City forced to pump 15 million gallons of sewage mix into Grand River
Last week one of the local TV stations broadcast a story about the city's need to pump over 15 million gallons of sewage and stormwater into the Grand River during the recent flooding to keep it from surging into the basements of local homes and businesses. The TV story was followed by an outcry on the station's social media page from people who were angry that a city would ever contemplate such a heinous act. However, the city manager says this action was necessary, legal and transparent and will actually have very little environmental impact.
“When you are in a flood situation, you are having water literally come into the wastewater treatment plant from everywhere to the point where if you don't do something to control it, you will compromise your wastewater treatment plant,” said Lowell city manager Michael Burns. “You will back up every sewer in the city, hypothetically. So in these extreme flooding situations we have to bypass pump into the river.”
Repairing Lowell's wastewater treatment plant after an incapacitating event or installing the expensive equipment to handle freak flood events are both cost prohibitive compared to the simple 'pump it downstream' method. The city did this same exact thing during the 2013 and 2018 floods, and municipalities with similar geography use the method as well.
“There is no real getting around it, because sanitary and storm sewer systems are not designed to handle what are basically 100-year flood events,” Burns said. “They're just not capable of handling it. This is not the only place in the state this happens. The State of Michigan has procedures that we follow, including public notifications. We had to contact EGLE [Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy] to do this and we had to get confirmation from the Health Department. We had to make sure we complied with everything we were required to, which we did. I don't know for certain, but I'm pretty sure that other wastewater treatment plants upstream of us were doing the same thing. You have to. I guarantee you in Midland they were doing this. There is no other option. Otherwise, we could choose to not address the problem, but then you'd have a bigger problem. It was a temporary situation and we had to do it.”
The city began pumping a mixture of sewage and stormwater (ratio unknown, Burns said) into the Grand River around noon on Wednesday, May 20 and ceased doing so at 7:40 am on Sunday, May 24, eventually releasing approximately 15.164 million gallons of "infiltrated floodwater and sanitary sewer." Burns said there would not be a significant environmental impact.
“While there were millions of gallons that went into the river, it probably was, when you really look at it, a very minimal impact to the environment, to the river, because of the fact that it was diluting into water,” Burns said. “And it was for a very short period. If we were doing this every day for a year, yeah, you definitely would have issues. I'm not saying there isn't an impact, but for the four days that we did this, in the whole scheme of things the environmental impact is very minimal. As a matter of fact, the state didn't require us to do E. coli testing.”
The 17.23 foot flood crest on Thursday, May 21 was the eighth highest level in recorded history. The record was 19.02 feet on April 21, 2013.