Water System Management: Functional Ecosystem or Vicious Cycle?
Highland Park, Michigan Breaks the Cycle and Returns to Excellence
Across the country, aging water system infrastructures present challenges to residents, business owners, and municipalities. Standard revenue generation and operational models work for many communities, but these same models can negatively impact disadvantaged communities, pushing them into a vicious cycle that becomes more and more difficult to break.
Lead-containing water, inconsistent billing, and fines overwhelm residents while the city deals with a dated infrastructure, an understaffed water department, and severe compliance challenges. In this situation, clean, affordable water isn’t anywhere in sight. Breaking the cycle demands strong interdepartmental cooperation between municipal operators, engineers, field teams, finance, and administrative leaders to enable results, as shown in Figure 1.
A prime example of the ecosystem at work is in Michigan’s City of Highland Park, where the water system’s deteriorated conditions stemmed from years of neglect. As the Director of the Water Department, Metro Consulting Associates (MCA) stepped in and quickly helped the city recoup lost revenue, set standards, conduct regular condition assessments of infrastructure, and set up a sustainable operations plan that reversed the cycle into a functional ecosystem that serves the community and the municipality. Let’s break it down.
1. Revenue Streams
A large automotive manufacturer located in Highland Park provided a tax base. But when the company moved out, the debt load fell on the remaining residents—46.8% of whom fell under the poverty level, according to the 2020 State Revolving Fund project plan. Years of vacancies and blight compounded the area’s issues. Local, state, and federal grants and loans were available, but funding was competitive. Also, significant barriers blocked application submissions.
Funding was critical, and MCA assembled a plan. First, they had to prove that Highland Park was a financially distressed community. Next, staff members researched, wrote, and submitted the grants, which was no small effort. Grant submissions are costly as engineers, field staff, and financial and office personnel are involved, and there’s no guarantee the project will receive funding.
Jarion Bradley, PE, MCA’s head of municipal engineering and project manager of Highland Park, has been working on-site since the beginning. He said, “You have to know a lot about your assets, which is a hurdle that these communities face if they haven’t had professionals assess the condition of the infrastructure. A lot of what goes into these applications is understanding your assets and having a plan put together to submit to these agencies.”
Their work paid off. Over the years, Highland Park received approximately $40 million in grants and loans. Most recently, MCA was awarded funding for a Water Leak Pilot aimed at reducing wastewater in Highland Park.
2. Investment & Operations
When MCA arrived, the City’s sewer system was an undocumented puzzle. For years, the catch basins, pipes, and manholes were poorly maintained and began to fade below vegetation, sediment, soil, and debris. Before repairs could begin, MCA conducted a full assessment to gauge the infrastructure’s existing conditions.
Documenting Existing Conditions
With assistance from the Stormwater, Asset Management, and Wastewater (SAW) program, the assessment began. According to Bradley, the MCA team literally walked the city’s 2.95 square miles to understand what was there (Figure 2). The city televised the Highland Park sewer system, assessed the conditions of the sewer piping and manhole structures, and metered the discharge points that flow into the Great Lakes Water Authority’s collector pipes.
With existing conditions now in hand, MCA created base maps for upload to the city’s first ArcGIS enterprise database to maintain inventory with inspection reports and maintenance records. Today, the database streamlines workforce management, water and sewer modeling, manhole inspections, sewer inspections, DPW vegetation management, community development, and more. This work helped the city understand the entire water system and sewer system to prioritize replacements.
A Technical, Managerial, and Financial (TMF) capacity study allowed for an independent assessment of the utility’s operations. For Highland Park, the study documented processes and areas of concern with the infrastructure to help the city plan capital improvements, staffing, and short- and long- terms needs for the community to reach an acceptable level of operation and become more self-sustaining.
A Properly Staffed Water Department
Building a sustainably funded and staffed water system is a complex challenge that extends well beyond the water department. Delivering clean, affordable water demands inter-departmental cooperation and proactive engagement with oversight agencies and the community.
When it came to staffing, Highland Park faced a major EGLE compliance issue—lack of an S-2 certified water operator. MCA worked with Highland Park to identify a water operator with the right qualifications. The American Water Works Association, or AWWA, outlines the process an operator needs to take to achieve certification, ranging from a S-1 to a S-4. For Highland Park, a S-2 operator was hired, meeting EGLE’s requirements.
3. Maintaining Water Service Standards
The vast majority of Highland Park’s 100-year-old, dilapidated cast iron water distribution system consisted of lead-based materials on the private side of the system. Lead exceedance was a major issue as it exposed the residents to metals in their homes and in their drinking water. Several leak studies were conducted revealing a 50% leakage rate. The fragile water system led to sinkholes and costly watermain breaks. MCA guided Highland Park through the 2019 EGLE lead exceedance program to eliminate health risks and bring the system into compliance.
Standardizing the Billing Process
Without consistent staffing, the water department’s billing system needed an overhaul. Bills weren’t regularly issued to customers, who were unaware of their water usage. Using GIS technology with coordinated efforts across multiple city departments, MCA helped to identify and locate property owners for every land parcel in the city and aggressively targeted unauthorized water users, improved the accuracy of monthly meter reads, and ensured customers received monthly billing statements. In just two years, water department collections jumped from 45% to 85%.
4. Public Opinion
Establishing trust with the public was critical. The water department didn’t have the best reputation in the community. Damon Garrett, PE, president of MCA, had some very hard conversation with customers. “There was a lot of listening we had to do. People needed to vent about their experiences before being open to your solutions,” Bradley said.
Transparency helped gain trust. Early on, MCA made sure the customer service center returned calls and remained professional. Living and working in the community helped the team truly understand the customer experience. Garrett and Bradley went above and beyond by being present and readily accessible.
5. Regulatory Compliance
Sticking to the facts helped MCA gain the credibility and support needed within city departments and funding agencies. The newly mapped infrastructure and ArcGIS database provided the necessary data while remaining neutral.
Clear and concise goals, backed by frequent, interdepartmental communications helped get things going in the right direction. Bradley says, “We’re in constant communication with the city administrators, the mayor, city council, the finance department, the treasurer, public works…we have to coordinate, so we’re all working towards the same goal. If departments understand their roles in the project, it helps get the necessary things done.”
City support was critical to obtain the loans and grants needed for Highland Park. The city is now set up for success as improvements are underway.
Empathy—The Key Takeaway
The years spent on the Highland Park project revealed that being fully immersed in the community, especially when others aren’t willing to, builds the relationships needed for change.
Bradley says, “Each and every community has its own challenges. In Highland Park, people take great pride in certain aspects of the community. It’s important for an engineering partner to understand that sense of pride and to be willing to fully participate in the journey back to normalcy.”
MCA is committed to the betterment of communities, particularly those who are underserved. Beyond our technical expertise in civil engineering, land surveying, GIS, and materials testing, our team of 70+ professionals believe in dynamic action for effective results. Let’s work together.
About The Author
Jarion L. Bradley, PE