Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department: Bringing Credibility to a Beleaguered System through Regional Cooperation and Technology

Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department: Bringing Credibility to a Beleaguered System through Regional Cooperation and Technology

Article excerpt



As the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) continues to grapple with its technical and administrative challenges, it is easy to think that these challenges are unique. In fact, they are not. Like many other water and wastewater utilities, the DWSD began as a local city department serving city residents and grew into a multi-million dollar regional department that currently provides service to most of the surrounding suburbs. When federal grant money was plentiful, the low cost of water and sewer services caused few to question the decisions made in this insular department. The same can be said of most other major cities throughout the country. However, the end of federal grant funds coupled with the exodus of residents from our urban cores stressed the financial resources of these city departments. The resulting under funded maintenance and reliance on inadequate treatment technology left this life-supporting infrastructure vulnerable to failure.

While the challenge in most other urban centers is similar, the path forward has differed greatly. In the end, all of these regions have headed toward more diverse governance and more transparent financial decision-making. These regions have also developed a rate structure that is sufficient to keep pace with the cost of repair, replacement and environmental requirements. The DWSD has much to gain from the lessons learned in other regions. A summary of some of these lessons is useful to understanding programs unique to Michigan that could provide for the introduction of new technologies likely to improve environmental performance, reduce costs and increase reliability.


The DWSD remains one of the largest water and wastewater systems in the nation, covering an area of approximately 1,079 square miles. (2) It serves the City of Detroit, as well as neighboring municipalities in Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, St. Clair, Lapeer, Genesee, Washtenaw and Monroe counties. (3) While Detroit and its nearby suburbs' populations have substantially declined, other suburbs have experienced growth. Thus, the service area remains home to about 40 percent of the population of the state of Michigan. (4) The DWSD's wastewater coverage area totals about 946 square miles and treats about 727 million gallons of wastewater per day. (5) It provides service with a staff of about 2,000 employees. (6)

The relationship between Detroit and the suburban communities it serves has been contentious for decades, with suburban representatives questioning how water and sewer rates are developed and how the funds generated are subsequently spent. At the same time, numerous water quality issues gave rise to a federal lawsuit. (7) The case was assigned to Judge John Feikens, who was given judicial oversight of the DWSD for more than 30 years before he retired in early 2011. The case was subsequently transferred to his judicial colleague, Judge Sean Cox.

It is important to emphasize that judicial oversight began not as a monetary dispute between the DWSD and its customers, but because of violations of the Clean Water Act. (8) The Clean Water Act regulates the quality of discharges into the waters of the United States. Under the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) implemented pollution control programs and established water quality standards. (9)

The DWSD violations provided the impetus for the federal court to intervene. When Judge Cox assumed jurisdiction, his first order of business was to prevent repeated violations of the Clean Water Act just as Judge Feikens had done earlier.

Even if the DWSD had been a well-oiled machine, competently providing high-quality water and services to its customers at a fair price, there would still be questions as to the effectiveness of its operation. Unfortunately, that was not the case. …

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