State neglects water main break at Belle Isle as fireworks approach


The Sunset Point restrooms on Belle Isle have been closed because the state and city don't agree on who's responsible for fixing a broken water main. Photo by Michael Betzold.
The Sunset Point restrooms on Belle Isle have been closed because the state and city don’t agree on who’s responsible for fixing a broken water main. Photo by Michael Betzold.

Thousands of people watching the International Freedom Festival fireworks on Monday may have to share four Port-a-Potties on Belle Isle because the state and city of Detroit disagree on who’s responsible for fixing water main breaks.

The state signed a lease to take over management of the park from the city in February 2014, but the Department of Natural Resources park manager and the city’s water department each say the other is responsible for fixing a water main break that has closed the popular Sunset Point rest rooms.

The disagreement comes less than a week before the fireworks are expected to draw the island’s largest crowds of the year, particularly on Sunset Point.

Karis Floyd, park manager for the DNR, said the break occurred a few days before the Grand Prix on the first weekend of June, but the DNR didn’t discover it until sometime last week, when crews were disassembling the race course and adjoining infrastructure.

Last spring, Floyd said, the same water main broke in a different spot on that end of the island. But the break was discovered before the race area was closed off, and Grand Prix organizer Roger Penske helped the DNR fix it, Floyd said.

This time, Floyd said, the rupture wasn’t discovered until the DNR regained access to the west end of the island. On Monday, he said he hoped the city would fix the problem before the fireworks.

But Bryan Peckinpaugh, spokesman for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, said it’s likely the state’s responsibility to fix water main breaks.

“The City is performing a thorough review of the lease agreement for Belle Isle to make absolute certain which entities are responsible for water and sewer maintenance on the island,” Peckingpaugh said in a written statement. “Currently, based on previous interpretations of the Belle Isle lease agreement with the State, the Michigan DNR is treated like most customers of DWSD whereby they are responsible for the maintaining the plumbing on its property, in this case the water and sewer infrastructure on Belle Isle. While, DWSD is responsible for the water and sewer infrastructure leading up to and from the island. Once the City’s Law Department reviews the agreement, we will provide Muckraker with an update.”

When told of the DWSD’s response, Floyd disputed it. “Not according to the lease,” he said. “Not all the infrastructure” is the city’s responsibility, Floyd maintained, and not even all the auxiliary water lines on the island. But, he emphasized, water mains are the city’s responsibility.

Floyd added, “We’re not getting any response from the city, so we’re just going to fix it.” But he didn’t know if the state could repair the water main in time for the fireworks.

In the past, the city was quick to fix chronically broken mains because ignoring them can cause major problems.

Floyd said the DNR and the city “are going to have a meeting so we can get this straightened out.”

Floyd said the Grand Prix race did not cause this year’s or last year’s water main breaks. Water main breaks are a chronic problem all over the island, he said, and he estimates the lines are at least 75 years old.

The DNR leased the island from the city for $1 and has run it as a state park since. But this snafu raises major questions about who’s going to make critical repairs on the island, especially during the Grand Prix season. DNR chief Ron Olson has said the state can’t change anything about the pre-existing contract between Penske and the city, which runs through 2018. For two months or more, the western end of the island is partially or totally closed off; however, the DNR seems to cede control of that part to Penske, a billionaire. Floyd indicated they couldn’t even get there to discover the water main break. The Sunset Point rest rooms are not used during the race closure.

The larger question is who will pay the enormous bill to replace the aging water lines on the island when it’s no longer possible to keep patching up the system. Right now, neither the DNR nor the city will accept responsibility for fixing water mains.

Steve Neavling contributed to this report.

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Michael Betzold

Michael Betzold is a former Free Press reporter and longtime area freelance journalist. He wrote Queen of Diamonds, a history of Tiger Stadium. He lives on Detroit’s east side.

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