Hours after the Aug. 11 storm the polluted Red Run Drain 
in Warren was still nearly 20 feet above its normal level.
Blame it on climate change, blame it on freaky weather, blame it on Oakland County arrogance, but the bottom line – or should I say the flood waterline that is still visible on some trees and buildings – shows that we still have a monumental pollution problem here in Macomb County.
The 2.1 billion gallons of partially treated sewage that was flushed into Macomb County waterways from the Oakland County sewer system during the Aug. 11 storm should serve as a splash of cold water in the face for all those involved.
A single-event sewage overflow of 2 billion gallons had been simply unfathomable – until now. And the severe downpours we now experience several times a year suggest that officials should recalculate what they’re up against and reconsider past opposition to major improvements of outdated sewers.
The drenching rain on Aug. 11 was labeled by the experts as a 300-year storm, meaning it’s probable we will experience a downpour like that once every 300 years. The southeast Oakland County sewer system that sends its wastewater to our county is designed to handle a 10-year storm.
Sure, the wild weather of three weeks ago was nearly unprecedented, with 5 inches of precipitation in a relatively short span. But few remember that as recently as May 27-28 of this year we experienced a 3-inch rainstorm.
Oakland County authorities for two decades have brushed aside worries about the sewage-laced stormwater they discharge into our county, despite the fact that it flows through numerous residential neighborhoods along the Red Run Drain and Clinton River before it spews into Lake St. Clair.
That lake, though water levels are much improved, continues to exhibit a disturbing amount of weed growth. In some places, the shoreline is plagued by muck and algae and towering aquatic plants that have created a foul-smelling jungle along the seawall. High E. coli bacteria levels remain a constant concern.
Frustrated lakefront homeowners cannot get the ear of the Oakland County officials upstream who have done little to address the problem. Oakland officials’ lack of transparency is as murky as the brown water they send our way.
Nearly a decade ago, Oakland spent $144 million on sewer improvements in the Madison Heights area and to upgrade the massive Twelve Towns Drain, also known as the GWK Drain. But, for all that money, they only gained an additional 30 million gallons of capacity.
Meanwhile, the outfall from the underground GWK basin, which handles human waste from 14 communities, conveniently dumps into the Red Run at Dequindre, right at the Warren/Macomb County border.
Imagine the uproar if that wastewater flowed in the other direction, to places such as Cass Lake, Orchard Lake and the streams that flow through West Bloomfield and Bloomfield Township.
Officials in Oakland County say their process is to settle, sift and chlorinate sewer water before releasing it. But in the deluge that occurred on Aug. 11 it’s doubtful the wastewater was sufficiently treated throughout the two-day release. The discharge flowed out of the GWK at a rate of more than 1 million gallons a minute. With such a flush, how could they keep up?
Their facility was so overwhelmed by the flooding that it took the Water Resources Commissioner’s office two weeks to come up with the 2.1-billion gallon estimate.
And they still won’t say how long they left the floodgates open.
An early estimate shared with the Macomb County Health Department said that the GWK overflowed for 32 hours. That’s about 66 million gallons an hour. And each of those hourly increments of 66 million was the equivalent of about 4,000 backyard swimming pools.
It’s true that Macomb County facilities dumped about 400,000 gallons of tainted water into the waterways during the storm, some of which was raw, untreated sewage.
It’s also true that Macomb officials have failed for a decade to push Clinton Township and Center Line to quickly make the repairs necessary to stop their periodic dumping of raw sewage into the Clinton River. Officials have also given Warren a pass on its increasingly frequent pollution.
But the flushes coming from across Dequindre for the past several years average more than 1 billion gallons combined on a yearly basis. Those volumes cannot be ignored.
What effect will all of this have on liabilities and insurance rates for downstream communities? How difficult might it be for individual homeowners to secure coverage?
Former Oakland Water Resources Commissioner John McCulloch used to brag about his county’s “shimmering lakes” that created a “water wonderland.” He sounded like the homeowner who boasts about his well-kept lawn while dumping his trash into the neighbor’s yard.
In 2012, when the voters replaced McCulloch with Jim Nash, the new water resources commissioner promised a greater emphasis on environmental protection. But we’re still waiting for a noticeable change.
In the two weeks following the storm, Nash was largely unavailable for comment. When he finally released a statement, the tone was hardly apologetic or one of concern.
In this era of the ice bucket challenge, perhaps it’s time for Macomb officials to create an ultimatum for their Oakland County counterparts: Clean up your act or take the brown bucket challenge.