the black-out last year? When it dawned on me that the electricity
was out over large parts of the country, I ran to various neighbors
and encouraged them to fill their bath tubs and any containers with water, because I knew that if the electricity was off, the
water pressure would be dropping pretty fast and then we'd be out of
HP Water Department water control
While Detroit and the suburbs were boiling their water due lessened
water pressure or outright stoppage, Highland Park citizens suffered
no variation of pressure or water quality. As far as water supply
was concerned, we could go about our
business as if nothing had happened.
This phenomenon intrigued me. Why were we getting water and everybody
else was suffering?
Next street over from me is a neighbor who retired from the HP water
department some years ago. He informed me that the HP Water
Department has it's own generator that cuts in if the exterior
electricity supply is cut off.
Doing a little research, I discovered that Highland Park has its own
water department, it's fresh water intake and filtering plant
completely independent of Detroit. How did this come about?
that kept the black-out water flowing
When Henry Ford decided to build his new plant in the open fields of
what was to be Highland Park, he realized that he needed water.
Being a man of vision, he allowed for an extensive water department
capable not only of supplying his companies immediate needs, but
also able to handle expansion and quench the thirst of population of
The Water Department has never had to run at its full capacity, and
now that Ford, Chrysler and the majority of the population has moved
out, the city of Highland Park is up to its high teeth in drinking
The Water Department's very success has led to
the problems that dog the city of Highland Park today.
With an ever decreasing population ( now lower than 17,000 ) the
eroded customer base puts a bigger burden on the remaining population to
fork out for the water department's upkeep.
The whittled down budget and smaller staff has forced the water
department to run on a shoe-string. What has been the effect of
At city hall, a smaller and overworked staff have
to deal with an increasingly irate citizenry.
The staff, particularly the state certified
water plant operators, are qualified. However they are a
skeleton-level staff. Lack of people is a larger issue at this
point. The lack of funds issue is more related to our ability to
invest in plant and equipment, including more expensive repairs,
like the reservoir.
The lack of funds
directly to poorly kept records. Meters - although highly accurate -
have not been read in a timely in the past, and residents suddenly find themselves faced with water bills that are
either long overdue or estimates.
People on pensions or limited income find it impossible to fork out
the exorbitant bill that suddenly appears in their mailbox.
Everybody is loosing their patience and nerves are frayed. The
situation seems in danger of evolving into a vicious downward
spiral with no end in sight.
"Day of Dialogue" I met Steve Egan, the head of the Highland Park
Water Department. Being intrigued with the whole water situation, I
wanted to see how the water department worked, so I asked Steve if I
could visit and he graciously gave me an open invitation.
Mark Kelly of Highland Park's ACME Photo got wind
of my impending visit and asked to come along. That seemed like a
good idea, so off we went.
We pulled up to the parking lot of
Highland Parks Water Department and knocked on the door.
Steve Egan fishes out his ever
ringing cell phone. He seems to
live in an environment of never
ending pending disaster.
As Steve Egan answered the door, his cell
phone rang. There is a burst main on Victor and he has to field the
call. I suggest we go to lunch, and we all head to the "Gandhi" on Conant
in Hamtramck. Once seated, Steve began to give us a broad outline of
the problems the water department faces. I began to get the
impression that Steve is forced to live in a world that is entirely
reactive. There simply is no time to think ahead, to be proactive.
For water main repairs, as well as hydrants, valves, and service
boxes, the Water Department calls in CPI Contracting, who according
to Steve, do a great job of making repairs. So, they do have help in
addition to their City employees. Contractors also help with sewer
backups, mechanical repairs, computers, and other needs. Steve only
personally oversees repairs if the situation is big, critical, or
unusual, but he does end up coordinating these contractors via cell
Using forks and knives, Steve attempts to illustrate where a present break
is, how he thinks they might be able to shut off the valves to stem
the flow; but he isn't sure. Either the survey maps are no longer in
existence, or they have been misplaced so long ago that nobody knows
where they are. Steve says there are two known depositories of
unorganized documents, but he has neither the time nor the
Steve Egan speculates on pipe
locations with cutlery in
resources to initiate a search for the lost
survey maps. Steve says that we have one set of maps for the water
and sewer systems, which are pretty old and not quite complete. He
has a lead on another set that he hopes Detroit Water can copy for
us. CPI also has maps, plus ten+ years of experience in working with
our water system. In affect, a map in their head and a good one. The
delays in getting to the pipe usually are not that great.
Money-starved cities such as Highland
Park pay a higher price to get things done, merely by virtue of the
built-in inefficiency that comes with the lack of resources.
Water loss was estimated at perhaps 50% about 8 to 10 years ago.
Staff thinks the 2000 capital program reduced that somewhat. The
department does not have a good current number for water loss. But
it certainly is much higher than the 15% or so that most utilities
have as a goal. Water loss includes all water not billed: fires,
hydrant flushing to clean out lines, and system leaks.
As we head
back to the water department, I reflect on how tragic this all is.
Purified water is becoming increasingly valuable, as the
never-ending need for it's demand grows with the outward expansion
of the larger metropolitan area.
Severely damaged overview map of
the HP water grid.
Highland Park is to it's high teeth in water
and we are are not exporting any of it. The tax payers are having to
carry the brunt of a major underutilized utility, instead of
enjoying the income that would be afforded by selling water to
However, things may be changing.
Scott, our representative State Senator, is attempting to pass
legislation that will facilitate the export of water from Highland
Park. Ameenah Omar, HP city
council representative is also aware of the problem and is pursuing
Hamtramck would be a promising
customer, because they are next door to us and are paying fairly
high costs for water supplied to them by the City of Detroit. The
timing is right, as Hamtramck has a progressive council and a
Warren has also put out feelers, but apparently they would not be
interested unless they could have control of the HP water
department, with is a highly unlikely scenario. Perhaps they will
revisit the idea of us supplying them water at a later time.
In order to sell water, there would be
considerable expense incurred from a desperately needed upgrade of
the water grid and plant, as well as the cost of connecting the
system to client cities. However, this should not be insurmountable.
If HP can get an agreement from interested cities to supply them
water, it would be likely that a lending institution would
underwrite the cost if they could be assured of a reasonable return
on their investment.
What is needed at
this point in time is a feasibility study to determine if selling
water is a viable option. In the light of
Governor Granholm's commitment to Highland Park and the ensuing
HP Community Report perhaps the rejuvenation of our water
department is something the Governors Office can help facilitate.
Want to visit the Highland Park Water
Department? click here for a
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More info on HP Water:
HIGHLAND PARK WATER DEPARTMENT
Status Report on the Water and Sewer System November 17, 2003
Notice - Penalties on 9- and 12-Month Water Billings