Public water supply hot topic in Muskegon County

September 16, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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A movement by seven Muskegon County communities to share municipal services for greater efficiency is focused first and foremost on the issue of the public water supply — even as one of the county's two water districts faces the threatened loss of many of its customers.

A committee representing the seven communities, led by Fruitport Charter Township Supervisor Brian Werschem and Roosevelt Park Mayor Rod Buikema, met last week to review their communities' reactions to proposals so far for consolidated government services.

Nineteen ideas were floated in July in a report from the Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce, based on a year-long study of the feasibility of shared government services among the county's municipalities.

"The one that took the most significant amount of time was water," said Werschem. "A common water system for all the major cities and townships is a very, very hot topic here, especially to Fruitport Township and the city of Norton Shores at this time."

"We are looking at ways to provide a common water source for all citizens of Muskegon County. That took about 80 percent of the meeting," he added.

As noted in the report issued last summer, there are two water purification plants, both drawing water from Lake Michigan: one is owned by the city of Muskegon and the other by the city of Muskegon Heights. The Muskegon plant has a capacity of 40 million gallons per day but has a daily average flow of only about 9.3 MGD and a peak daily flow of 20.8. The smaller Muskegon Heights plant has a capacity of 25.2 MGD, with daily average flow of 6.3 and peak daily flow of 14.

"Why do we have two water plants that (each) have the treatment capacity to provide water to the entire county?" said Werschem.

The seven communities involved in the overall discussion on sharing services are the cities of Montague, Muskegon, North Muskegon, Norton Shores, Roosevelt Park and Whitehall, and Fruitport Township.

Muskegon Township and Muskegon Heights are not participating.

Werschem said the water supply solution for the entire county that "makes sense is connecting the two plants together and operating them as one."

Meanwhile, there are alleged management problems with the Muskegon Heights water system, which also serves Fruitport and Norton Shores.

"Right now, Fruitport and the city of Norton Shores have given notice to the city of Muskegon Heights of our intent to sever our current contract for water services from the city of Muskegon Heights, and we are pursuing alternative options for a water source," said Werschem.

Options start with joining the city of Muskegon water district, but there has also been a study done on the feasibility of constructing a third water treatment plant in the county. With two plants already — each capable of serving the entire county — building a third plant is "the worst possible option. But unfortunately, we have to keep that as a possibility because it could likely be the cheapest solution," said Werschem.

He said Fruitport and Norton Shores have expressed "dissatisfaction with the manner in which the (Muskegon Heights) water system is being managed and the cost" to those two communities. He said lawsuits are underway among the municipal governments regarding "improper utilization of water (district) funds."

He said, however, that the Fruitport/Norton Shores relationship with Muskegon Heights isn't as bad as it may look.

"We're working with the city of Muskegon Heights right now," said Werschem. "We're also hoping to improve the situation. We've given them notice of termination of contract but that doesn't mean we're necessarily going to separate from them." He repeated that Muskegon Heights officials "have been very open to working with us in hopes of improving the situation."

Fruitport and Norton Shores have started the South Muskegon Regional Water Authority, he said, and so far are the only members. However, he said, "We are currently inviting Muskegon Heights to participate and other municipalities. We hope this might be the baseline to bring all the municipalities together, where we all work together to provide water to everyone at the best option, the best price."

In defense of the Muskegon Heights water district, Muskegon Heights City Manager Natasha L. Henderson told the Business Journal that it "has the lowest rates in the county. What their issue would be — you probably need to talk to them."

She added that Muskegon Heights has not been offered "any consolidation proposals."

"We already share services," she said, when asked if Muskegon Heights plans to participate with the other Muskegon County cities and townships involved in any of the shared services proposals.

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