Protecting the People Downstream

Grand Rapids’ unwavering commitment to its environmental goal has helped the city beat a 30-year plan to eliminate CSOs by four years.
Protecting the People Downstream
Environmental Services Manager Michael Lunn (left) and Managing Director of Public Services Tom Almonte discuss a project at the Grand River Dam in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Photography by John R. Fulton Jr.)

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Sometimes a city tackles a major problem only because legislation requires it. Almost 30 years ago, the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan, embarked on a massive sewer separation project simply because it was the right thing to do. Today’s total victory over combined sewer overflows is not only a credit to city staff and elected officials, but also the will of Grand Rapids’ residents and ratepayers.

Like many cities, Grand Rapids once released untreated stormwater and sewage directly into local bodies of water — in this case, the Grand River. The city built its first wastewater treatment plant in 1931 and regularly improved treatment capabilities. However, the combined sewer system continued to release CSOs into the river. At one point, the city routinely logged an average of 10 billion gallons of CSOs each year — it reached 12.9 billion gallons in 1969. That represented an environmental problem not only in Grand Rapids, but in downriver communities such as Grand Haven, 30 miles west on Lake Michigan.

Michael Lunn, manager of the city’s Environmental Services Department, joined the staff in 1997, but the single event that launched the CSO project is standard history for department staff.

“The event that galvanized the city to action was a blockage in the sewer that caused a dry weather CSO in 1988,” says Lunn. “It was big news and was featured on television. At that point, the city was ready to admit that it had a CSO problem and announced that it was going to fix it. The city worked with the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to plan for the future of the system with a 30-year project timeline to be completed in 2019.”

The estimated $400 million cost of the project was to be entirely funded by a ratepayer levy, to be lifted in 2042.

Beginning with the basin

Simply known as the Sewer Improvement Project, work began with construction of the 30-million-gallon Market Avenue Retention Basin, which went online in 1990. The $3 million project was designed to take a large volume of potential CSOs out of the running in one fell swoop while other work commenced. The city also increased its capability to transport and partially treat up to a billion gallons of retained water from the basin each day.

The remaining effort was simple grunt work — hard and inconvenient. The city dug in and excavated one street after another, diverting flows and separating pipe as one project followed another over an area of 4.7 square miles. The city also eliminated 59 identified sewer overflow sites that discharged into the Grand River. For younger residents, the project has been a way of life.

“Whether work was in business or residential districts, we replaced the entire road, sidewalk to sidewalk,” Lunn says. “We also partnered with the water department, which installed new water utilities.”

As work in each district was completed, neighborhoods and streetscapes were also upgraded to offer residents a sense that improvements were occurring both above and below grade.
Work began on the less demanding west side of the river and moved to the east side in 1999.  

“On the east side, we had to bring in a trunk line to convey stormwater to the river and that project was a big challenge,” Lunn says. “It was a big pipe that had to pass through a lot of neighborhoods.”

Picking up speed

During the financial crisis of 2008, many communities suspended work on large infrastructure projects. Not Grand Rapids.

“Our CFO said that we could borrow money at rates lower than he’d ever seen them,” Lunn says. “He asked us if we had any projects we needed to do. I told him we were also getting bids lower than any we’d ever seen so we moved up the whole timeline of the CSO separation project.”

The city eliminated its final CSO overflow point on July 28, 2015. Crews finished work at the intersection of Washington Street and Lafayette Avenue with the replacement of historic catch basins in the heritage district. With that project, the CSO program was completed four years ahead of the 2019 deadline that Grand Rapids had set with the state.

All told, the city installed more than 119 miles of new storm and sanitary pipe, and separated 99.5 percent of the sewer network.

The newly separated system is not only providing environmental benefits, but financial ones. In 1991, the sewer treatment plant consumed 32 million kWh at a cost of $2.7 million. In 2015, with lower treatment volumes, it consumed only 23 million kWh at a cost of $1.9 million.

Maintaining the system

Despite all the energy devoted to the CSO project, the city has also been ensuring that the sewage system is well maintained. Construction of the original sewer network began in the mid- 1800s and now includes 1,100 miles of pipe.

Pipe ranges from 8 inches in diameter to 11- by 17-foot box sewers. Gravity pipe includes asbestos cement, vitrified clay, corrugated steel and cast-in-place concrete. Newer installations are completed with PVC truss pipe. About 15 miles of force mains are made of ductile iron and HDPE. Pipes are typically buried 8 to 35 feet below ground, out of range of the freeze-thaw cycle.

Lunn rates the condition of the sewer system as a solid “B.” The vitrified clay pipe and the half-century-old asbestos cement pipe provide the system’s greatest challenges, as they’re the most likely to be compromised.

“We invest about $600,000 to $1 million per year on cured-in-place pipe lining, whether it’s to keep the roots out of the clay or to reinforce the asbestos cement,” he says.  

In-house crews handle much of the repair work and smaller construction projects, while the rest is contracted out. Sewers are also cleaned in-house on a five-year cycle, with identified problem areas receiving extra attention. The city operates several Vactor combination trucks to assist in the work.

The state of Michigan now requires utilities to develop a thorough asset management plan. The city’s RapidView IBAK camera system is kept busy inspecting all sewer lines to NASSCO rating standards as part of the program. A dedicated two-person team is currently logging the city’s vertical wastewater and stormwater assets.

The city has also embraced green infrastructure to reduce stormwater loading and inflow and infiltration. In 2015, city engineers established a protocol that considers green infrastructure before gray infrastructure on any street project. That often includes construction of features such as porous pavement, rain gardens and infiltration basins.

Celebrating a victory

On April 18, 2017, city leaders past and present gathered on the city’s Gillett Bridge to celebrate the successful completion of the CSO project.

At the ceremony, current deputy city manager Eric DeLong unfurled a bedsheet banner crafted by school kids in Grand Haven almost 20 years before. Both he and Lunn had stored the banner in their own homes at various times, waiting for this moment. The banner asked Grand Rapids to solve the CSO problem that affected the downstream community. One of the signatories was Mary Koscielniaky.

“We solved this for Mary, my niece, the city of Grand Rapids as well as for all the kids in Grand Haven,” DeLong proclaimed.

For Lunn, the completion of the CSO project provides a sense of accomplishment — and relief.  

“When I started work with the city 20 years ago, if it started clouding up it was pretty much assured we would have an overflow someplace,” he says. “Now, it’s not nearly so exciting around here when it rains.”

Putting the rapids back into Grand Rapids

Grand Rapids, Michigan, was named after its most prominent geographic feature, a set of vigorous rapids located 610 feet above sea level.

However, those rapids were tamed by construction of a series of dams designed to float logs to factories in a community once known as Furniture City. A nonprofit initiative, Grand Rapids Whitewater, aims to restore those rapids to the city — with a little help from the city’s Environmental Services Department.

“By removing the Sixth Street Dam and reconstructing the riverbed, we can restore a 17-foot drop in elevation and bring back the rapids,” says Michael Lunn, manager, Environmental Services Department, city of Grand Rapids.  

The proposed plan is intended to spur tourism, reduce flooding, increase sport fishing opportunities, and provide a better habitat for sturgeon and other wildlife.

The department is working with stakeholders to ensure that the ultimate removal of the dam will be completed with the assurance that water quality in the river will be maintained.

“The idea is to reconnect citizens to the river,” says Lunn. “Removing all 59 combined sewer overflow points from our sewage system was a necessary precondition to moving this project forward. We’re hoping to have planning and permitting for the dam removal project in place by the end of 2017.”


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