Several times a year, a state-of-the-art water monitoring system meandering through Macomb, Wayne and St. Clair counties triggers a real-time alert.
Today, that system is in dire straits due to necessary maintenance costs at each monitoring site and a projected depletion of the monitoring fund by December, according to Macomb County officials.
The high-tech monitoring system frequently checks for toxins flowing from Lake Huron into St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and Lake Erie. Basically, they're the bodies that drinking water is pumped from for virtually every household and business in the region.
Warnings can take place as far upstream as Port Huron, but its signal ripples through Mount Clemens, New Baltimore and Grosse Pointe Farms, reaching as far as Wyandotte.
The trigger for the caution among water treatment plants in area communities? Hazardous contaminants, oftentimes from factories in Canada, found in the water intended for roughly 3 million metro Detroiters.
Macomb County Finance Committee Chair Don Brown said keeping the system above water would mean imposing fees estimated to cost each household an extra 50 cents a year.
"It's just the fundamental role of the government to protect the public health," Brown said Wednesday. "It doesn't make sense not to do it."
Keeping the system afloat
Brown credits Congresswoman Candice Miller (R-10th District) and other local officials for spearheading the water monitoring system and championing it at state and federal levels.
"This is the best drinking monitoring system in the United States," he said of the $3.4-million system developed in 2006.
County officials say it's currently operating at “bare minimum” with $210,000 annually and there's no money for equipment replacement, data analysis or technical consultants. A fully operating system would cost between $500,000 and $1 million a year. That would translate to 50 cents a year for water customers in the tri-county area, he said.
Macomb County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Kathy Vosburg of Chesterfield Township said, "It's been my experience out there talking to people, they're willing to pay for it."
Implementing the fee, however, isn't so simple, she said.
Doing so requires regional support from several communities with water treatment plants and forming a transparent entity to oversee the system on a long-term basis.
"It's been a frustrating project," Vosburg said of effort to find solutions among various municipalities and water plants, including the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Previous attempts for the cost-sharing based on volume usage have been met with resistance.
Still, she remains optimistic the goal will be reached by December.
Meanwhile, a regional summit on the issue is slated to happen. A specific date has not been set but Brown said he would like it to happen before summer.
History shows pollution monitoring necessary
More than 700 chemical spills along the St. Clair and Detroit River corridor have been documented since 1986 on the U.S. and Canadian sides of the waterway, according to water pollution reports.
Each site collects water heading from Sarnia’s “Chemical Valley,” where multiple petrochemical plants are suspected of infesting waters with potentially harmful toxins for years.
Brown said there has been progress since the monitoring system's implementation because the companies have better regulation.
"These chemical companies know there's a policeman watching the water," he said.
Public health worries
In a recent report by The Detroit News, Marine City—the location of one of the water monitoring sites in St. Clair County—has seen several cases of a rare kidney cancer called Wilms' tumor in children.
"Since 2007, five cases of the disease have been reported in the city of roughly 5,000— the most recent being identified in a 6-month-old girl in March," according to the May 4 article.
Marine City is home to industrial plants and is down the St. Clair River from Sarnia.
The initial query led public health officials to dismiss environmental causes of the disease, but with the most recent case of Wilms', they've reopened their investigation.
Monitor sites along waterways
The following detection zones are where water is frequently checked for pollution:
- Port Huron
- New Baltimore
- East China
- Marine City
- Ira Township
- Mount Clemens
- St. Clair
- Grosse Pointe Farms
If there's a sample that shows contaminants, each site is immediately notified. According to a study initiated by the Macomb/St. Clair Inter-County Watershed Management Advisory Group, some of the pollutants or reasons for alerts are:
- Hydrocarbons: gasoline, diesel fuel and lubricating oils.
- Organic compounds, such as benzene, xylene, vinyl chloride and total organic carbon.
- Physical properties, such as pH, turbidity, chlorophyll, temperature, dissolved solids and more.