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Kuhn better but not perfect

The Daily Tribune (, Serving Southeastern Oakland County

Better but not perfect

Sunday, September 28, 2008

By Elizabeth A. Katz, Daily Tribune Staff Writer

Despite improvements, George W. Kuhn Drain experiences overflow discharge after heavy mid-September rain.

MADISON HEIGHTS — The George W. Kuhn Drain, Michigan’s largest retention basin and water treatment center, was expanded in 2005 at a cost of $132 million. Capacity of the basins was increased to 130 million gallons of storm water and sewage that could be retained and treated.

But this expansion wasn’t enough to prevent an overflow discharge of 1.16 million gallons of a treated combination of sewage and rain water into the Red Run Drain when the skies opened up and poured relentlessly over the area the weekend of Sept. 13-14 of 2008 .

That overflow was then discharged into the Clinton River watershed and eventually into Lake St. Clair, the main source of drinking water for millions in southeastern Michigan.

According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, however, the amount of fecal coliform found in that discharge was compliant with National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System standards.

“The storm itself was a 25-year storm,” said Tim Prince, chief engineer for operations and maintenance for the Oakland County Drain Commission. “I will say that it’s a significant volume of water and it’s very unusual.”

The discharge, however, concerns Macomb County officials, considering that a similar discharge of about 1 billion gallons flowed into Lake St. Clair in 1994 from what was then the Twelve Towns Drain, which effectively closed the entire shoreline for the entire summer.

The Twelve Towns Drain was renamed the George W. Kuhn Drain in 2006 in honor of the former Oakland County Drain Commissioner. It serves an area of 24,500 acres within 14 Oakland County communities, including Berkley, Birmingham, Clawson, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Madison Heights, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak, Southfield, Troy, Royal Oak Township and Beverly Hills.

Royal Oak, Oak Park, Madison Heights and Ferndale residents, through taxpayer dollars, bear the largest burden of maintaining the Kuhn Drain. Drain improvements in 2005 were funded by the use of low-interest loans through the state’s clean water revolving fund. Approximately $103 million of the project’s cost came from the revolving fund between 2001 and 2004. The rest was paid through taxpayer dollars.

The Michigan DEQ noted that total rainfall was almost five inches over the Sept. 13 weekend with a total spill duration of 23 hours.

Prince said the Kuhn Drain is a combined sewer overflow district, meaning that sanitary sewers and storm water are connected to the drain. Water and sew

age is treated through a chlorination system that kills the bacteria and small and large debris is screened out. It is then released into the Red Run Drain.

“It is cleaner than what is downstream,” Prince said. “Everything was in compliance” with the DEQ.

Prince said that the updated system has eliminated approximately three overflows per year – or a total of 12 overflows since updates were completed in 2005. Rains several weekends ago just simply overtaxed the system.

“When they made the improvements, the improvements weren’t going to eliminate all discharges,” he said. “To imagine building a storage vessel to handle 1.16 billion gallons, it’s nearly impossible.

“When the improvements were made, the number of discharges was significantly reduced.”

Prince also added the Kuhn Drain improvements have eliminated smaller discharge events, which he believes are potentially more harmful than the larger overflow events.

“The smaller events have less storm water and have more sanitary matter in it,” he said. “The smaller events could cause more health concerns. We got rid of some of these smaller events.”

Doug Martz, chairman of the Macomb County Water Quality Board, said he’s glad that improvements have been made to the Kuhn Drain, but ideally, he’d like to see the elimination of all overflow discharges.

“Eventually, I would like to see these retention basins gone,” said Martz. “Get rid of these combined systems. We need to dry out these systems. The goal is to not have these overflows.”

Martz, a Harrison Township resident and St. Clair Channelkeeper, formed the citizen action group Sludge Busters back in 1994 in reaction to the Macomb County beach closures. He was then appointed to the Water Quality Board, which reports to the Macomb County Board of Commissioners.

Martz noted the Water Quality Board will hold its regularly scheduled meeting on Oct. 7 with the Kuhn Drain’s overflow discharge issue on the agenda. At this point, though, he is uncertain what the board will do.

“We discuss these overflows every month,” he said.

Martz also acknowledges that the Kuhn Drain isn’t the only culprit when it comes to contributing to overflows spilling into Lake St. Clair. Drains exist within Macomb County and the Grosse Pointes that contribute to that overflow.

“This isn’t just Oakland County,” he said. “The bottom line is we all get our drinking water from Lake St. Clair.”

The Macomb County Health Department reports that the discharge from Sept. 13-14 rains coincided with beach closures at Blossom Heath and Memorial parks in St. Clair Shores and Burke Park in New Baltimore from Sept. 15 until Sept. 17. Stephen Lichota, associate director of environmental health services for Macomb County said that New Baltimore beach remained closed as of Sept. 22 because of the discharge. Metro Beach in Harrison Township, the largest public access to the lake, has remained open.

Lichota said there is always a concern that exists when overflows occur, but residents in any county need to be aware that what they put on the ground, such as fertilizers, and what they may dump into street sewer drains ends up in the retention basins.

“Heavy rains tend to flush everything,” he said. “People need to be careful of what they have in their own surroundings. The drain is made for rain. It’s made only for the rain, not grass clipping or dog waste.”

Contact Elizabeth A. Katz at or (248) 591-2521.


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