One Way to Get Their Attention


Last December, a sinkhole opened up in the town of Fraser, MI—on Christmas Eve, no less. The cause was a broken 11-foot-diameter sewer pipe located 55 feet underground. The hole eventually measured 250 by 100 feet, causing nearly two dozen homes to be temporarily evacuated. A few are damaged so badly as to be considered lost causes.

The sinkhole is just a chapter in an ongoing story, however. The city of Fraser and the Clinton River watershed generally have had sewer and stormwater problems for quite some time. The region has a combined sewer system; even before the burst pipe that caused the sinkhole, there were occasional combined sewer overflows and backups of sewage into homes and basements. When the sinkhole opened in December, officials deliberately dumped raw sewage to the river to prevent homes from flooding, although they say that was an emergency measure they try extremely hard to avoid. But the larger problem is that the entire system needs an upgrade. Another sinkhole appeared just over a decade ago, and several leaking sewer lines have been found.

It’s a frustrating situation for the city and for the Clinton River Watershed Council, which have seen the river transform from the most polluted in the state in the 1970s—there were virtually no fish, and people were warned not to come into contact with the water—to a much improved waterway with trout swimming in it and boaters venturing onto it. Locals attribute the improvement to changes brought about by the Clean Water Act.

The repair bill for the sinkhole that opened in December—shutting down the busy 15 Mile Road—and the associated expenses could run into the tens of millions of dollars, as did repairs for the sinkhole along that same road in 2004. In the meantime, city officials are babying the system along. For example, they cautioned people to limit toilet flushing during the Super Bowl to avoid unnecessary burden on the sewers. They keep a watchful eye on the system during storms, when stormwater runoff inundates it, and are exploring disconnect measures such as encouraging the use of rain barrels to capture roof runoff.

Here, as everywhere, infrastructure funding is hard to come by, especially for upgrading underground pipes that no one ever sees—at least, not until the ground around them literally collapses. The public works commissioner for Macomb County notes that people complain about potholes every day, but it takes a disaster to make them think about drainage systems and sewer pipes.

On Thursday, March 9, the American Society of Civil Engineers will release its latest report card on America’s infrastructure.  The last one, in 2013, gave us an overall grade of D+. The very generalized report card is a way to get people thinking and talking about infrastructure issues. What else works? Have there been dramatic events—sinkholes? floods?—in your community that have focused people’s attention on the problem? SW_bug_web

  • Edo McGowan.

    There is a degree of honesty that warrants discussion in many of these cases. Admitting lack of money because taxes were spent elsewhere, what the chamber of commerce does not want discussed, what it actually costs, concern that the voters or rate payers will adversely react or revolt, finding of bureaucratic bumbling or non-action in the maintenance of a bureaucratic comfort zone, handing it off to someone else, limiting data before committee to shift policy, etc, etc. For years the City of Santa Barbara, as an example, flatly lied about the condition of its sewer mains. This even in light of an undisclosed study by its own and hired engineers showing the terrible shape of its crumbling sewer mains, the leakage from which and down-gradient contamination of the adjacent storm water system, hence beach. Santa Barbara is a tourist destination and perhaps such information might deter tourism if it were breathed that the beaches might be contaminated. Only after a contentious court case with the local NGOs did the system get critical attention. The City remained in denial.

    Thus, in political systems which run on consensus and compromise, the reality of failure is kicked on down the road and one hopes it will crumble on someone else’s watch. Having been a senior analyst in different administrative systems, this is not uncommon. When it blows up, there is usually the finger pointing but the round-robin of blame usually lands on firing the janitor and the real problems are seldom addressed. Citizens need to give up some of assumption that government is there to help and start taking on more responsibility. Times are changing, many of the infrastructural systems are simply shot and this will be an advancing reoccurrence across our nation.

    Dr Edo McGowan


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