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Retention Basin Cleaning Latest Step Toward Cleaner Lake

By flushing out an underground retention basin in St. Clair Shores, Macomb County Public Works engineers took a small step toward a cleaner Great Lakes.

The $10,000 project, completed over a week in late May, means that several thousand gallons of combined sewage overflows will not be dumped into Lake St. Clair during a heavy rain. And while that alone will not make the lake perfectly pristine, it is part of a larger program of many small steps aimed at cleaning up the lakes.

“In a perfect world, we would wave the magic wand and instantly eliminate any sewage from ever getting anywhere near our rivers and lakes,” said Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller. “But we don’t live in a perfect world, with unlimited funding. So what we are doing is looking at everything, engaging with every partner we have, looking for both the immediate steps we can take right now to make a difference in the lakes while we also begin to look at what our longer-term strategy can be.”

Throughout Macomb and Oakland counties – particularly in those parts of the counties developed in the 1970s or early – communities are built with combined sewer systems, meaning both sanitary sewage from toilets and sinks and run off from a rain fall travel through the same sewer. During heavy rains, the systems become overwhelmed and the overflow ultimately ends up in Lake St. Clair, after only minimal treatment to remove E.coli and other contaminants. Retention basins in both counties are designed to hold some of the overflow, but they too are often overwhelmed in heavy rains.

The Macomb County Public Works Office spent part of May adding new gates to the Martin Retention Basis it operates in St. Clair Shores. The new gates allowed for a flushing out of the basin of sewer solids that had built up over the years. The flushed materials were then sent downstream to the sewage treatment plant. Removal of the solid build-up from the basin creates an estimated additional storage capacity in the basin of as much as 20,000 gallons that can be held in a heavy rain. The basin has a total capacity of 8.6 million gallons.

“We know that 20,000 gallons alone isn’t enough. Of course it isn’t,” Miller said. “But it is another incremental step that we can take and if we can keep 20,000 gallons of sewage out of the lake, every time it rains – well who wouldn’t do that?”

The project at the Martin Retention Basin is part of a larger effort the Public Works Office has begun with the cities of St. Clair Shores, Eastpointe and Roseville. Mayors of the three cities have met with Miller and agreed to conduct a study on ways to possibly increase the total flow of sewage that flows south the treatment plant in Downriver Detroit during a storm.

“Everything is on the table,” said St. Clair Shores Mayor Kip Walby. “This is a regional challenge, so we have to take a regional approach to finding solutions.”

Part of the challenge dealing with sewage overflow issues is that over the years, a series of different authorities, districts and boards were created to own and manage various pump stations and other assets in the county. Within a three block radius in St. Clair Shores alone there are three facilities, all owned by different entities: the Martin Retention Basin, owned by the Martin Sanitary Diversion Drainage District; the Bon Heur Pump Station, owned by the Southeast Macomb County Wastewater Disposal District; and the Rio Vista Pump Station, owned by the South Macomb Sanitary District. All of the entities eventually send sewage south into Wayne County, where it eventually runs to the treatment plant in Detroit. In Wayne County, a similar maze of sewage entities exist, with some Macomb County entities holding a partial ownership stake in some of those entities.

Dealing with all these different entities and communities is part of the challenge facing government officials.

“The study underway now is to determine what’s the best way to ensure that all of these different entities are working together in a way that is harmonious and best serves the residents,” Walby said.

While that study is happening, the county Public Works Office has launched a new program that is testing massive storm water drains in St. Clair Shores, Roseville and Eastpointe – underground pipes that should only have rain water or melted snow in them – to seek out any possible connections by sanitary sewers. A preliminary review in the project found a small apartment complex in Eastpointe that had been sending as much as a quarter million gallons of raw sewage a year directly into Lake St. Clair, possibly for as long as 30 years.

With the new inspection being launched in the pipes this summer, the Public Works Office is coordinating the $1.6 million testing project and the three cities have agreed to make any necessary fixes if sewage is found flowing into the pipes.

At the Clinton River Watershed Council, environmentalists have been working for more than 45 years on projects large and small to improve the overall health of the Clinton River and connecting waterways. There, Amanda Oparka, the agency’s watershed planner, said it is multiple small steps, by many partners, that ultimately makes the difference.

“There is no one, single action that will clean up the river or Lake St. Clair,” Oparka said. “It really is many actions taken, as part of a larger strategy, by many partners, that ultimately makes the difference both today and for future generations.”

At the Public Works Office, Miller said actions taken with the Martin retention basin and meetings with various local government leaders is all part of a larger focus.

“Our mission is clean water and clean government,” she said. “That’s the test we apply to everything we are doing. We have a tremendous responsibility to protect our Great Lakes and we intend to live up to that responsibility.”