Detroit Underwater: A Closer Look at Flooding in Metro Detroit

Climate change is causing heavier rainfall, overwhelming metro Detroit’s antiquated sewage system. How far will communities go to protect their basements?
Jefferson Chalmers, is a low-lying east side neighborhood on the Detroit River. // Photograph by Nick Hagen

It is still common for people to deny climate change, or its causes, or that anything can be done about it, claiming that a particularly bad storm is a “once-in-a-century” fluke. But as the “once-in-a-century” storms keep coming every summer, that reasoning just doesn’t hold water. And while the effects are felt in every flood-prone area, as the flooding gets worse, historically underserved communities are getting swept under.

Take, for instance, the Immanuel Grace AME Church of Jefferson Chalmers, a low-lying eastside neighborhood on the Detroit River, where flooding has become a fact of life.

The Rev. Al E. Baylor III recounts the night of June 25, 2021, when a storm of historic proportions deluged Detroit. “One of our parishioners called us and said, ‘I see the door open,’” to the church’s basement, he says. When asked if she could close it, the congregant said, “No, because the road is a river.”

Floodwater mixed with raw sewage emanating from the nearby Conner Creek CSO (combined sewer overflow) facility, which had been overwhelmed by rainwater. Baylor and his wife and co-pastor, Michelle, said that the floodwater in the church was so high that it got to the second step of the staircase leading from the nave to the basement, 10 feet deep in total.

“It looks like the Hulk hit it,” Al says while sharing a photo of the church basement door. “It’s an actual steel door. The flooding pushed the hinges off.”

With its unusual canal system, Jefferson Chalmers has long been prone to flooding, but climate change is making it worse. Low-lying areas are more vulnerable due to geography, policy, and funding. But ultimately, as with everything related to climate change, nobody is unaffected.

Going to Extremes

Pastors Al and Michelle Baylor’s Immanuel Grace AME Church of Jefferson Chalmers flooded on June 25. // Photograph by Nick Hagen

According to the city of Detroit, precipitation across the Great Lakes region has increased 14% since 1951, with 35% more rain coming down during severe storms than before. If our emissions stay on the current trajectory, extreme rainstorms could occur 50% more often in Wayne County by the end of the century.

“The climate’s changing,” says Suzanne Coffey, CEO of the Great Lakes Water Authority, adding that weather events “are exceeding the capacity of systems” that have been designed to last 75- to 100-years.

The Great Lakes Water Authority is a regional body set up after Detroit’s bankruptcy. The city’s Department of Water and Sewerage originally built and ran the nearly 100-year-old system. The GLWA leases DWSD facilities such as water treatment plants, water transmission mains, and sewage interceptors, serving about 3 million people across Detroit and 77 additional communities.

Detroit has a combined sewer, meaning that unlike in many more-modern systems, rainwater and sewage are sent through the same pipes. If the region experiences an unusually heavy or long snow melt, or a particularly strong thunderstorm, it is much more susceptible to sewers backing up, usually into basements or onto streets.

“The system just wasn’t designed for extreme storm events.”

– Joan Iverson Nassauer

Put simply, the system was built for another time. According to the GLWA, when the storms of 2021 caused the major failure, the system was “designed to handle 1.7 inches of rain in one hour, with no rain before or after, or 3.31 inches in 24 hours. On June 25, more than 6 inches was experienced in only half that time, which is double the maximum design standard for 24 hours.”

“The system just wasn’t designed for extreme storm events,” says Joan Iverson Nassauer, a professor of ecological design at the University of Michigan. “This country, and even this state, is just beginning to catch up with understanding that we cannot use the past of storm events to adequately plan for the future. We have to take into account new situations, more extreme storms — hundred-year storms coming at least annually.”

Domino Effect

The Conner Creek CSO (combined sewer overflow) facility was overwhelmed by heavy rainfalls. // Photograph by Nick Hagen

To make matters worse, metro Detroit is remarkably flat. And since most of the riverbank along Jefferson Avenue is built on former swampland, it makes sense that the area would be most prone to flooding, especially since it was laid out well before planners had a modern understanding of ecological science.

Jefferson Chalmers and the Grosse Pointes are in a low-lying area of the east side and adjacent to Conner Creek CSO. This is where much of the water from the east side and suburbs is retained and processed before heading through pipes under downtown to the centralized treatment plant by Zug Island. In the Conner Creek area, GLWA operates an electric-powered pumping plant and a retainment treatment basin.

“Coming down Jefferson Avenue, imagine all the flows coming in from Morningside, Cornerstone Village, Warren, Oakland and Macomb counties,” says Bill Shuster, a former Environmental Protection Agency employee and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Wayne State University.

If the Conner Creek pumping facility fails, “the retention treatment basin is supposed to kick in and give primary treatment to that excess flow that couldn’t otherwise be treated downriver. … Unfortunately, the retention treatment gate didn’t work in 2021, so you could just see the dominoes falling.”

Detroit was already a fairly low-density city before becoming one of the metro areas that took to suburbanization more than most in the U.S. The larger the system is geographically, the more pipe is needed, the harder the system needs to work, and the more running and maintaining the system costs everyone. In Detroit, having to maintain infrastructure originally designed for some 2 million people but only being able to rely on the tax base of about a quarter of that complicates things further.

Flooding tips over a trail of money dominoes, too. Economic inequities mean that businesses and families often have wildly different degrees of financial latitude to fix problems. Properties repeatedly damaged by flooding or other environmental factors produce mold and rot, compounding to reduce the overall salvageability of distressed neighborhood buildings. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency has designated Jefferson Chalmers a floodplain, which requires residents to assume the additional cost of flood insurance.

Sky-high out-of-pocket expenses mean things don’t get fixed. When the Baylors wanted to replace the lost heating and air conditioning equipment in the church basement, their congregation questioned the investment, since the flooding would only happen again. The church received some insurance money, but Michelle Baylor had to ask, “Do we do heat, or do we do air?”

Without enough money to restore their building fully, the Baylors went with a new heater but are still without central air conditioning. They are the lucky ones. According to Michelle Baylor, some congregants in their neighborhood still have no heat due to boilers ruined by flooding.

Releasing the Pressure

Next door in Grosse Pointe Park, residents sued the GLWA after the June 2021 storms, claiming the agency ignored long-standing infrastructure problems that damaged properties. (The lawsuit was dismissed.)

Then, last year the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, or EGLE, approved Grosse Pointe Park’s plan to construct an “extreme emergency release valve” in Patterson Park to protect businesses and homes from getting sewage in their basements during heavy rainfalls.

The valve would discharge the combined rainwater and untreated sewage directly into Lake St. Clair; from there, the overage would flow downriver past Jefferson Chalmers, the Marina District, the main water intake plant at Waterworks Park (that most of metro Detroit relies on for drinking water), past downtown Detroit and Downriver communities, and then out into Lake Erie.

The valve was made possible by a $900,000 donation from the Cotton family, who made their fortune from Meridian, a health insurance provider, and have invested substantially in Grosse Pointe Park and Grosse Pointe.

Problem is, discharging untreated sewage into a waterway is illegal under Michigan state law, according to EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid, Jr. “However, systems still can be overwhelmed with intense rainstorms, and in such extreme cases, discharging diluted sewage to a waterway is preferable, though not desirable, to the public health hazards that would be created if that sewage backed up into basements, as happened in [Grosse Pointe Park] in 2021.”

“Well, why are we building something illegal? It’s designed to be used, not not used.”

– Jay Juergensen

A spokesperson for Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office says the attorney general “has not been consulted regarding this proposed project.”

The release valve project is highly controversial. “It’s what’s called a ‘prohibitive outfall,’ which means it is against the law to use it,” says Jay C. Juergensen, a water infrastructure control expert and the lead organizer at the Jefferson Chalmers WATER Project, which advocates for infrastructure improvements and environmental justice on Detroit’s east side. “Well, why are we building something illegal? It’s designed to be used, not not used.”

When asked about the plan to discharge water downriver, Nick Sizeland, city manager of Grosse Pointe Park, gave Hour Detroit the following statement: “Nobody, including the city of Grosse Pointe Park, wants to discharge into our water; however, with the rising tide of recent storm events such as the one that devastated Wayne County and specifically Grosse Pointe Park with 8 inches of rain in less than 24 hours, until a regional separation has been undertaken, we have to move forward with protecting our residents. Unlike other communities who do have the ability to discharge, Grosse Pointe Park had no ability.”

Plugging the Leaks

Nearly three years after the flood, a number of residents say they still haven’t been able to replace their heating. // Photograph by Nick Hagen

Improving the system takes money. If federal and state funding isn’t found, Coffey predicts that individual communities will begin fending for themselves, building infrastructure projects like the one in Grosse Pointe Park and increasing residents’ ability to weather the storms. The Eastside Community Network is working on a resilience hub, a project to create centralized locations where Detroiters can get help and to assist in locating resources to manage stormwater during extreme weather.

Some improvements have been made since 2021, of course. The GLWA spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year to maintain and expand the system — including $450 million in bonds created in just 2022. (The GLWA’s Capital Improvement Viewer allows you to see what is being fixed and expanded where.) The GLWA has also upgraded its electrical capacity and equipment, updated its response strategies to large storms, and improved communications with communities before storms hit.

Meanwhile, Detroit is spending $15 million from the American Rescue Plan Act to reduce basement backups in low-lying neighborhoods like Jefferson Chalmers.

And Jefferson Chalmers got some much-needed relief in 2023 when it received $11.28 million in FEMA grant money to replace almost 19,000 feet of old sewer mains.

The Southeast Michigan Council of Governments is a regional intergovernmental planning organization that serves the counties of Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston, Washtenaw, St. Clair, and Monroe. It’s working to coordinate efforts across the seven counties. This includes the recycling of gray water (household wastewater without serious contaminants), infrastructure modernization, and expansion of capacity and green infrastructure to control water flow. Utilizing native plants, retention ponds, and trees to absorb and slow down water can reduce pressure on the overall system, as well as improve air quality. But this could take decades to achieve.

“The honest conversation that we have to have with our public is that everybody expects the federal government to solve their problems,” says Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. “The reality is that everybody is seeing the same problem. … making the same appeal for the same money, from the same source. At some point in time, we’ve got to come to the realization that if you want to fix this, there has to be some kind of cost associated with our own municipalities and how we want to address this. We have to be honest with the public with what it is going to take to fix the problem that we are seeing.”

Until then, the rain will keep coming down.

This story originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. To read more, pick up a copy of Hour Detroit at a local retail outlet. Our digital edition will be available on April 5.