Michigan cries out for 21st century infrastructure

By Greg Kacvinsky; Posted April 14, 2019 12:02 AM

Greg Kacvinsky is a stormwater practice leader, senior project manager and partner at community advancement firm OHM Advisors.

It was encouraging that during her State of the State address, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer focused on the urgent need to address our infrastructure woes, a key pledge of her election campaign.

While crumbling roads and weakened bridges are an obvious focus, lurking underground are equally serious challenges. When a major water main breaks and interrupts traffic or houses disappear down sinkholes, it grabs our attention and highlights the complex underground infrastructure we rely on as greatly as our roads and bridges.

With good reason, these issues are occurring with increasing frequency. Communities are enduring not only potholes and sinkholes, but are also facing major issues with the quality of drinking water, and the consequences of undersized or collapsed sewer pipes, which can result in flooding homes and businesses. This has two devastating impacts: First, it creates an economic burden through property damage suffered by residents and businesses; second, it creates environmental problems, such as pollution of drinking water sources, high bacteria at beaches which cause unwanted closures, and the degradation of water quality in our inland lakes, rivers and streams.

These challenges have a very real impact on our health, well-being, quality of life and economic vitality.

Even more so than our roads and bridges, much of Michigan’s underground infrastructure is old, outdated and forgotten, with some urban water and sewer systems dating back to the late 1800s. Additionally, capacity in most cases hasn’t kept up with the decades of growth in commercial, industrial and residential development. Because underground infrastructure is out of sight, it’s unfortunately often out of mind.

One such “out of sight” threat is the condition of Michigan’s stormwater systems. These systems were designed under older standards and have simply not kept up with increasing rainfall intensities and larger urban areas. The poor condition of these systems is realized through flooding, sinkholes and widespread property damage.

Interestingly, Michigan’s population has increased less than 8 percent in the last 40 years, while the total urban footprint has increased by 50 percent. This means that we’ve built a lot more infrastructure while we’ve barely expanded our tax base.

Furthermore, the severity of storms has intensified in recent years, as experienced by recent catastrophic flooding in Houghton, Midland and Detroit. Heavier rainfalls can lead to untreated sewage flowing directly into our rivers and lakes, as well as sewer backups into basements. Undersized and obsolete storm sewer systems overflow and cause widespread flooding, road washouts, stranded vehicles, flooded homes and businesses. Reports on climate change predict we’ll experience more intense storms in the future.

We need to address stormwater infrastructure issues as quickly as possible. This is important not just for the quality of our natural environment, but for the stability of our economy. Not surprisingly, the issues come back to funding. First, there are fewer funds available today than in past years to repair or replace stormwater infrastructure.

In decades past, much of our infrastructure was funded by federal grants. While many municipal leaders in Michigan would like to see the federal government make these types of grants again, it’s highly unlikely. It must be solved at the local level.

The Michigan Legislature is looking to reintroduce legislation that would allow Michigan municipalities the option to establish stormwater utilities, which would provide all Michigan communities an equitable and transparent framework to finance much needed stormwater infrastructure upgrades. While there are laws in Michigan allowing municipalities to charge user fees for sewer usage and drinking water, thereby creating a funding source for sewer and drinking water infrastructure, judicial precedent has made stormwater utilities vulnerable to legal challenges, which is why this legislation will be critical.

Michigan voters have spoken loud and clear — we must fix our infrastructure. The reality is that we have more infrastructure to pay for, and the longer we wait the bigger the emergencies get and the more expensive the fix becomes.

Greg Kacvinsky is a stormwater practice leader, senior project manager and partner at community advancement firm OHM Advisors.

2019-04-30T14:25:37+00:00