Lots of Sewage Talk at Council. What Actions Are Coming?

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Andrew Graham for ELi

A back-flow valve shown by City Council member Lisa Babcock after the Nov. 16, 2021, meeting.

A trio of sewer-related matters were presented to and discussed by East Lansing’s City Council on Tuesday during a “discussion-only” meeting: a general overview of the City’s sewer system, a proposed contract for a third-party review of the flooding along Northlawn Avenue, and using federal Covid relief money to help property owners prevent sewer backflow. 

The overview of the sewer system came in the form of a presentation by Interim Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson, and what McPherson discussed on Tuesday will be discussed in even greater detail during a webinar open to the public this Thursday, Nov. 18, about the City’s water and sewer infrastructure

The webinar will run from 6 to 7:30 p.m. on Zoom, and residents will be able to ask McPherson questions at the end. You can find more info about the webinar here, including the information for the Zoom session. 

McPherson’s presentation on Tuesday gave a broad overview of the City’s sewer infrastructure.

After several rains throughout the summer caused flooding in various parts of East Lansing, City Council and residents have been seeking to get a clearer understanding of the City’s sewer and water infrastructure. McPherson’s presentation on Tuesday was designed, in part, to address those questions. 

To start, McPherson provided a brief history of the City’s sewers. The City’s original sewer system, parts of which were installed in the 1920s, was wholly combined, meaning sanitary sewage (poop) and stormwater flowed out together through the City sewers to the Red Cedar River. Some separate sewer lines began to be installed as early as the 1950s, McPherson said. 

From a presentation by Interim Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson.

Original construction of the City’s Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF) had been completed in 1965, but the plant was expanded by 1973 to ensure the City came in line with the new federal Clean Water Act. 

Another inflection point for the City’s sewer infrastructure came in 1990, when the State of Michigan required municipalities to evaluate their combined sewer systems to limit overflows into local waters. After hiring a consulting firm to evaluate the City’s system, the decision was made for East Lansing to complete the separation of the Wilmarth combined sewer area, according to McPherson’s presentation, and to construct a retention treatment basin and combined sewer overflow (CSO) tunnel. It took 10 years to finish those projects, all told, at a cost of about $38 million, according to McPherson. 

The retention basin (2.1 million gallons) and CSO tunnel (5.1 million gallons) are both designed to store water before it gets to the WRRF. When there is too much water, McPherson said, there will be overflows into the river unless it is stored somewhere.

The City still has 912 acres that feed into combined sewers, McPherson said, which is about 16% of the total acreage served by the system. The remaining combined sewer is mostly in the Glencairn, Oakwood, and Bailey Neighborhoods. 

From a presentation by Interim Director of Public Works Nicole McPherson.

Near the end of her presentation, McPherson said the City has a stormwater issue, not a sanitary sewer issue. Newly-elected Council member George Brookover pushed back on this notion, noting there was poop in the basements of people of Glencairn on Aug. 12, meaning they had a sanitary sewer problem. People served by the City sewer system elsewhere also had sewage backup into their basements that day.

McPherson went back to the City’s now-standard answer that the storm on Aug. 12 was a 1000-year rain, which dumped 7.11 inches of rain on the City in just a few hours, and that that was more than the system could deal with.

Council debated how to handle a third-party review of the Northlawn Avenue sewer construction and floods.

This back-and-forth happened in response to a proposed contract from TetraTech, the company the City has previously hired to consult on the sewer improvements. For $15,000, the company has proposed to undertake an approximately seven-week-long investigation into what happened with the construction, rainfall, and flooding around Northlawn Avenue on Aug. 12. 

But that proposal — despite being for less than $20,000 and therefore a contract that City Manager George Lahanas can sign without Council approval — may not pass without further discussion. 

Mayor Ron Bacon, who originally requested the third-party review of what happened with the flooding along Northlawn, indicated he is planning to put the item on the consent agenda for approval without discussion at the next meeting. 

Brookover, however, said that he intends to pull it off the consent agenda for further discussion and deliberation. His main contention is that the City can likely get this review done for less money, potentially with help from experts at Michigan State University. Brookover indicated that he might be interested in putting out the job for bids via a Request for Proposals (RFP). 

Dylan Lees for ELi

East Lansing Council member George Brookover at the Nov. 9, 2021, meeting.

Lahanas said the review wasn’t put out for bids because TetraTech did the previous consulting on the sewer and has the data about the City’s system. Lahanas said he wasn’t sure if the City itself has that data. Using a frustrated tone, Brookover asked Lahanas and City staff to review the original agreement with TetraTech and see if they owned that information (which he called a “work product”) or if the City does, seeing as its their own sewer system. 

A review or investigation of what happened with the construction and flooding along Northlawn Avenue does seem likely to occur, but who will be doing it, and when, remains unknown. Bacon said he doesn’t think the review can be “independent” as long as the City is paying for it, but it can be “autonomous” in his view.

Using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to help pay for sewer check valves for homeowners came back for further discussions.

The original proposal to help pay for private backflow prevention devices came forth in October, as part of the first draft plan of how the City would use ARPA funds. It called for using $500,000 of the ARPA funds to split costs of check valve installation with East Lansing property owners.

A new draft proposal presented by Lahanas on Tuesday called for using twice that — $1 million — to help pay for check valves. The money would come across two fiscal years, 2022 and 2023. 

A check valve is a mechanism homeowners can install on the main drain running out of their house to the sewer system. It effectively lets water and sewage flow out, but stops flow from coming in. 

Andrew Graham for ELi

East Lansing Council member Lisa Babcock shows a check valve after the Nov. 16, 2021, meeting.

Several Council members praised Lahanas for pursuing the check valve program with ARPA funds. 

At this point, Lahanas is proposing to use the rest of the likely $12 million on other public projects, including $2 million for a renovation of City Hall, $1 million to “renovate existing meeting/conference space” in the Hannah Community Center, $80,000 for “A/V conference service” at the public library, and more. See the full presentation on his proposal here.

ELi will be bringing more reporting on the proposed uses of ARPA funds. 

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