Detroit raises price of water for state-of-art quality

Average boost, combined with sewage, to be 7.6%

February 22, 2001

BY JAMES G. HILL
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

The Detroit City Council approved a water and sewer rate hike Wednesday that officials say will result in safer drinking water and cleaner rivers.

The new rates, which will take effect July 1, reflect an average combined water and sewage rate increase of 7.6 percent for Detroit residents and 6.9 percent for suburbanites, according to Frank Hayden of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. The department supplies water to communities throughout southeast Michigan.

The higher rates, approved in a 6-3 vote, will fund major improvements in the city's century-old water system, which is one of the largest in the world. Many of the improvements, pushed by the Environmental Protection Agency, are aimed at cleaning up the water.

The building of Detroit's new Water Works plant will cost nearly $300 million. Instead of using chlorine to kill bacteria, the new facility will use a process known as ozonation. Ozonation kills bacteria but is less harmful to the environment and consumers. Chlorine byproducts have been linked to small increases in cancer rates.

The ozonation process will become mandatory for all municipal water treatment in the next five to 10 years, according to the EPA.

"We will be the first major water system to implement this without being mandated to do so," Hayden said.

Detroit will also replace and update equipment at its waste water treatment facility in the city's southwest portion at a cost of nearly $500 million, and spend about $1 billion to build retention basins to prevent the discharge of raw sewage and other runoff into the Detroit and Rouge rivers.

Metro-area residents have complained about the proposed increases, saying that the department needs to offset the cost of upgrading the system in a way that doesn't fall squarely on the shoulders of consumers.

"We have to have water, so I guess we have to pay the price," said Irene Payne, 67, of Detroit's east side, on Wednesday. "But I'm not happy about it. They need to come up with another way to pay for improvements instead of just gouging customers."

Though Detroit provides water to 125 communities and other customers from as far north as Flint and as far south as Monroe, Detroiters would be hit hardest by the increases, according to Hayden, because people living in the city have to foot the cost of maintaining the system.

Currently, the average combined water and sewage bill for suburban customers is $14.87 per 1,000 cubic feet of water. The proposed increase would raise the cost to $15.91 per 1,000 cubic feet of water, or an increase of $1.04, Hayden said.

Detroiters currently pay an average combined water and sewage bill of $28.22 per 1,000 cubic feet of water. The increase will raise the average rate to $30.37 per 1,000 cubic feet of water, or by $2.15.

Detroit City Councilwoman Brenda Scott, who voted against the increase, said she has seen significant increases each year during her two terms.

"This year I think that the citizens that came to testify during the public hearings on the rates made a very good case, at least to me and some of my other colleagues, that at some point we have got to draw the line. And this is where I am drawing the line."

Scott was joined in her dissent by Councilmen Kenneth Cockrel Jr. and Clyde Cleveland.

Councilwoman Maryann Mahaffey said she is concerned about senior citizens and others who may not be able to afford the increases, but she supported the rate increases because she saw no other way to pay for the improvements.

The rate Detroit charges each municipality is based on a formula involving distance and elevation from Detroit's pumps.

Each municipality adds its own charges for water and sewage service, which can affect the overall price, Hayden said. In some cases, the amount tacked on by municipalities is higher than Detroit's rate.

For example, the City of Grosse Pointe Woods gets its water from the City of Detroit for about $4.05 per 1,000 cubic feet of water under the new rates. But Grosse Pointe Woods charges $14.48 per 1,000 cubic feet for the water, Hayden said.

By comparison, one can look at the prices charged in nearby Grosse Pointe Farms, which processes its own water from Lake St. Clair and sells water to the City of Grosse Pointe.

Their current water rates of $10.50 per 1,000 cubic feet of water, and $18.55 per 1,000 cubic feet of water for sewage treatment, represent a 7-percent increase over the previous year, said Ann Murphy, Grosse Pointe Farms water billing clerk. Rates for 2001-02 have not been tabulated.

Contact JAMES G. HILL at 313-222-6678 or jhill@freepress.com.