Flint water crisis a long time coming says former DWSD chief engineer

Flint Water Crisis-1-31
Photo Credit: Andre Smith

Dennis Green is a water man.

Everyone needs to drink water to survive, but Green’s passion about H2O, which has essentially been his life’s work and focus for close to half a century, borders on the fanatical – and this is not meant in a bad way. After all, many would say John the Baptist was a fanatic.

Retired as of 2010, Green spent virtually his entire professional career working for the Detroit Water and Sewer Department (DWSD). His last position held before stepping down was as the head water systems engineer. Green describes himself as someone for whom water, and all the master feats of engineering that go into providing clean water to households like yours and mine, is not just a job. It is also a hobby because, even in his off hours, Green would amuse himself tinkering with engineering ideas and theories that could potentially improve water delivery.

So yes, the man may be a bit obsessed. But the man also knows a thing or two about what makes water work. Which is why what he has been witnessing in recent headlines about the Flint water crisis doesn’t shock or surprise him so much. As someone who has been inhabiting the belly of the beast for so many years, Green knows far more than most about what has been transpiring behind the scenes that has helped bring Flint to this point going back many years before Gov. Rick Snyder’s current dilemma. What Green also believes is that the Karegondi Water Authority, currently expected to (hopefully) be operational around July 2016, is far from the solution to the Flint’s water crisis that it has been promoted as being.

“Karegondi, all they do is screen out the fish and pump raw water. You still have to treat it. We’re giving them [Flint] finished water ready to drink and that’s not what Karegondi provides. They provide raw water and Flint’s going to have to run their treatment plant. [Flint’s treatment plant] was built in 1952 and it’s not up to modern standards. Especially corrosion control. The corrosion control they’re arguing about is not there. And it still is not there. If they had Lake Huron water they’d still have had the problem because they don’t have corrosion control in their system.”

Furthermore, “I don’t know how good their filters are or what shape they’re in.”

Dennis Green
Dennis Green

Green contends that Flint has had a long-standing beef with DWSD, essentially because they were never given much of a say over their water rates or any other aspect of control ever since DWSD expanded its territory decades ago to include Genesee County. The construction of the Karegondi facility, which broke ground in 2013, was a major part of a plan to provide Flint with some water independence.

Which brings us to a rather interesting piece of information recently posted on the Bill Johnson Group website on Jan. 22, where Johnson displays a 2013 email from then DWSD Director Sue McCormack which says the following:

From: Sue McCormick [mailto:mccormick@dwsd.org]
Sent: Monday, April 15, 2013 6:20 PM
To: Fausone, Jim
Cc: William Wolfson; billjohnson
Subject: Fwd: KWA and City of Flint

Gentlemen,The cliffnotes version:   Proposal offers a today rate of water for Flint/Genesee of $10.46 as compared to $20.00 paid currently per Mcf – 48% less that could be realized nearly immediately and even more when compared to the increases coming with KWA. When compared over the 30 year horizon the DWSD proposal saves $800 million dollars or said differently – saves 20% over the KWA proposal.


Sue F. McCormick, Director
Detroit Water and Sewerage Department
735 Randolph, Room 506
Detroit, Michigan 48226

Johnson, of course, is the spokesperson for DWSD. And what stands out about this communication is that a proposal was made three years ago that apparently would have reduced DWSD water rates for Flint to the tune of $800 million in savings over a 30–year period, representing a 20 percent savings over Karegondi. According to Johnson, Gov. Snyder turned down the deal.

“The demise of DWSD and the fiasco in Flint both are symptoms of the politicizing of water,” said Green. “We need engineers and chemists in charge without politicians gagging them. They still are promoting based on political clout rather than technical ability.

“We’re on the brink of disaster here, but the feeling seems to be that we will be bailed out by the GLWA [Great Lakes Water Authority], which I always bad mouth and refer to as a shift change for the clown car. They’re just replacing city politicians with county politicians. And the problem is politicians. Politics has no place in water.”

Green said Flint River’s water quality was declining as far back as the 1950s, which is why Flint signed on to the expansion of the DWSD when it went regional.

“At that time, DWSD was run by an engineer. There was a good balance of power between the engineer and the Board of Water Commissioners” who were all appointed people,” he said.

“In that era, Detroit was the national leader in water. Our people were on the boards that were writing the standards for the American Water Works Association [AWWA]. Our engineering was renowned. …I think some of the catalogues may still have a Detroit fire hydrant listed there. It was designed here as a premium fire hydrant if you wanted the best money could buy. AWWA was always the minimum spec that was allowed. If you wanted the best, you bought a Detroit model. That’s how great our reputation was.”

“Then, in 1974 they rewrote the city charter, and they decided that we should run the water department like a business. The mayor nominates the CEO, but then the board approves it. And then there was a big fight over whether they should keep a requirement for a licensed engineer, and they got rid of that. And that’s when the politics started.”

Soon came runaway inflation, combined with an edict from Mayor Coleman Young that water rate increases be capped at 3 percent per year. That placated the suburbs, but Green says it left DWSD without enough money to operate. Eventually maintenance was sacrificed just so there would be enough money to pay essential bills.

“And so maintenance was history.”

As for the future of Flint water, stay tuned…

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