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Related article: "Mud Puppies anyone?"

Report, 2004

Got Water?
A visit to the Highland Park Water Department
Click for larger picture
Highland Park's Water Department, compliments of Henry Ford

Water monitoring at the HP Water Dept.

HP Water Department water control

Remember 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 water, right?
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?

HP Water department's back-up generator - click for larger picture

The generator 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 60,000 citizens.
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 water.

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 these conditions?

Demanding a moratorium on shut-offs
Water Coalition demonstrating outside "Day of Dialogue"

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 also lead 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.

During the "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.

Click for larger picture
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 phone.

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 lieu of
survey maps.

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.

Click for larger picture
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 neighboring cities.
However, things may be changing. Martha G. 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 solutions.
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 new mayor.
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 virtual tour.
Click picture for virtual tour

Your thoughts and comments? Go here.
Topic discussed on

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 (Extended-period billings)


Click for home page Highland Park Michigan 
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