Democratic candidate for county WRC post shares views on pressing water issues
Democrats Mark Danowski and Jim Nash will square off in the Aug. 7 primary election for the right to challenge incumbent Republican Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner John P. McCulloch in the Nov. 6 general election. McCulloch is unopposed in the primary election.
Formerly known as the county drain commissioner, the county’s water resources commissioner is responsible for designated surface water drainage systems, sewage disposal and drinking water systems, lake level control structures, and soil erosion and sedimentation control. The water resources commissioner serves a four-year term and is currently paid an annual salary of $138,999.
The following are questions our staff recently posed to Nash, and his responses. Danowski declined to participate in our candidate interview process.
OL: What’s your take on the condition of the dams and augmentation wells that help control some county lake levels? Do you anticipate the need to replace or upgrade existing structures or facilities? What changes, if any, are needed in the way the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office handles lake level monitoring and control?
JN: They’re very well maintained. I don’t have anything that gives me the whole view of the whole county. There’s issues with some of them, but overall it’s fairly well done. It’s all done on the basis of charging people who live on the lakes for the levels. Absolutely, infrastructure has to be kept up and replaced from time to time.
In a lot of areas in especially the southern part of the county, there’s complaints about the way the local governments are treated by the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office. They’ve kind of — at least in several communities that I know of — (the office) treats them not very well. They just leave them out of the process and tell them what they’re going to do and that’s about it. In terms of countywide, it varies depending on where you are. As we’re expanding the suburbs out and doing much more out here, we’re ending up taking money from the inner-ring suburbs and spending it on the outer-ring suburbs, which is really not fair at all, and a lot of people are upset about that.
OL: Which county drains should be a priority for the water resources commissioner, and what needs to be done there? Where do you anticipate having to replace entire existing drains, or construct new infrastructure where none currently exists?
JN: A lot of it is, again, how the system is aging. One of things I really want to focus on in this campaign is stormwater issues. There are a lot of cities across the country that are changing the way we charge for stormwater runoff and allowing companies and landowners to change the way they’ve set up their drainage off their properties to lessen their impact. So that means they can, over time, save money on the stormwater costs. Wherever there are impervious surfaces, whether they be roofs or parking lots or roads, you have runoff. And if you can change the perviousness of both roofs through green roofs and bioswales and all the things you can do for parking lots, you can eliminate the runoff from those surfaces. If you can do that, that starts to eliminate the stormwater problem. We can work on that effort through changing facilities, through landscaping, and through all the different things that can be done. Lawrence Tech a few years ago put in a student center where they have basically eliminated runoff in that whole area. They store that water and use it for gray water. There’s several cost paybacks on that. You have water that you don’t have to pull out of the system for things like watering landscape and things, and you would save money on what you are paying for stormwater runoff control. This would be a program I would be starting. We would look for ways through regional efforts through SEMCOG (the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments), which is doing a lot of work on that. It’s called low-impact development, and we would be able to start to eliminate that stormwater problem. This is something that’s going to take a long time to do, but we can get the ball rolling and start moving on it much better than it’s been done in the past.
There’s a lot of cost to that. Infrastructure, where it’s not been before, is generally speaking the issue of sprawl — where you’re sending more and more development out farther into the county into the rural areas. To build that stuff from scratch is very expensive, and the people who are doing the development should be responsible for paying for that cost. They shouldn’t have the rest of the county subsidizing growth in outer areas of the county because, in the long run, that’s not sustainable.
Sustainability is a very important issue to me. I’ve been talking about sustainability since I first ran (for office) in 2002. We have to do things now and make the planning now to make sure that what we are doing today is not going to cost our future generations something they’re going to have to make up in the future. What we have to do is make sure the drains that are now being used are kept up. We have to have maintenance on our infrastructure, and we have to make sure that we do things long-term that are going to make sure our infrastructure stays in the shape it needs to be in. But again, this is something that varies all across the county. We have issues in Walled Lake about weed control, and we have issues along the western part of the county about both drains and how the water is affected by runoff from either impervious surfaces or people using phosphorus lawn chemicals, which causes algae blooms and a lot of problems in our recreational and our drinking water.
OL: Many of the county’s lakes are vulnerable to contamination either through combined sewer overflows (CSOs) or sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs), depending on how sanitary sewer infrastructure is in place across the county. What, if anything, would you do to address this threat if elected water resources commissioner?
JN: As I’ve said in the previous question, it’s learning and adjusting to properties to avoid the runoff in the first place. In my city of Farmington Hills, we put in pervious pavement on several of our properties, otherwise before that the runoff in a storm would have gone into the storm sewers and contributed to the overflow. What we’re doing by putting pervious pavement on these surfaces is the water is not making it off the surfaces into the stormwater system. And as we have low-impact development, we can use those in new developments or when people are doing landscaping, when they are doing new parking lots, because again, you have to replace parking lots over time. We can do things like have bioswales either within the parking lot or around the parking lot. So whatever runoff comes off them is collected there and then slowly goes into the ground. Only 100-year storms would have stormwater overflow, so it’s all in how we plan for the future and how we help companies or developments plan their pervious pavement, pervious surfaces to make sure we don’t have runoff from them in the first place. You know we’ve been keeping up with it with stormwater fees and trying to control it when it happens, but we need to do so before it happens.
OL: Should the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office have a broader role relative to general lake issues, such as water quality monitoring, for example, given both the importance of these waterways to the quality of life in Oakland and the the ongoing decreases in state commitment of funds to help protect the waterways?
JN: One of the big issues right now to me — and the more I talk to people about it, people are upset, especially in the lakes region of the county — is the fracking leases that have been released and the water quality issues around that. And I want to make sure we do testing of groundwater and of lake water all around these areas because several of these leases are right near the water on Orchard Lake and Cass Lake. That can have serious infiltration underground; or if a well had blown out or something like that, which also does happen, we have to make sure we have really good systems. I would call for a moratorium on actually starting this exploration until we have top-of-the-line resources available to us in case there is a leak or in case there is a blowout, to stop any kind of infiltration into the water systems and to make sure if there is any kind of problem that the people responsible, the people doing the drilling are in fact going to be able to cover any costs to bring our water quality back. So we need serious testing around these areas where the fracking will be, in addition to what has already been done. We must make sure we have a system in place to stop anything in case there is a blowout or in case there is a serious accident.
We had the name (of the job) changed to Water Resources Commissioner and these are the water resources we have. The recreational water we have with all these very large lakes and expensive properties around them, if we had a serious problem in one of these lakes, if we had a large fish kill or a large infusion of some of these fracking chemicals into the lake, it could affect property values, it could affect the ability of people to get on these lakes. That would hurt our economy a lot. Our county government takes a lot of pride in our recreational waters, and several years ago we did a study on the impact of our recreational waters on our county economy. It found it’s very strong in terms of just having the recreation available to us and as a recruiting tool for companies when they are looking for employees. They can say we have fantastic parks and some of the best lakes in Michigan. So if we really value that, we have to make sure we protect it long-term. And that involves all the levels of protection for the lakes — lake levels, algae, invasive species, and the potential of chemicals coming in through runoff or from fracking. These are our water resources, and I think that’s the most important thing the office does besides regulating drains and sewers.
OL: What are the three most important issues for the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office at this time, and how do you propose to address them?
JN: Collaboration within the county and local governments and regionally with Macomb, Oakland, Wayne, Washtenaw, Monroe — all the counties in southeast Michigan really have to be working together on this, and this is something I absolutely will be pushing. In terms of mitigating stormwater, that’s what I talked about earlier, finding a way to help communities and businesses and even developments control that water before it gets into the system. We need to have the things in place that we aren’t doing yet.
There’s another program that I’ve been working on and I will make it as much as I can a part of what the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office would do. There’s a company in Oakland County that has come up with a program that has the technology and everything available to them to start putting in power generating systems along our sewer main. And what this does is it would have little pulloffs along the sewer mains that would bring the wastewater flow through turbines to create power. And this could be done along large sewer lines where you would always have flow. There’s constant flow, so there would be the availability of a truly non-environmentally disturbing power source where you could generate power from sewage flow over long periods of time on a regional basis. This has been something I’ve been working on for quite some time. Again, I’ve been very involved with sustainability and alternative energy sources. This is something that the water resources commissioner could do in the long-term that would really have an effect on our ability to generate clean power in this region.
OL: Why, specifically, should voters choose you over your primary election opponent?
JN: Well, I’ve been involved in politics and government here in Oakland County for many years. This is something that I’ve been working on for a very long time — sustainability, and collaboration regionally and among local governments. So it’s something I think I’ve got experience doing. My opponent, who I haven’t met but have talked to a few times, he’s a very nice guy. He’s worked for the water resources commissioner, but he’s not got any real government experience the way I have. I’ve got a fairly good reputation in this area as somebody who is really always ready to work with whoever I can.
Jim Nash of Farmington Hills has been an Oakland County commissioner since 2004. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in political science with a minor in peace studies from Florida State University. While living in Florida, he worked for the Florida Democratic Party doing communications work and research, as well as the Florida Legislative Library. Since moving to Michigan, he and his wife have owned a small outdoor furniture manufacturing company and a flower shop in Southfield. Nash has served on the Sierra Club Southeast Michigan Group Political Committee and Executive Committee. He was the chairman of the Southeast Michigan Group from 2003-2005 and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council and the Engineering Society of Detroit. As a county commissioner, Nash has also organized seven Annual Green Building Workshops, which have introduced green building, energy conservation, alternative energy, and sustainability to local governments across Oakland County. Nash currently serves on the National Association of Counties’ Green Government Committee and was a presenter at a National Conference on the economic impact of Oakland County’s water resources.