By Jan Worth-Nelson
Attempting to explain the the City of Flint’s probable move to stay on “Detroit water” for the next 30 years, Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright, who also is chief executive officer of the Karegnondi Pipeline Authority (KWA), said what might once have been options for the city have been made less viable by “emotional damage” and politics.
Wright offered his views to the May meeting of the College Cultural Neighborhood Association (CCNA) in a presentation that elicited numerous questions, comments and and expressions of confusion from a group of about 50 residents.
He was there to review the plan to keep Flint on water from the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), a hotly contested proposal that means the Karegnondi Pipeline Authority will play a much reduced role in supplying water to the city, although in a kind of partnership with its former competitor.
Wright’s full PowerPoint presentation is available at karegnondi.com.
Flint Mayor Karen Weaver recently extended the review time for the proposal to June 12, at which point the Flint City Council is scheduled to vote. Discussions about the plan have been contentious, with one town hall on the subject resulting in rancorous interchanges from the residents and six arrests.
Under the proposal, Flint will sign onto a 30-year contract with the GLWA, with KWA as the “emergency backup source.” The GLWA will have access to the raw untreated water from the KWA but can only resell it within the city limits, he said.
Crucial to the agreement is a complicated financial arrangement through which the GLWA will pick up a $7 million/year bond payment to the KWA which had been part of an original agreement with the city and the KWA.
As he put it, “If this comes to fruition, basically the contracts between the county and the city will be something of history; all contracts with the city from now on will be with the GLWA.”
In the face of numerous questions from residents about the effect of the GLWA proposal on individual water rates, Wright said he did not know how to answer at that level, with many factors still to be played out.
One exasperated resident, hardware owner Sally Kagerer, noting that she believes access to water will increasingly be “precious,” asserted, “Detroit will control us from here on in — whatever they say goes. We have no control over our rates or our economic future.”
Use of the Karegnondi pipeline had been in the works for years before the water crisis hit, and played a role in the complicated series of events surrounding it. For many years, Flint received Lake Huron water supplied out of Detroit — formerly the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, reorganized and renamed a year ago as the GLWA. However, Flint was paying the highest rates in the system, based in part on a rate structure determined by its distance from the source.
Before the arrival of the city’s emergency managers, in 2010 former Mayor Dayne Walling and others first convened the KWA. In succeeding years, a move to build the pipeline was deemed by Rowe Engineering to be the least expensive option for Flint’s water supply, when compared to continuing with Detroit or refurbishing Flint’s water treatment plant. The pipeline was scheduled to be completed this year.
“The whole concept of the KWA,” Wright said, “was that you guys [Flint residents] were being taken advantage of and we were going to give you an alternative.” He said he had always tried to act in support of the city’s self-determination.
“When Flint jointed the KWA, the state tried to get me to accept a contract that was only signed by the State of Michigan,” Wright said. “I stood up and said this is not happening until the city council votes up or down on joining this.
“That is still my position,” he said. “It’s up to the people of Flint, the Flint city council and administration, what they say, going forward. If they decide to stay with the KWA, fine. If not, I have to be sure KWA is not negatively affected.”
In 2013, the Flint city council, with the support of former Mayor Dayne Walling and then-emergency manager Ed Kurtz, voted to buy 16 million gallons a day from the 77-mile-long project connecting the city to Lake Huron water. The idea was that Flint would have more control over its water supply and save money.
Within two weeks after that decision, however, as is well known to students of the crisis, Wright explained how Detroit notified the city that it would be taken off the DWSD within 12 months. Since the KWA pipeline wasn’t yet ready, state officials now running the city opted to use the Flint River as an interim supply source and resurrect Flint’s dormant water treatment plant, which had not been used for 50 years. Thus began the city’s water troubles.
After 18 months on Flint River water and the ensuing disaster, the city switched back to Detroit water in October, 2015.
[Dayne Walling, in a recent interview with EVM, stated that he and the Flint City Council of the time had never considered using the Flint River as an interim water source — that option, he asserted,was made by the state.]
Although he said “everybody benefits” from the so-called “Grand Bargain” to resolve the city’s water source supply needs, Wright added since he was presented with the proposal at a meeting in March, his job has been exclusively to make sure the KWA and Genesee County were not “negatively affected.”
Wright said the Flint water treatment plant, which had been planned as a key part of the city’s move to the KWA pipeline, is capable of treating not only lake water — as had been expected using the KWA pipeline — but even river water. Noting that 68 percent of all water served to people in the country comes from rivers, Wright said from a technical standpoint it can be done. He said the Flint River is the cleanest it has been since before the auto industry.
However, he said, the catch is “the emotional damage in Flint has been too hard.”
Further, he said he does not believe Flint is capable of treating its own water because of personnel issues– getting qualified staff in place. The day of his presentation, JoLisa McDay, the city’s water treatment plant manager resigned. He noted the city pays 30 to 40 percent below the going rate for such positions, so could not get the high caliber of people needed. “Couple that with the fact that Flint will be under the microscope for the next several years by the EPA, the DEQ, the nonprofits, the professors, the universities — the people who do have the licenses to operate a facility like that are going to be leery,” he said.
Asked if there was a way the county and city might work together for an arrangement that would replace the GLWA proposal — for example, to expand use the county water treatment facility to accommodate Flint’s needs and bring in money through the KWA pipeline — Wright said, “the parochialism and politics between the county and the city are such that it would never happen.”
He said county officials likely would see themselves as unfairly bailing out the city, and city representatives would see the county as compromising city control.
Genesee County, Lapeer County, the city of Lapeer, and Sanilac County will remain in the KWA.
Before the water crisis hit, Wright explained, the city and KWA authorities had envisioned a partnership between Flint and the rural counties east of the city. He noted Sanilac County, already one of the partners in the KWA, is the largest agricultural county in the state — number two in asparagus and number three in cranberries, he said.
He said at present those products are grown and picked here, then shipped to Texas for packaging and then shipped back to be sold. Instead, KWA planners had hoped to create a processing and packing industry in Flint. He said agricultural production uses raw, untreated water and thus would not need a processing plant.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.