East Lansing’s wastewater treatment plant is now processing over 4 billion gallons a year – and water rates will be going up to help pay for the water and sewer systems. Bike lanes will be coming to Coolidge and Hagadorn roads, with the car lanes reconfigured to run similar to Abbot Road. The Red Cedar Neighborhood will get a new water main, while the Hawk Nest Neighborhood will benefit from a new sewer pump.
That’s just some of what City Council heard about on May 2, as East Lansing’s Acting Director of Public Works Ron Lacasse presented the proposed DPW budget for 2024 Fiscal Year (July 2023-June 2024).
Lacasse found himself fairly suddenly thrust into the job of putting together this year’s proposed budget because Nicole McPherson, who had been serving as acting director of DPW, resigned just before budget season started. Scott House, the named director of DPW, is still away on his two-year military assignment, leaving Lacasse in the hot seat. (House is expected to be back in July.)
DPW takes care of the city’s infrastructure – local streets, sewers, drinking water, city buildings, park land – and the city’s fleet of 120 vehicles and 82 pieces of smaller equipment. Lacasse told Council the entire DPW team consists of 77 people and, at that size, “We are actually a pretty lean organization.”
During his presentation, Lacasse repeatedly expressed gratitude for the work of the DPW team, including for helping with the budget presentation.
“They’ve really come together at the eleventh hour,” he told Council, “and helped me get up to speed on things and helped me put this presentation together.”
He noted the Finance Department has been “short staffed as well,” although, since his presentation, the city has hired a new finance director, Penny Wright.
Residents will be seeing more public works projects as the city catches up on some projects delayed by COVID.
Lacasse explained to Council, “We didn’t want to do [replacement of] water mains when washing hands was so important.” So, some of the work being undertaken in the next year represents “catching up on past projects, and some of it is trying to stay on track with things we had moving forward.”
Coolidge Road is being converted from four car lanes (two north and two south) to three car lanes (one north, one south and a center left-turn lane) plus two bike lanes. Lacasse told Council to expect the same for Hagadorn Road north of Grand River Avenue to Haslett Road in the near future.
These road conversions are shown to reduce accidents and smooth traffic while providing dedicated bike lanes, getting bikes off sidewalks.
Repaving is planned for various areas around town, and Lacasse said studies of local road quality shows “we are making progress” on fixing the roads. One challenge is that with people driving less and using electric vehicles, there is less state revenue coming from gas and weight tax for road repair. Lacasse noted that with increased labor and material costs, “money doesn’t go nearly as far as it used to.”
And street maintenance is not just about paving. It’s also about street sweeping to keep the storm sewer system free of clogs and keep the Red Cedar River’s water quality from being harmed by having too many leaves end up in the storm-sewer system.
East Lansing’s environmental specialist Cliff Walls explained that leaves contribute about 80% of all phosphorus pollution in urban streams, a pollutant under the law. So, when leaves end up in the streets, they must be scooped up by DPW to abide by the Clean Water Act and the city’s wastewater treatment plant permit.
Lacasse noted DPW is also responsible for local salting and plowing during winter storms. A brining system (using salt water instead of salt) has reduced the department’s use of salt by one-half since the early 2000s – greatly reducing the environmental impact of salt. The DPW rigged up a homemade brine-maker and it’s been working well.
The water and sewer systems continue to be repaired and upgraded.
The water delivery system of East Lansing includes 130 miles of water mains, 8,000 water meters, four water towers, and one ground service tank, plus hundreds of fire hydrants and a system for billing customers for the costs. Drinking water is provided by ELMWSA – the East Lansing Meridian Water & Sewer Authority – and the water plant is currently undergoing a $20 million upgrade.
Water bills will be going up again in the next fiscal year, with the charge for new hook-ups going up 5% and water bill rates going up 4.2%. Lacasse noted people who get their water from the Board of Water and Light (for example, most people in Lansing) will be seeing an increase more than twice that. The revenue generated from East Lansing water/sewer bills goes right back into maintaining the system.
“This is how we fund our projects on the water and sewer side and keep that system maintained,” he explained to Council.
The typical residential user will see an increase in their quarterly bills of about $12, equating to about $4 more per month.
Meanwhile, the DPW team continues to work under the new lead and copper rule to replace water delivery lines to homes that may present a risk of contaminated drinking water. (Learn more here.)
The Red Cedar neighborhood will be getting a new water main under the current plan.
“It’s time to get down there,” Lacasse told Council, as that neighborhood’s water main is having problems with breaks. The area may soon also get its own water tower to help with pressure.
And the Hawk Nest neighborhood on the north side of town will benefit from upcoming pump upgrades on that end of the city’s system.
East Lansing’s Water Resource Recovery Facility off Trowbridge Road, which services East Lansing, Meridian Township and Michigan State University, is presently processing over 4 billion gallons of wastewater per year. (The water is cleansed before being released into the Red Cedar River.)
This makes the wastewater treatment plant “the biggest recycling story the city has to tell,” Lacasse said.
The average day sees about 12 million gallons treated, with up to 40 million on days with heavy rains.
“It’s a Herculean effort,” he said.
Various upgrades to the plant are helping to improve water quality and efficiency.
“The ultimate goal, obviously, is clean water out the other side,” Lacasse said, “and this [series of upgrades] will do it better and more efficiently. Funding for these projects comes from revenue drawn from water/sewer customers and, in some cases, loan forgiveness and discounted loans available through the state.”
Speaking of recycling…
In his presentation, Lacasse reminded residents they can sign up for Recycle Coach, a downloadable app that reminds users of their recycling days and helps them figure out where to recycle items that aren’t suitable for curbside pickup.
He also revealed the outcome of a pilot artificial intelligence (AI) program aimed at reducing contamination in East Lansing’s recycling stream.
As ELi reported last year, East Lansing teamed with The Recycling Partnership, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and Prairie Robotics to launch the U.S.’s first pilot municipal campaign using AI to try to cut down on recycling contamination.
For the program, cameras were installed in the recycling trucks to look into curbside bins and identify large objects that contaminate recycling. The cameras also looked for plastic bags, plastic film and other “tanglers” that can damage recycling equipment. Artificial intelligence identified these contaminants and a postcard with a picture of the contaminants was sent to each address where problems occurred.
Lacasse brought good news at his presentation: following the institution of this system, contamination rates were reduced by 25%.
“It had a pretty dramatic effect, faster than we thought it would,” he told Council.
More good news: EGLE came through with a half-million dollar grant to the city to obtain cardboard compactors and a Styrofoam “densifier.”
As ELi reported when the grant was submitted, the densifier removes 98% of the air from recycled Styrofoam, turning a truckload of Styrofoam into a single pallet. The created product can then be sold for special uses like picture frame manufacturing. Between the cardboard compactors and the foam densifier, the city will have a much smaller carbon footprint as it transports recycled products.
Learn more about the city’s plans for solid waste management, implementation of a solar power system at DPW’s headquarters and a stronger focus on urban forestry in this separate report from ELi.