Season 2, Episode 3 - William Shuster, chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering, on how to curtail massive flooding in Detroit

Prof. William Shuster, Chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the College of Engineering, discusses massive flooding in Detroit and what can be done to curb the deluges. 

Episode Notes

In the wake of massive flooding in Detroit this summer, Prof. William Shuster, chair of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the WSU College of Engineering, sits down with host Darrell Dawsey to explain why the city floods so badly and what can be done to solve the problems.

About

William Shuster is the chair of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the College of Engineering. His research interests include urban hydrology with an emphasis on stormwater and wastewater management; hydraulics of urbanized soils and regulation of contaminant fate and transport processes; rendering of ecosystem services from urbanized landscapes; issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in services from civil-environmental infrastructure; demolition science. He is affiliated with the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Additional Resources

Follow the College of Engineering on Twitter.

Follow the College of Engineering on Facebook.

Read a Q&A with William Shuster.

Listen to Shuster's interview with WDET.

Transcript

Announcer:

Welcome to Today@Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community. With news announcements, information and current events discussions, relevant to the university's goals and mission, Today@Wayne serves as the perfect form for our campus to begin a conversation or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.

Darrell Dawsey:

Welcome to the Today@Wayne podcast, I'm your host Darrell Dawsey. Long before the rains that inundated the metro Detroit area for much of this summer, the region has been pounded by massive deluges before. In 1986, Southeastern Michigan experienced its worst flooding in half a century, as rainfall averaged between six inches and one foot for three incredible days in September. Damage was estimated at as much as $500 million. This was topped in August 2014, when nearly five inches fell in one day alone, in rainfalls that would eventually leave metro Detroit with flood damage estimated at $1.8 billion. This year's flooding, however, may well go down as the worst ever for now.

Darrell Dawsey:

For instance, more than six inches of rain fell in 24 hours in June of this year; during one 32-day stretch, rain fell for 22 days, dumping more than five-and-a-half inches on the region at a time when the area usually averages about three inches. Highways have been overwhelmed, scores of cars have been left stalled and waterlogged, hundreds of homes, if not more, have been severely damaged and the fallout has extended far beyond freeways, curb sides and residential bases. Fears of climate change have been amplified, lawsuits have been filed. Public confidence has been eroded like so much sandstone. Meanwhile, government officials like those at the Great Lakes Water Authority, which wrested control of the city's water system from Detroit government when the city was forced in the bankruptcy in 2013, are pointing fingers and shifting blame.

Darrell Dawsey:

To help us make sense of all this, the Today@Wayne podcast is joined today by William Shuster, professor and chair of the department of civil and environmental engineering at Wayne state University. Bill has become an increasingly vocal and important voice in the rising debate over why Detroit floods, what's to blame and what should be done about the problem. And now he's here to talk with us about our regional response to what appears to be a rapidly worsening issue and how we might get out of this mess. Bill, welcome to the Today@Wayne podcast.

William Shuster:

All the thanks, Darrell, thanks for having me.

Darrell Dawsey:

So let's get at it. First of all, just how bad has the flooding been this year as compared to previous years, and as we look at our averages?

William Shuster:

Well, the flooding, something has shifted. What we're talking about is extreme but unpredictable rainfall events. This gets away from 500-year storms, 1,000-year storms. When we get into the probabilities and stuff like that, we're in some new territory here. So, let's take June 25th, 26th, for example. We had a soaking rainfall event that was followed by an unprecedented pulse of rainfall that fell hard. The rainfall intensity was very high for a short period of time.

William Shuster:

So that pre-soaking event, it's kind of like as if we had paved our whole city, like the rainfall hit the ground and if it was soil, that soil was saturated. So, we had runoff everywhere, everything acted like a paved surface, rain on it. That's where we get flooding. For example, my street in Grosse Pointe Park went up to 22 inches.

Darrell Dawsey:

Wow.

William Shuster:

Where the curb meets the street, 22 inches, that was the peak flood stage and cars, anything parked in the street like my car, totaled. But then we had the matter of wastewater, the backups. So basically, there were failures within the wastewater conveyance system and the pumping systems that affected all the East Side, the West Side, Inkster, Dearborn, downriver, Melvindale, Garden City and so—

Darrell Dawsey:

So, when you say failure, do you mean these things just weren't working or were they just not turned on the way they should have been?

William Shuster:

There's a little bit of both there. Talking the East Side, West Side Detroit, again Inkster, Dearborn, the East Side writ large, Detroit, the Grosse Pointes, Harper Woods, Eastpointe, then downriver, those are all what I call heavy wastewater traffic zones because we got a lot of flow coming in from Macomb County and Oakland County and from Western Wayne County and all that meets. There's this traffic jam, so to speak, for wastewater. Even if everything was working, like the pumps were working, everything was right on and starting up on command, this goes for our MDOT-operated pumps there on our freeways, even if everything was working, it would've been a lot to ask of the system because it was designed for a different time and place and water always wins. When we manage water, we have to give it a place to go because otherwise it makes its own decisions and not usually in our interest, us human critters.

William Shuster:

But getting back to the wastewater issue is that the pumps were not working. We didn't have the benefit of regional, full pumping capacity online at the time. So, Jefferson Chalmers, Cornerstone Village, Grosse Pointe Park, basically there is no room for septic flows in these areas. If you're Jefferson Chalmers, you got Detroit River on the east, you've got the Jefferson wastewater interceptor on the west. Then you've got Connors Creek and Fox Creek blocking you in. Most of Jefferson Chalmers is below the surface, it's dyked up all around, to try to ... this is to say that, calling out Jefferson Chalmers, this is a very unique area.

William Shuster:

I start to get in now to the importance of, we really need data equity. We really need to understand the unique nature of how each of our communities live with water and are affected by water. When I say water, it's the Detroit River, it's groundwater, it's wastewater, it's drinking water. It's the way that each of our communities respond to rainfall events. The fact that most of our systems are undersized, they're a piece of our history that haven't transitioned quite as well to this new age mm-hmm. But data equity, we really, I think owe ourselves as a culture, as a society, to understand how water moves through our communities.

Darrell Dawsey:

Now when you say data equity, does that mean that the information from any of these communities simply is not there?

William Shuster:

I would argue that it's not. At best, it's incomplete, but hey, can we get a groundwater study in Jefferson Chalmers, to say, "Well, maybe we need to be managing Jefferson Chalmers more like New Orleans." This is just again, getting a benchmark, data around that, which is not rocket science. This is routine stuff that we know how to do. Doing flood studies in our different ... Detroit River, Downriver, Inkster, Dearborn communities say, "Hey, these are where the flashpoints are. These are the points that really need some different kinds of infrastructure put in." But you have that basic data and this is basic engineering practice, is having the proper benchmark data to work from, to create a design that actually serves.

Darrell Dawsey:

Now, you suggested this isn't necessarily hard stuff to do or hard information to aggregate. Why hasn't it happened, Bill?

William Shuster:

Well, this is just, I think, a societal response to a creeping issue that's been, well again, creeping up on us. We have these warnings, these indications over time with these disasters. What gives me hope that maybe this is different and it's so important to say that, hey, this has been a disaster for all of us. This is the equal opportunity destroyer of health, property and morale. The fact that it's happened basically three times this summer, if not four times or more, depending on where you live and where you're at in the wastewater system, but this addresses some very human aspects.

William Shuster:

The feeling of vulnerability, there's fear, you can feel it on the East Side when it starts to rain. You can see it in how people are responding. That there's self-violence, there's interpersonal violence. There's that kind of anxiety that doesn't have anywhere to go. So, by giving water somewhere to go and having a regional response, as well as a local response, to give people faith that, hey, we're starting to work on this infrastructure issue and protect and deliver a level of service that we should all take comfort in and enjoy.

William Shuster:

But I just think that, again, the fact that it's an equal opportunity destroyer of health — and that's physical health and mental health, emotional health — property and morale, does this translate to political will and social will to direct, for example, infrastructure dollars? We can get hit over the head with large price tags, but what are we losing in the absence of progress towards this?

Darrell Dawsey:

How bad is it? Let me just get an assessment from you, from an infrastructure standpoint, just how bad, how old, is the infrastructure? I mean, obviously this is an infrastructural issue. Can you give me some sense of the magnitude of the problem that we're facing infrastructure-wise?

William Shuster:

I always call out the American Society of Civil Engineers' studies. Basically, they produce a report card each year, and I can forward to you the website, it's very informational. But for every aspect of American infrastructure, transportation, energy, production distribution, wastewater, stormwater, drinking water, they give a grade for each of these. They have certain criteria, and we're consistently, as a nation, in a failing mode, you know?

Darrell Dawsey:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

William Shuster:

Maybe a C-minus at best. But locally, excuse me, a lot of resource is going into assessing, basically doing condition assessments of our infrastructure, and making sure that all of our assets are mapped and we understand is this pump, does it exist? Is it still working? Does it need replacement on a certain schedule? Where are we at? So, our infrastructure's in pretty bad shape. It's all below ground, we don't see it. This is a service we get 24/7, 365, but, out of sight, out of mind is what I think we're going to be challenged by. This is very meaningful infrastructure and affects our lives.

William Shuster:

If we're not getting wastewater services and then on top of that, we lose our power, the DTE contractors from Kansas and New York who came through my neighborhood last Saturday and after three and a half days of power being out and several rainfall events, I should add, they said, "This is probably the worst distribution infrastructure that we've seen," in their travels—

Darrell Dawsey:

Wow.

William Shuster:

And I was like, "So, how does this work?" I got to call out to the folks across the East Side, across Dearborn, Inkster, Downriver, we all have different abilities to cope, and a lot of this comes through different levels of privilege, and these need to be addressed as well. This is a huge, huge issue. I would encourage your listeners to read a book by Alesia Montgomery, the name of the book is Greening the Black Urban Regime.

Darrell Dawsey:

Greening the Black Urban Regime.

William Shuster:

Right. And that's 2020 on the Wayne State University Press. I found this book to be instructive and learned a lot. There's a lot of good civil environmental engineering in this book, that's the way that I have interpreted it, in drawing connections between how our infrastructure has been, in effect, racialized over time, or the outcomes express or represent a certain level of racialization.

Darrell Dawsey:

So, when you talk about the distribution of infrastructure, or the maldistribution of infrastructure, we're talking about a maldistribution based along class lines, racial lines, in many instances?

William Shuster:

That would be arguable. The fact that by becoming a heavy wastewater traffic area that runs through the communities who are at least able to be resilient to this, continue to be most vulnerable. So, when I drive to work, I'm past routinely on Mack Avenue at 70 miles an hour. There are people walking into traffic, this is what I see as an outcome of feeling vulnerable and the fear and the anxiety. Things in many areas, at least on the East Side, have not appreciably improved since the 1967 uprising.

William Shuster:

There's definitely a social and world component here. As Detroiters, we're proud of aspects of our culture that are deeply embedded in the communities that we live in. I'm only two years into this, I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit in the '70s but Jefferson Chalmers, again, very unique relationship with water, this is bringing it around. There's going to be these social and cultural drivers for data equity. Knowing what we're into, working with this infrastructure that's been either left behind or left unmaintained for many years and their co-location with vulnerable communities. And then how does that drive forward directing the substantive opportunity for federal, state, county, local and philanthropic cooperation and collaboration to make this work?

Darrell Dawsey:

Let me ask you. If you were in charge, where would you start? What are the most urgent areas where we need this infrastructure shored up?

William Shuster:

Well, I would say that, again, it's these hotpots that lit up during the most recent flooding. Clearly, there's too much flow coming in through these areas, and they're being asked to be the bottleneck. If the water doesn't have anywhere to go and rate payer basements and commercial properties are being used as temporary store for that overflow, that's where we need to make the difference.

Darrell Dawsey:

Is it the pumping stations? Do we need more sewer line, more sewer line, just for the layperson, from an infrastructural standpoint, like I said, where do we begin? I mean, what do we need more of immediately?

William Shuster:

Well, I think that that looking at our ... GLWA handle quite a bit of wastewater volume. Are we looking at the need to work with the folks that are part of the service area? It's a huge service area. A lot of wastewater comes in and goes to the wastewater resource recovery facility, downriver on Jefferson. It's one of the largest wastewater treatment plan infrastructures in the country, if not the world. Is it fair to run all that volume to that single treatment plant? I mean, Cleveland has a regional system, but they have three satellite plants, westerly, southerly, easterly. Is this part of the game, to reduce the amount, right size the amount, of volume coming through and allowing the system that's in place to handle the flows, from the East Side, from the Pointes from Harper Woods, all the way down Detroit River and our West Side friends and colleagues, and then Downriver folks.

William Shuster:

So, it feels like there's a regional, larger scale approach, but then level of service would include how do we prevent sewer backups in people's basements? So, I think improving that infrastructure, it would've to be a grant program to do that, but it might be to the benefit of our utility providers to make sure that we have consistent infrastructure, that goes into their system. When I talk about the infrastructure being in poor condition, it's largely because there's a lot of cracks and settling over time, the system was put in 1920s, peak construction and built upon, built upon, built upon. It's a web of underground plumbing and how's that work? Well, if it's leaky, that means that we're getting groundwater coming in. When it rains, water soaks in, through the soil and then inches pipes. The net effect is that it's taking up the valuable capacity in our wastewater conveyances. And we end up treating a lot of stormwater and groundwater rather than just the septic flow. They call that inflow and infiltration.

Darrell Dawsey:

Let me ask you this, we've talked a little bit about infrastructure, but there's also an administrative or managerial, bureaucratic, whatever you want to call it, component to this. I've heard a lot of Detroiters complaining about the Great Lakes Water Authority, that they haven't done enough, that they don't necessarily want to take responsibility for this. I've seen stories where they're shifting blame to the city. The city's like, "You guys are in charge of the water, so it's your job." From an administrative standpoint, what are we looking at in terms of the problems? Is this a problem with the Great Lakes Water Authority? Is this something that Detroiters need to be concerned about? Do we need to revamp this in some sort of way? Do we need to think about going back to city control of the water system? What are some of the administrative bureaucratic issues that we're grappling with here?

William Shuster:

This is going to be, I think, more difficult for me to address, because I think that there's a very complex relationship between DWSD and GLWA. Yes, there's very clear separation of responsibilities, but GLWA has taken on responsibility. They're contracted to basically take wastewater, deliver drinking water. And to do that according to the terms of the contract. I think there's now lawsuits, there are people stepping down, there's reorganization, but what it comes down to is level of service that achieving basically equity and level of services, that nobody who's getting services from GLWA should have to put up with basement backups of septic flow, or mixed septic with stormwater, or flooding, getting anywhere from a trace of septic or floodwater in your basement to eight feet, that's basically pushing up on the joists and the floor of your first floor.

William Shuster:

So clearly, there's room for, where's the responsibility for the pump failure, say, at Freud and Connors Creek pumping station? Is there an interaction with the high-rate treatment or the CSO facility at Connors Creek, the Blue Hill pumping facility? There was a lot of analysis done in 2016. It's one of the more recent, massive events that cited pump failure as an issue. So, to my knowledge, there is independent assessment of this going forward and will these recommendations be binding? Well, I guess that all goes through some sort of legal process that compels GLWA to respond at some level.

William Shuster:

So, I think that Detroiters, I think anybody in the GLWA service area, it would be to their best interest to educate yourself about what's going on here. Hopefully these interviews are a step toward that. There's just basic, basic information out there about combined versus separated sewer systems and where's your community in the service area? Are you downstream? Are you upstream? Are you more vulnerable, less vulnerable? But the communities that really lit up during the flood and wastewater malfunction events, June and July of this year, we're going to call these out as the most vulnerable communities, I think.

William Shuster:

I think there are other ways that we're approaching this. Our Center for Urban Studies, Healthy Urban Waters here at Wayne State University, looking at the basically human health effects. How's this affecting folks? So, we know through their work, how this affects Detroiters, Eastsiders, Grosse Pointers, Harper Woodsters, but then this moves to more of an engineering focus and approach. Basic data, basic designs that get the level of service consistent and up to par, I feel like there was something else I wanted to hit there, but ...

Darrell Dawsey:

Well, I promised not to keep to you too long—

William Shuster:

[crosstalk 00:29:31].

Darrell Dawsey:

So, I want to honor that promise, because I know you're a busy man. You've got a lot of stuff to do, but as you're thinking about it, I just want to kind of open up these last few minutes to you to perhaps explore any other ideas, suggestions, thoughts, things that Detroiters should know about this issue that perhaps we haven't had an opportunity to touch on. Is there anything else you'd like to share?

William Shuster:

Well, let's see if I have some notes here. I think that we want to look at down spout disconnection and the use of green infrastructure. In the latter case green infrastructure has been floated as kind of a silver bullet. This is something that I worked with a lot over my 18 years with the federal EPA at the water lab in Cincinnati. So, I worked for a national lab and basically worked around the country, Cleveland, Ohio, Camden, New Jersey, New Orleans, Louisiana, Phoenix, Arizona, Omaha, Nebraska. We actually worked with these cities to, in some of the cities negotiate under the Clean Water Act, I was a technical lead on ... I wasn't a lawyer in these proceedings, that was Department of Justice, but I worked with the Department of Justice to say, "Hey, we need to take a look at green infrastructure, but it needs to be a very structured approach. It requires assessment, like what do we want to do? Can it do what we're asking it to do, in the place that we're putting it or is it going to aggravate existing problems?"

William Shuster:

And so, for Detroiters, I really want to put it out there that there are ways to get the benefits of green infrastructure, but we have to be really, really careful with that. So, working with the Eastside Community Network, Jefferson East Incorporated, here at Wayne State, we're here to basically help make these decisions, or guide. I wish I had a team, like the funding for a team to do just that, because that would be a valuable data equity supporter. Because there are other benefits we get from green infrastructure, it's just making sure that if we're putting more water in the ground, we don't want that to go right into your basement. We don't want to go into the sewer system, we don't want to flood out your neighbor, that's with downspout disconnection as well. But these are all important aspects and certainly appreciate your time.

Darrell Dawsey:

Absolutely.

William Shuster:

I would highly recommend, I can give you a list of people who I think ... We're going to need some community organizing around this. To that end, we're in the midst of writing a watershed management plan for the Detroit River communities, including Hamtramck and Highland Park and possibly the Pointes. It's not a magic wand, it doesn't make everything better, but it's a fundamental way of making our communities eligible for other federal funds and philanthropic funds. When you have a plan in hand, you can move these things forward. It's also a way of illustrating the unique nature of how we live with water in our Detroit communities in the Pointes and Harper Woods and Hamtramck.

Darrell Dawsey:

When can we look for this study?

William Shuster:

Well, this is an actual plan. We're working with Dr. Alethea Wells, is leading. She comes by her, what I would call, wastewater and stormwater justice through some unique path, journey there. I would suggest having her on the show sometime, but we're working with Eagle, the Jefferson East, Eastside Community Network, of course, Wayne State is involved, Sierra Club. This is exciting stuff because it's building—

Darrell Dawsey:

It sounds like a more grassroots approach to try and deal with this.

William Shuster:

This is absolutely the way to do it and to illustrate is so important.

Darrell Dawsey:

I just got one other question, Bill, I guess I can get ready to let you go. Is there any place that we look at when we look out in the country that's doing it right, that perhaps has similar circumstances to Detroit, that Detroit can look at and go, "Hey, that's a potential model for at least some of the things we want to do the right way."

William Shuster:

Well, I think that Portland, Oregon, is probably largely a newer system overall, but they've balanced green in what we call gray infrastructure, like pipes, pumps, this is the gray infrastructure. Green infrastructure is the contiguous, built for purpose green ways, green spaces, but they've also been able to call out, "Hey, these are the limitations of both, nothing's magic here."

William Shuster:

So, there's Portland, but Detroit is unique, and I think that's again, getting to the data equity part, we can be a part of this and this is so important to understand from our unique water resources standpoint that we have, that we're water rich, but how do we live with water? If it's affected the foundations of our homes and our basements, what are we doing to change our habitability? Are we abandoning basements and putting HVAC in the attic and laundry and domestic hot water on our first floor?

William Shuster:

We have a new faculty member who's joint with engineering technology, Dr. Hyun Koo, I think she's starting today actually, but she's a construction engineer and how do you reimagine, the formidable project management and materials and construction to get homes reset for the future?

Darrell Dawsey:

So, it sounds like there are a lot of different things, there's a lot of thinking outside the box, there're engineering aspects, there are social aspects to this. There are a lot of different things, geographical.

William Shuster:

Right on.

Darrell Dawsey:

It sounds like there's lot of stuff that we're going to have to balance. Okay, well listen, we're going to get ready to wrap it up. I just want to say, thanks again, Bill. I really do appreciate you joining us, this has been a very informative conversation. Is there one particular place, source, where you would suggest people go to find out more about this? You talk about Detroiters educating themselves about this issue. Really quick, is there a website or is there one central location where you would suggest folks check out, just to begin to educate themselves about this issue?

William Shuster:

Well, I'd go to GLWA website and there's a page that says, "This is what DWSD does. This is what GLWA does." I would suggest going there and just saying, "Well, I have a question about this. I'm not quite sure I understand this part." You can type in combined versus separated sewer Systems. There's lots of great graphics out there that show, these are the differences, this is the difference. For the most part, Detroit has a lot of combined sewers and that affects the Detroit River, it affects Lake St. Clair, basically all of our lakes for different reasons.

William Shuster:

So, that's one place to start, go to the root and work your way up. But there's no dumb question out there. I mean, when I talk with officials, I take it from basic principles, because that's the way you build knowledge. You start at the most fundamental and there's no dumb questions out there, especially under circumstances like this when we're trying to ... We're not going to be digging up the whole city and putting in larger pipes. I just don't know if that's a practical way of doing things, but, you know?

Darrell Dawsey:

Yeah, but we've got to figure out something. We got to figure out something.

William Shuster:

Yeah, yeah, right on, right on.

Darrell Dawsey:

Outside the box, inside the box. We've got to figure out a way to get this thing figured out. Well, listen, Bill, I got to get ready to wrap it up, but I want to say thank you again. I really appreciate you taking your time. I really hope you'll come back to join us because I'm sure this will be a problem that we'll need to discuss into the future.

William Shuster:

I look forward to staying in touch and let's keep the ball rolling.

Announcer:

All right, man. Well, thank you so much. I'm Darrell Dawsey. This is the Today@Wayne podcast. Thanks for listening to Today@Wayne. We'd love to hear from you, our campus community, about other podcast ideas and topics. What compelling things are you doing to spread the good word about living, learning, working, and playing like a warrior? Let us know by visiting today@wayne.edu.

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