Are improving sewer systems in Michigan worth $1.6 billion?

Paul Wong
Tanks at the Ann Arbor Waste Water Treatment Plant purify water yesterday. A proposal asks voters to allow the state to take on debt to improve sewer systems.

That is a question state voters will have to answer Nov. 5 when they decide whether to approve Proposal 02-2, which authorizes the state to bring upon itself that amount of debt to fund sewer improvements in many Michigan communities.

The problem with many sewer systems in Michigan, the proposal’s proponents say, is that they use the same pipe for both untreated sewage and for clean stormwater runoff – making it more likely for polluted water to spill into lakes after heavy rains when sewers overflow.

“One of the most significant sources of pollution of Michigan rivers and streams is sewage contamination, and the reason for it is that many of our municipal systems are just old and poorly designed and need to repaired and replaced,” said state Sen. Kenneth Sikkema (R-Grandville), chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee. “That’s what Proposal 2 will do over time.”

If the proposal passes, the state will sell $100 million in bonds each year for 10 years. With the proceeds from the sale, the Department of Treasury will authorize low-interest loans to counties and municipalities to improve their sewage systems. According to the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency, it will cost each taxpayer $334 over the 30 years, or $11 per year.

Some, however, are not sure the state should get involved in the issue.

“There are communities that have failed to maintain their sewer systems – which is a core function of government,” said Diane Katz, director of science, environment and technology policy for the Midland-based Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “What they’ve done instead is focus on what I’d consider more marginal functions of governments,” such as providing for recreational centers.

“Sewage overflows are more of an inconvenience than an environmental threat, like when they cause beach closings,” Katz said. If the loans are so necessary, she said, the state should not be borrowing money but rather spending money out of its coffers.

Additionally, of the funds, 10 percent would go to the Strategic Water Quality Initiatives Fund for septic tank improvements.

Supporters argue that by fixing the sewer systems, Michigan will water will be made more clean, thus fueling economic development along rivers and lakes and protecting the health of state residents.

Dan Farough, political director of the Sierra Club’s Michigan branch, said, “Communities need to reclaim these rivers that are being made in many cases undesirable because of combined sewer overflows. We think the cost of inaction is far more than the cost of some preventative medicine.”

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