Approval by the Flint City Council notwithstanding, Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright’s bright idea to link Flint and a newly constructed multi-million dollar, multi-county connector is, at best, a pipe dream. The best cost-saving solution to Flint’s water supply concerns is to strike a new deal with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD).
At issue is Commissioner Wright’s push forFlint to join the proposed Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) project, which theoretically would pull water from Lake Huron and ultimately replaceFlint’s reliance on treated water from the city ofDetroit. Under the KWA plan,Flint would purchase untreated Lake Huron water through an intake pipeline and treat it at the city’s treatment plant before distributing it toFlint customers.
Unfortunately, the ambitious plan is not grounded in fiscal reality. Put another way, Wright’s elaborate water pipe is a mirage.
Tucker, Young, Jackson & Tull Inc., a prestigious engineering consulting firm hired by the state Treasurer’s office, exposed KWA’s flaws. Its report, The City of Flint Water Supply Assessment, which was released in February, examined the feasibility of the KWA pipeline and found it is anything but.
The GCDC put the project’s estimated cost at $274 million. Tucker, Young, Jackson & Tull pegged the cost at more than $375 million – revealing that Wright low-balled the project by a whopping 24-percent. And that doesn’t include other unforeseen contingencies.
The engineering company further states that, “Cost overruns and delays in completion will both negatively impact Flint’s final costs.” And there are other “unknown” risks “including the potential of explosive gases in tunneling below Lake Huron, changing site conditions associated with the large number of miles of pipe installation… the startup and debugging of the entire pumping system.”
Wright also claims Flint could reduce by $4 million what it pays DWSD annually for water service by joining the KWA pipeline. But once these additional costs and risks are factored in, it is reasonable to predict that the rates paid byFlint’s water and sewerage customers will be substantially higher than those levied by DWSD, even with the day-in-day specification changes the drain commissioner makes.
Wright further contends that Flint represents six percent of DWSD’s water sales but the city has no voice or control over rate increases. The “held hostage” issue, however, becomes moot with final approval of the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners (BOWC) process to make DWSD an independent public authority. Under the new board structure Genesee Countycould have both a seat and a vote.
Since 2001, DWSD has attempted to negotiate a new contract to address Flint’s concerns. Five options are on the table, including an offer to sell KWA untreated water from the existing intake onLake Huron, which would make a separate intake pipe an unnecessary expenditure. The new model also has latitude for Flint to reduce or increase their customer capacity obligations as needed. Equally important is the potential for 20-30 percent savings. The caveat is that Flint would have to sign a new 30-year contract with DWSD to make adjustments cost-effective.
Despite the council vote — and in light of the Tucker, Young, Jackson & Tull expert assessment — DWSD remains committed to a constructive engagement with Flint and the GCDC to reevaluate all water delivery system options so to better serve this important customer base.