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Aug. 13--Monday's rains overwhelmed sewer systems across metro Detroit, forcing millions of gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage into rivers and lakes.
"As far as the significance of the volumes, this is incredible," said Laura Verona of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "We estimate that this was a 350-year event."
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Macomb County alone logged more than 1 billion gallons in overflows from storm-retention basins and sewers countywide, according to data posted on its website. At least 67 million gallons of the overflow failed to meet federal pollution standards.
DEQ officials are still collecting data to see what happens to E. coli levels in the waterways. Elevated levels are expected and that could prompt beach closures and other public health measures.
Verona said the region's aging infrastructure, including sewer pipes and plants, didn't help matters, but no system could handle the volume of water that fell on Detroit so quickly on Monday. When sewage plants exceed their capacity for water, they have to divert it into waterways.
Most places will try to screen out solids and add some disinfecting materials to it but there isn't enough time to treat it to the standards that are used under normal conditions.
"No system is designed to take that amount of water that fast," said Curtrise Garner, spokeswoman for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. "But our system is doing what it was designed to do. Everything is operating; no system failures."
The system took in so much water that the pressure in the pipes was enough to lift off manhole covers, said Carmine Palombo of the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments.
"I've never heard of that before," he said. "It gives you an idea of how much pressure we're talking about."
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Palombo said the excess water is likely to damage roads by eroding the base they are built upon.
Sewer systems like Detroit's, which combine both rain water and household sewage, can be more prone to flooding because the system always has a base flow of sewage using up a portion of the system's capacity, said Brent Johnson of the National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies.
Systems that only handle storm water do not run into that problem, he said.
Other local officials defended their systems as well.
"The infrastructure last night worked as it was designed, but it was overwhelmed," said Craig Covey of the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner's Office.
Covey said local communities, however, must prioritize upkeep and improvements to the systems.
"A rain event like what we had is probably going to overwhelm most systems but that doesn't mean ... we should just shrug our shoulders and say we're good for another 89 years," Covey said.
The huge volume of water brings with it debris that is swept into the system, which can damage gates and other parts of the sewer system as well, Verona said.
Sewage overflows from the city's wastewater treatment system have contributed to Great Lakes water-quality problems for decades, as have overflows on aging municipal systems in other Great Lakes cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Buffalo, said Lyman Welch, water quality program director for the nonprofit Alliance for the Great Lakes.
"These overflows carry with them bacteria, viruses, untreated industrial wastes -- a whole host of things that can affect people's health and harm fish and wildlife," he said.
The alliance wants more governmental action to improve stormwater and sewage treatment systems, including the installation of "green infrastructure" -- trees, grass and other coverings capable of absorbing stormwater rather than sending it rushing over paved surfaces into lakes and rivers.
The Clinton River is above a 200-year floodplain and other areas are logging record volumes. Verona of the DEQ said 3.9 inches in 24 hours is a benchmark for system designs, but this storm dumped more than 5 inches in about nine hours in some places.
The flood was made worse by a ground that had been saturated by rains last week, she said.
But lawyers who have successfully sued cities on behalf of swamped homeowners say officials can't just blame it on the rain.
"I've never had a case where they didn't say it was an extreme event," said Steve Liddle, a Detroit lawyer who specializes in sewage backup suits.
Liddle said he recently recovered $1.75 million for several hundred Warren homeowners whose sewers backed up in May 2011. Many of them have called today to say they were flooded again. Other cases in Grosse Pointe Farms from the same storm are still being litigated, he said.
"If it was an act of God, how come it keeps happening?" Liddle said. "Our phones are ringing off the hook."
Liddle said many sewers in metro Detroit are separated, meaning that the household sewage and rainwater runoff are transported in separate pipes. In those cases, a heavy rain shouldn't cause sanitary sewers to back up.
"How is the rainwater getting into the sanitary sewer?" he said. "There isn't supposed to be any rainwater in there."
Poor maintenance and design is to blame in those cases, he said.
Liddle said he also has recovered millions more for homeowners in Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Inkster, Taylor and other metro communities in recent years. Because homeowner insurance policies don't cover sewage backups, a homeowner with a finished basement can be out $15,000 to $20,000 after a bad backup, he said.
Liddle said homeowners should photograph and take written notes on any damage. They also must notify their city in writing within 45 days of the backup to preserve their right to sue, he said.
Contact John Wisely: 313-222-6825 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writers Joe Guillen and Eric Lawrence contributed to this report.
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