar rivers in Lansing.

Paul Brogan owns the company. He says E. coli bacteria contamination from sewer overflows is a concern, but the high water and fast current are bigger concerns.

“And for those two reasons specifically, just having a safety factor, we don't put customers on the river. And those are the only times that you would really maybe see or maybe smell something different,” Brogan said.

A lot of storm sewer outlet pipes flow into the Grand and the Red Cedar rivers in Lansing. Some of them are more problematic. I put my kayak in the water to see what I could find. Starting at Moores Park along the Grand River, I paddled to where the Red Cedar joins it. I paddled upstream, examining the stormwater outlet pipes along the way. As I approached a larger one, I started smelling sewage.

When the county health department warns about high E. coli levels, the news media warn the public. But, many people are confused about when it’s safe – or if it’s ever safe to come into contact with river water.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Jill and Blake Weston paddling on the Red Cedar river in Lansing.

So, is anybody doing anything to reduce the amount of sewage getting into the river?

Andy Kilpatrick is Lansing’s director of Public Service. He says they’ve been working on the problem since 1992. It’s caused by a sewerage system that combines sanitary sewage – the stuff you flush down the toilet — with storm water runoff.  That works when it’s not storming.

“But when we had rain events, then we had the road drainage plus the drainage from people's basements. That would all go in that combined sewer. We would have raw or partially treated sewage that would overflow into our rivers here. And so that was the mandate initially to clean that up,” Kilpatrick said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Lansing Director of Public Service Andy Kilpatrick says the city has been working to reduce combined sewer overflows since 1992 and it will take another 15 years before the work is finished. Total price tag will be about a half billion dollars.

The city of Lansing has been going from neighborhood to neighborhood separating the sanitary sewerage from the stormwater system. They’ve reduced combined sewer overflows by close to 50%. There’s been a complication though.

“We’re finding — I don't know if it is climate change or what but — more frequent rain events that are coming and the intensity of those that is what really causes a lot of these issues,” Kilpatrick said.

Scientific research show, yes, it is climate change.

It’s not that the annual rainfall is rising that much — at least not yet. It’s that Michigan is seeing more heavy downpours which swamp sewer systems.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
A view from the Grand River in downtown Lansing.

For Lansing, it’s going to be another 15 years and a lot more money before sewage overflows into the rivers are completely stopped.

“We're probably talking about, once we look at the entire program, you know, over $500 million. So, half a billion dollars we'll have spent by the end of this program just to take care of the combined sewer overflow issues,” Kilpatrick said.

Eighty municipalities across Michigan are working on the combined sewer overflow issue. The problem is far from fixed.

This is going on at the same time of a new trend in paddling. A lot more people are putting kayaks and canoes on the water. Paul Brogan with River Town Adventures says that’s raising awareness of problems with the rivers.

“Our waterways here are precious and people want to experience them. And why not? It's a true recreational resource now and we've got to pay attention to keeping the waterways clean. And ... fixing these combined sewer overflow situations is a key, a big part to that,” Brogan said.

But, cities are dealing with uncertainty. Climate change computer models predict not only will we continue to see these intense rain events in the Great Lakes region, but annual precipitation also could increase. Predicting exactly how much is difficult. Cities don’t know how to plan for that unknown or the costs to prevent even more sewage getting into the rivers in the future.

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