LANSING — It was Dec. 1, and a half-inch of rain had fallen in Lansing, drops that muddied lawns and pooled on pavement, blurred windshields and soaked pedestrians.
Some of the wayward water surged into the city's sewer drain, mixed with the contents of Lansing toilets and contributed to more than four million gallons of sludge spilling into Lansing rivers.
The rain was heavy, but not unprecedented. Neither was the untreated sewage that burbled into area waterways.
Since 2002, about 8.7 billion gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage water have spilled into the environment in Lansing — billions of gunky gallons potentially laden with bacteria that can make people sick and hurt a river's ecosystem.
The rivers that receive them, the Grand and Red Cedar, are deemed "impaired" by state regulators in part because of high levels of a bacterium found in sewage. At times, the water contains so much bacteria it is unsafe for swimming or partial contact, data show.
Officials restarted a project last year designed to stop the overflows, but the work is still decades behind a state-approved schedule that lists a deadline by the end of this year. City and state leaders are negotiating a new, longer timeline for the project.
Lansing will likely need more than a decade to join more than 60 Michigan communities that already have replaced the aged, leak-prone infrastructure. Until then, potentially hundreds of millions of gallons of sewage-laden water will pour into the city's rivers every year.
One sewer, many problems
The combined sewer system works fine on dry days, when both storm water and sewage get treated at the plant and released into the Grand River, a Lake Michigan tributary that flows from Jackson, through Lansing, Grand Rapids, Grand Haven and out to the big lake.
But on wet days, so much rain and melted snow rush into the pipes that the sewer-storm water slurry spills, usually untreated, into the Grand and Red Cedar rivers and Sycamore Creek before it can reach the wastewater treatment plant.
With enough rain or melting snow "you will actually flush sewage directly into your river," she said.
Besides germs that could make people sick, sewage contains carbon, which degrades river ecosystems by using oxygen in the water and leaving less for fish and other animals, she said. It also carries with it nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen,which in high volumes can cause increased algae growth and even more oxygen depletion.
If there isn't enough oxygen in a river, fish and other aquatic animals die. There was a fish kill reported in Lansing in 1999, said Gary Kohlhepp, supervisor of the DEQ water resources division's Lake Michigan unit.
Both the Grand and Red Cedar rivers are listed as "impaired" by the DEQ because of their increased levels of E. coli — an organism that indicates the presence of sewage or wildlife waste — and low levels of dissolved oxygen, Kohlhepp said. The rivers have healthy levels of plant and aquatic life.
E. coli is also used by health officials to determine when water is unsafe for swimming or partial human contact. That sometimes happens in the Grand and Red Cedar rivers, Ingham County Health Department river sampling data show.
"Clearly, between where it crosses South Waverly Road and when it gets to Shiawassee [Street], there seems to be a pretty significant jump in E. coli levels," he said.
A 2012 report also showed a similar trend in the Red Cedar River, Kohlhepp said.
Scientists can't point to Lansing's sewers as the only cause of those impairments, since road runoff, pet waste and agriculture and industrial pollution are hard to track and can also pollute waterways.
Rivers across the country are cleaner now than they were decades ago thanks to federal mandates laid out in the Clean Water Act, Kohlhepp said.
Stopping sewer overflows is one of those mandates, and Lansing is not alone in failing to meet it. EPA reports state combined sewer overflows are a "priority water pollution concern" for 860 municipalities in the U.S., most of which are in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.
Inside Lansing's sewers
It's well known to state regulators that Lansing's sewer system is pollution-prone. Dan Beauchamp, DEQ sewer engineering specialist, has listed it among the top three leakiest combined systems in Michigan — in terms of untreated spills — eight times since 2008 in his annual reports.
Lansing's overflow-prone combined sewer system was built in the city's original core: downtown, Old Town and the west and east sides, Lansing Public Service Director Andy Kilpatrick said. Most of the city's south side was developed later and mostly with separated sewers.
"A long time ago, people didn't really care where the sewage went as long as it wasn't in their homes or businesses anymore," he said.
At one time, about 80 Michigan cities had leaky combined systems, Beauchamp said. Lansing is one of 16 that remain, and in some years it's the worst. The capital city nabbed first place for untreated discharges twice between 2008 and 2017, though usually it was outranked by Detroit and Dearborn.
Besides their relic infrastructure, Beauchamp pointed to another similarity between Lansing and other cities with leaky combined sewer systems: the "affordability factor." Separating combined sewers or increasing their capacity to handle major influxes of storm water isn't cheap.
"A [wealthier] city like Grand Rapids was able to go through a combined sewer overflow separation program; they just completed most of their work, " Beauchamp said. "Then there are communities like Dearborn, the city of Detroit, and Lansing, that still have a significant number of [overflows]... Unfortunately, affordability is a big issue for some of these places."
After separating combined sewers under more than 4,000 acres of the city in the mid-1980s, Lansing launched another separation project in 1991, according to a project timeline published on the city's website.
Crews have separated 71 percent of the city's combined sewers and shrunk overflow volumes by more than half. City officials estimate the combined sewers once overflowed 1.65 billion gallons per year. In 2018, only about 391 million gallons overflowed.
But work stopped in 2012, in part because of the toll it would take on city finances in the years following the the Great Recession, Beauchamp said.
Lansing has spent approximately $210 million on sewer separation since 1992, Kilpatrick said. The project largely has been financed through low-interest state loans but ultimately will be shouldered by rate-payers whose sewer bills have been increased approximately 3 to 4 percent more per year to cover the cost of work, maintenance and operation.
The city pitched a cost-saving idea to the DEQ in 2013 that called for combining the combined sewer overflow work with other water quality projects in a "wet weather control program," according to a Lansing State Journal story published that year.
State and local officials are still hashing out that 2013 plan, Beauchamp said.
"The current schedule that is approved, because of a lot of factors — the recession, the cost issues — that schedule is not going to be achieved," Beauchamp said. "We're in the process of trying to negotiate a new schedule."
Both parties said they are close to agreement, but the years-long pause has put the work far behind schedule to be finished this year, as listed in the current permit.
Pipe dream could come true
There are combined sewers left under more than 2,000 acres of Lansing. Kilpatrick estimated will take 15 to 20 years and another $199 million to separate them.
While fixing the combined sewers is expensive, not fixing the leaky system also carries a financial risk.
DEQ records show the agency fined Lansing $28,750 in 2004 because of excessive overflows in its sanitary sewer system — the one that's usually cleaner. The city's separated sanitary system overflowed 17 times in 2004, spilling at least 9 million gallons. DEQ records indicate the overflows were mostly caused by heavy rainfall.
In its administrative consent order, the department noted "several portions of the Lansing sanitary sewer system continue to experience infrequent SSO/basement flooding occurrences."
Along with the fine, the DEQ ordered Lansing to stop those overflows by 2008.
Sanitary overflows have improved but not been eliminated, DEQ records show. Beauchamp said there were six sanitary sewer overflows in 2018, resulting in approximately 38.5 million gallons spilled.
Along with a new permit and timeline, the DEQ and Lansing are brokering another administrative consent order over the city's combined and sanitary sewer overflows, Beauchamp said. He declined to say whether that order would carry another fine.
As officials hammer out the details and negotiate timelines, crews are a year in to the revived sewer separation work in portions of the Moores Park Neighborhood and neighborhoods near West Mount Hope Avenue and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
The work should be completed this year, marking another lap in the decades-long race toward cleaning Lansing's sewers.
But 2019 also will be a year of more overflows. The DEQ has already investigated four since Jan. 1, which have resulted in more than 5 million gallons spilled.
Support local journalism and access more stories like this by subscribing to the Lansing State Journal.