Issues of the Environment: Planning Ann Arbor’s water future

Oct 20, 2021

Brian Steglitz, Water Treatment Services Manager for the City of Ann Arbor.
Credit City of Ann Arbor / a2gov.org

There a number of threats to the health and safety of drinking water in Ann Arbor, and there are some major decisions to be made in the near future. The discussions center on whether to keep the city’s water autonomous and invest in local facilities or create the infrastructure needed to get water from the Detroit system. Either way, there will be a hefty price tag. WEMU’s David Fair looked at where it is stands and where it’s headed with Brian Steglitz, the manager of Water Treatment Services in Ann Arbor.  


Overview

  • Ann Arbor’s water treatment plants are regularly upgraded to stay current with regulations, control contaminants, and maintain water quality. But they are old. The original plant dates to the 1940’s and the “newer” plant was built in the 1960s and 70s. 
  • For about a decade, Ann Arbor has been debating what the best option is for municipal water going forward. To overhaul the Sunset Road treatment plant could cost $108 million. Alternately, connecting the Detroit water treatment system (Great Lakes Water Authority) would cost $355 million and require 28 miles of piping through Canton and Ypsilanti, according to a September city council work session. 
  • For now, the city has decided the best option is to improve the Sunset Road plant, despite the costs and challenges in treating for PFAS contamination and cryptosporidium (a diarrhea-causing parasite in the river), and potentially dioxane if the Gelman groundwater plume one day reaches Barton Pond or the wells supplying the plant. $15 million has been spent on UV disinfection and filters to maintain water safety, and Ann Arbor’s Water Treatment Services plans to expand monitoring for dioxane. 
  • Although Detroit is plagued with numerous environmental challenges relating to manufacturing discharges near the Detroit River, for now, testing shows that sources water for the Great Lakes Water Authority is relatively free of chemicals and other contaminants. However, purchasing water from the GLWA would likely cost more than treating local water from the Huron River, and chemical or other pollutants could show up in the Detroit River at any time. 
  • The Michigan American Water Works Association awarded Ann Arbor drinking the Best Tasting Water in the State in 2016. Ann Arbor has also eliminated lead from nearly every inch of it’s system, except in aging home plumbing. Brian Steglitz, the city’s water plant manager, says the time has arrived for water infrastructure improvements that will allow the city to provide high quality water for several generations, and he is seeking state and federal funding and grants to help offset costs. Ann Arbor has already raised water rates to help pay for the project, but not likely enough to cover switching to the GLWA.

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair, and, today, we return to the topic of Ann Arbor water: its health, safety, and future, and a look at the investments that will be required to not only ensure accessibility, but affordability. And, to be clear, the decisions about Ann Arbor's water future are going to be expensive. Our guest today is right in the flow of it all. Brian Steglitz is water treatment services manager for the city of Ann Arbor. And Brian, good to have you back on WEMU and Issues of the Environment. 

Brian Steglitz: Great to be here. Thanks, David. 

David Fair: There are most certainly some threats out there to the health and safety of the local water. For decades, we've watched an expanding plume of one-four dioxane creep towards the municipal water supply. We now know we have a serious PFAS issue and, of course those are known as forever chemicals. And there's the issue of cryptosporidium, which is a diarrhea-causing parasite found in the Huron River. What else should we be considering as plans are made for the future? 

Brian Steglitz: You mentioned some water quality threat. We also have issues of aging infrastructure, and that's really what these next decisions that the City and City Council will be making are about is making those investments in the city's water system. So, we're best prepared for the next several generations of the entire community. 

David Fair: And I do most certainly want to talk about the infrastructure investments required, but I want to also make clear the safety of Ann Arbor water right now is good, right? 

Brian Steglitz: Yes, we're meeting and exceeding all of the public health based on water quality standards. 

David Fair: To ensure that it remains that way, you've taken steps to this point to insure it. How much investment into the water treatment capabilities have been made in recent years? 

Brian Steglitz: Well, we make, you know, somewhere between five and 10 million dollars a year. We have been over the past several years in infrastructure, whether it's replacing water mains in the street or dealing with treatment processes at the water treatment plant. You mentioned the cryptosporidium, the diarrhea-causing organism. We just made an investment of about $4 million to put in UV disinfection at the water treatment plant to address that water quality threat. To address PFAS, we've made some investments in rehabilitating our filters, so we have the proper media to remove the PFAS from the water. So, we've made several investments over the past few years to address some of those emerging. 

David Fair: As we look to the future, kind of a philosophical question, will this city look at issues of water accessibility and affordability as a right or a privilege? 

Brian Steglitz: I mean, the city has taken, you know, affordability very seriously as it looks at rates. And, clearly, that's something that is on the forefront as we look at what the impacts based on future infrastructure investment are going to have on our customers. The right to safe drinking water, you know, is a right for all of our community members, and the city intends to make sure that it's accessible to everyone at all, you know, socioeconomic levels. 

David Fair: And now I want to talk specifically about the infrastructure that is under consideration. We are talking with Brian Steglitz. He's water treatment services manager for the city of Ann Arbor and our guest on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. The ongoing conversations about the future of the Ann Arbor water have largely focused on two choices: connect to the Detroit water system or make the needed investments in upgrading the two treatment plants on Sunset Road. How old are those facilities in Ann Arbor now? 

Brian Steglitz: The plant was originally built in 1938, and we're still using some of that original infrastructure, and that's really the the area of the plant that we're focused on associated with this future capital improvement project. Portions also built in 1949. So, we're talking about 70, 80 year old infrastructure. 

David Fair: So what upgrades would be necessary to make them efficient and effective for future generations? 

Brian Steglitz: So, we've been drinking water. We like to talk about barriers, and we're trying to prevent contaminants from making it through the treatment process, so we can deliver potable safe water to our customers. And the first barrier in our treatment process is lime softening. So, we have softening basins. They take up a large footprint. We're removing the hardness from the water, as well as other contaminants. That portion of the plant is original. And that's what we're focusing on replacing. It's some of these aging water softening basins. 

David Fair: It is estimated it's going to take about $108 million to upgrade the treatment facilities and more than $350 million to create needed infrastructure that would ultimately connect with Detroit water if that's the choice that is made. Given the cost disparity, it would seem on the surface it's a no-brainer. What factors am I missing that would even keep the Detroit water option on the table for now? 

Brian Steglitz: Well, this is a community and a policy decision. So, you know, we studied this back in 2015, and we have a report that's made available on our website, Quality Water Matters dot org, for community members who want to dove into the details. But the recommendations back then was it makes the most sense to reinvest in the city's water infrastructure, you know, due primarily due to cost and also due to this, you know, issue of autonomy. It would be giving up if we were joining a regional water authority. But, since 2015, we've made a lot of investments, some of the ones that I just mentioned to you, but also some of these threats have begun to emerge, like PFAS you mentioned, also the continual migration of the dioxane plume and, you know, cryptosporidium. So, we felt it was appropriate to, you know, bring these issues back to the surface. We have a new governing authority, different people on City Council. So, while the result does seem like you said a no-brainer, you wanted to make sure that we were transparent and we gave the decision makers all the information that they would have, so they can make an informed decision. And that's really where we're at right now. It's just we're bringing the information back to the decision makers, so they can also get input from the community members and make the right decision for Ann Arbor's water future. 

David Fair: Once again, you're listening to Issues of the Environment on 89 one WEMU, and our conversation with Brian Steglitz continues. He is water treatment services manager for the city of Ann Arbor. You've stated your preference to be the one of upgrading the Sunset Road facilities. We've talked about the more than $100 million cost. How much would have to be raised in order to get to the $108 million figure? 

Brian Steglitz: The current rate growth projections for the city that are already being implemented by the council will accommodate the investment that will have to be made in the future--the future debt service associated with these investments. So, you know, we're already moving in the direction for financially planning for that level investment. You know, there are other capital improvement projects beyond just the water treatment plant that the city continues to make adjustments in, like the distribution system, and all of those are also built into the financial projections. You know, this is the big thing, in terms of single projects with a lot of resources needed in order to to achieve the changes and modifications to make. But the city is not stopping doing the other investments that it needs to make in the distribution system. We have a lot of the very infrastructure was put in in the same vintage as the water treatment plants that we continue to chip away and replace that as well to make sure that we are minimizing disruptions of service and things like that to customers in areas where there's an old water main in the streets. 

David Fair: So, we look at what's being done, the planning for the future that is already underway and being accommodated. But still, some final decisions need to be reached on how best to move forward. When might we reach those conclusions? 

Brian Steglitz: Our plan is to bring the resolution before council before the end of this calendar year--so, within the next two months--for them to make a decision on which direction they would like us to pursue. So, hopefully, later this year.

David Fair: I thank you for the update, and, obviously, we have a lot to talk about in the months and even years to come. I look forward to those conversations. 

Brian Steglitz: Thank you. 

David Fair: That is Brian Steglitz, water treatment services manager for the city of Ann Arbor. Our guest on Issues of the Environment. This weekly feature is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR Station, 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD1 Ypsilanti. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu