Flooding and sewer infrastructure are still a pressing concern for many East Lansing residents nearly three months after heavy rains on Aug. 12 caused flooding in basements, yards, and streets around the City.
Interim Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson will hold a public webinar on Nov. 18 about the City’s water and sewer infrastructure. This follows on the heels of a town hall held on Oct. 21, by Council member Lisa Babcock to listen to residents’ concerns about flooding and infrastructure.
At the town hall, residents expressed skepticism that severe flooding will not happen again.
During that town hall, which attracted about a dozen attendees in the East Lansing Public Library and via Zoom, City Manager George Lahanas confirmed that the City is considering hiring engineering firm Tetra Tech to do a third-party review of the construction work and related flooding along Northlawn Avenue and elsewhere in the Glencairn Neighborhood. This is something that City Council member Ron Bacon had pushed for in prior City Council meetings.
Several residents, including Elias Strangas, pushed for a system-wide examination of the City’s sewer infrastructure, saying that a “serious assessment” of what occurred was needed for him to be confident flooding won’t (or will) happen again.
“A thorough, honest review of what happened,” is what Strangas said he wants.
While Lahanas seemed OK to keep the review solely to Glencairn and Northlawn, Babcock was open to making the review system-wide if that’s what is needed for residents to trust this piece of infrastructure.
Lahanas also explained that the City received the findings of a study conducted in 2020, which outlines ways to improve the City’s combined sewer system in the next decade. According to Lahanas, the study ultimately recommended 12 specific projects — the current Northlawn sewer upgrades among them — totaling about $60 million infrastructure work.
While acknowledging the City has a clear picture of what to improve, Lahanas sought to make clear that the apparent room for improvements does not mean the current systems are defective.
Despite this new and additional information from Lahanas, some of the residents in attendance still seemed skeptical.
Strangas and his spouse, Dr. Jane Turner, whose home in Glencairn flooded this summer for the first time since they moved there in 2005, attended. Strangas didn’t seem sold with Lahanas’ explanations.
Strangas explained that during the excessive rains on Aug. 12, water pooled and formed a temporary pond in the backyard of his house and those of his neighbors. He also said he was disappointed to first learn about the City’s sewer study at the town hall. He also asked about what relief or protection is available for residents in Glencairn between present day and July 2022, when the construction projects are slated to be fully completed.
Lahanas did not directly answer about the intervening time period between now and the completion of the project. He re-emphasized what the City has said all along: That on Aug. 12 an excessive amount of rain fell and it just overwhelmed the sewer systems.
Babcock, for her part, noted that there had been flooding from rather routine rains in June, plus additional flooding following a brief deluge in September. She also acknowledged that future snowmelt and additional rains have residents rightly concerned.
Another resident, Paul Mulvey of the Whitehills neighborhood, called in via Zoom from the hotel he and his family had been staying at since Aug. 12 — at that point a 71-day span. On Aug. 12, Mulvey’s basement filled with 86,000 gallons of water, he said, and it made the house unlivable. The water, he said, broke through a storm/water-proofed basement window, and didn’t come in through failed plumbing.
Mulvey asked if the City could examine adding more street-level drains to prevent future surface flooding, like the torrent that filled his basement.
Additionally, he inquired about potential relief he and others could get from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, the federal Covid economic relief plan. Mulvey said he was still waiting for an insurance investigator to come back with a report that would determine his payout. The amount he expects to be paid out from insurance ($40,000) is only a fraction of the total estimated cost of repairs ($100,000).
Lahanas and Babcock both explained that the City likely cannot do much for Mulvey or others in that specific situation. Lahanas explained that it’s difficult (or impossible) for a City to effectively write a check for damages and say “sorry,” absent a legal ruling against them. And to hold the City liable for damages from sewer infrastructure is a very high bar.
The City is intending to use ARPA funds to help residents pay for, at least in part, check valves on their own homes. A check valve basically allows water to flow one way (out of one’s home, to the sewer) and closes if water begins to flow back the other direction (from the sewer, to one’s home). That plan is still in early stages, and the first iteration called for splitting the cost of check valve installation with residents.
John Haggard, a plumber based in Charlevoix, Michigan, who Babcock paid to attend and answer questions from residents, offered a rough estimate for the cost of installing a check valve: $2,500.
Cyndi Roper, who serves on the City’s Commission on the Environment and works with the Natural Resources Defense Council, argued that the City shouldn’t be splitting the cost of check valves.
She explained that she doesn’t think the cost for installing check valves should be a split between homeowners and the City, since some people’s basements were effectively made a part of the sewer system this summer when it backed up. She said the City should offer to pay fully for those.
“Some of the expenses are really heartbreaking,” Roper said.
Conversations around flooding will be continuing into November, too, on the heels of a town hall held by Council member Lisa Babcock.
Interim Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson will be giving a presentation on the City’s water and sewer infrastructure at the Nov. 16 City Council meeting. Additionally, two days later on Nov. 18, McPherson will hold a City webinar open to the public and will cover materials similar to her presentation to Council two days prior.
According to a City announcement for the webinar, McPherson’s presentation will “cover the City’s combined and separate sewers, pump stations in the community, the Water Resource Recovery Facility and the in-line retention tunnel and retention treatment basin for combined sewer overflows.”
Residents will also have an opportunity to ask questions during the webinar. (Check out the Zoom info and more for the webinar here.)
Find out more about ELi’s survey on how the City should spend its allocated ARPA funds.