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Posted on Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Ann Arbor kicks off $1.2M study of sewer system, footing drain program and basement sewage backups

By Ryan J. Stanton

The city of Ann Arbor is encouraging residents to attend an upcoming public meeting to kick off the city's Sanitary Sewer Wet Weather Evaluation Project.

The project includes an 18- to 24-month study to monitor the flow within the city's sanitary sewer system, evaluate the effectiveness of the city's footing drain disconnection program, and evaluate and recommend additional methods to control impacts of stormwater on the sanitary sewer system.


Residents said water got so deep in their Ann Arbor neighborhood during a storm last March that this car had to be abandoned.

Photo courtesy of Laura Ent

The meeting takes place from 6:30-8:30 p.m. April 23 inside the media center at Tappan Middle School, 2251 E. Stadium Drive.

Attendees will be able to learn more about the project, meet the project team and find out how to get involved, city officials said.

The city has launched a website to keep residents up to date as the project progresses.

According to the website, the project will include measuring how much the footing drain disconnection program has reduced stormwater flow to the sanitary sewer system. It also will include an assessment of the risk of basement sewage backups in the city.

Orchard, Hiltz & McCliment Inc. was awarded a $968,348 contract by the City Council on Feb. 4 to complete both the study and associated public engagement for the project. OHM already has started collecting data and monitoring system flow, according to the project website.

The council established a $192,000 contingency within the project budget, as well as $85,000 for the estimated city staff time, pushing the project budget up to more than $1.2 million.

"As the Footing Drain Disconnect (FDD) Program has been in place for over 10 years, it is appropriate to evaluate and document the effectiveness of the program on reducing the impacts of wet weather events on the city's sanitary sewer system," reads a city staff memo. "This review will allow the city to assess the sanitary basement backup risk that remains in original priority areas, and to identify other areas in the city that may require mitigation of their sanitary basement backup risk."

The City Council took action in September to temporarily suspend the city's footing drain disconnection program in two areas on the city's southwest side after residents complained. The city launched the program in 2001 in response to widespread basement sewage backups.

Over the past 12 years, many homes in Ann Arbor have had FDD work done and sump pumps installed to divert flows away from the city's sanitary sewer and instead to the stormwater drainage system. Ann Arbor officials credit the program for helping to ensure the city's sanitary sewer system doesn't become overwhelmed during storms or lead to basement sewage backups.

But in heavy rains when some neighborhoods have flooded and the city's stormwater system has been overwhelmed, some residents have complained the sump pumps the city has made them install are ineffective and water ends up cycling back in and flooding their basements.

Mark TenBroek, vice president of engineering firm CDM Smith, said as of April 2 there have been 1,831 footing drain disconnects in single-family residences in Ann Arbor, plus a total of 762 "developer mitigation footing drain disconnection equivalents." He said some of those under the developer mitigation program are for larger structures, so they're reported as single-family equivalents.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.


Silly Sally

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 10:55 p.m.

I've noticed a pattern that whenever Ryan Stanton writes an article, he follows the discussion and then adds useful links and stuff, as readers ask questions. It is not just this article but quite a few. Thanks for doing so.

Judith H

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 6:58 p.m.

To those of you wondering how the water can cycle back---some people have sumps that drain in the yard (not to the street or not to just outside the foundation). Thus there is a cycle of water--neverending. Ann Arbor Underwater is the neighborhood group fighting the FDD Program. Do not let the city force you into joining the FDD program.

Jack Eaton

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 4:16 p.m.

Although, as noted in the article, the City has suspended its mandatory Footing Drain Disconnect (FDD) program, it continues to require new development to make arrangements to have sufficient FDDs to offset 120% of the anticipated new load on the waste water system. So for example, the student project at 413 E. Huron includes a requirement that the developer pay for 62 Footing Drain Disconnects. So while no one can be required to participate in the FFD program, there is still a requirement that new projects get someone to agree to disconnect their footing drains. I strongly recommend that home owners not participate in the FDD program. You cannot be required to do so. Many home owners who have participated have had significant, new problems with basement flooding. Many of those problems are described on the Lawton neighborhood's FDD blog:

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 3:09 p.m.

Here's some additional info on the FDD program for anyone curious:

Silly Sally

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 10:56 p.m.

Thanks for these links.

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 3:08 p.m.

I just added a paragraph to the end of the story with an updated count of the footing drain disconnects done to date in Ann Arbor. Mark TenBroek, vice president of engineering firm CDM Smith, said as of April 2 there have been 1,831 footing drain disconnects in single-family residences in Ann Arbor, plus a total of 762 "developer mitigation footing drain disconnection equivalents." He said some of those under the developer mitigation program are for larger structures, so they're reported as single-family equivalents.

A A Resident

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 2:25 p.m.

I hope the city didn't waive liability for the companies who did the studies, and the contractors who carried out the work. Is anything being done to recover our money spent on faulty studies and plans?

Steve Bean

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 1:27 p.m.

Ryan, do you have more detail on what residents mean by "water ends up cycling back in"? If the water is pumped to the storm water system, the only way it could get back in is if that route is blocked or if there's standing water from the street to the house, unless I'm missing something.

Irvin Mermelstein

Sat, Apr 13, 2013 : 5:33 a.m.

Steve, if you email us at Ann Arbor Underwater (, we will forward you a piece that is going to our email list tomorrow that answers your precise question.

Jack Eaton

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 3:44 p.m.

Steve, the design of the sump pump system includes a gap between the pipe coming from the sump pump going to the storm system. That gap is intended to keep water from backing up from the storm system into a basement. But the gap is placed just outside the house, so any overflow ends up seeping back into the home's footing drains. From the footing drain the water enters the basement by way of the sump pump. Thus, the "cycling back in" description. For pictures of the gap in the pipe and its proximity to the house see this page:

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 3:07 p.m.

I believe they're saying that, due to inadequate capacity in the stormwater drainage system, because the areas around their houses become severely flooded, the sump pumps aren't effective during storms in moving water from the footing drains into an already overwhelmed stormwater system.


Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 1:25 p.m.

Excellenty point, Bob W., can you find out how many studies have been done on this exact thing, or very close to it, already? I recall NUMEROUS expensive studies done already. Do they just wait a while, hoping we forget, and then do another one? Lots of buddies in the consulting industry? How'd that retention study work out at that park that's always flooding? Did something actually COME of that? Do we have an action plan established for the 10 (or whatever) possible outcomes of the study? Is there another study coming up about streetcars? 'Cuz that one was done way back in 2008, it's probabaly time to throw some more money at it. Does Ann Arbor have ZERO staff and machinery in place to porovide any data as it is? Doesn't the treatment plant track incoming/vs outgoing water over multiple time frames? Doesn't something monitor river levels at various points? We seriously have to rely solely on these outsourced studies? More than a million dollars, and the end result will be....?

Bob W

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 12:39 p.m.

Interestingly we received a piece of mail not long ago indicating a contractor for this work would be coming to our area soon and we were encouraged to "talk it up " with our neighbors to make it cost effective for them. Well, we've lived in our home for 40 yrs with no problem. We live at one of the highest points in the city in the Pauline-Seventh area. It makes no sense to do this work without individual site and and elevation considerations. We disconnectecd our down spouts from drain tiles decades ago and have them draining more than six feet out to well drained areas. Please don't waste taxpayer money blindly.

Irvin Mermelstein

Sat, Apr 13, 2013 : 5:29 a.m.

If you live in a pre-1982 single family home in one of the "target areas" in Wards 4 and 5 (currently three), you are subject to MANDATORY disconnection of your footing drains by a process created by the City. The current temporary delay is mostly temporary and not much delay. Here is what the City's FDD Ordinance provides about this "voluntary program:" A homeowner must have a footing drain disconnection completed within 90 days of an "order" from the City. If the owners fail to comply, a $100 charge will appear on their sewer bill until they do. If they cannot afford to pay the charge each month, the City will further incentivize them by disconnecting their home from City water and sewer. (This actually happened to some residents in Auburn Hills, where 550 houses were disconnected involuntarily in a program run by OHM.) If that doesn't work, the City will do what they do with all unpaid sewer charges: they put a lien on your house. The City is specifically authorized, if you don't pay off the lien, to foreclose on the lien and sell your house to collect. Not exactly the "voluntary program" that the Orwellian FDD Ordinance says the FDDP is.

Bob W

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 3:48 p.m.

AA Resident is correct, here is an excerpt from the city document, though I still hope they use some common sense on a site by site basis. Doubt I will hold my breath though. "Legal Requirements 30. May I choose not to participate in the program? What are the consequences of that? Participation in this program is mandated by city ordinance. The FDD program offers homeowners the opportunity to have the City pay for installation if the work is completed within the schedule of the program. If the homeowner does not comply with the notices to arrange disconnection, a fee of $100 per month will be charged to the homeowner for the additional costs associated with handling un-metered footing drains flows into the sewer system. Disconnection is still required and if done after the 90 day notice expires, the disconnection work would no longer be paid for by the city."

A A Resident

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 2:30 p.m.

Steve, I tried really hard to get out of the program, and as far as I can tell, it's required, and the homeowner has no option to get out of it. Wait, there might be an option to get out of it by paying a large fee, with some other caveats involved, like the home can't be sold until the work is done, and at that point, you pay for it out of your own pocket.

Bob W

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 2:11 p.m.

Steve, the notification received made no reference to this work being "optional " based on anything. No reference to an evaluation of need.

Steve Bean

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 1:36 p.m.

"It makes no sense to do this work without individual site and and elevation considerations." Of course not, and that's why you were provided information on which to base a decision rather than required to do something. Or is that not the case?

Charles Curtis

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 12:34 p.m.

You mean to report that the city never bothered to figure out the amount of water they were redirecting from the sanitary sewer to the storm sewer? I fully agree that the storm related water should go into the sanitary system, but if the city never bothered to figure how much water was being redirected, then it seem they have a huge liability in related flooding. I seem to remember lots of money being put into a study before this disconnect program was started. What happen with that study and why was there no follow up? It doesn't surprise me that our government can't do the proper pre-work to plan things, why would they its not their money. I think the real issue is not the disconnects, but the lack of capacity in the storm system. The city has developed most open lots and the storm system doesn't support the development done. I bet the city doesn't even know what the capacity is of the storm system is and that is what this new study is for. As a separate issue the whole disconnect program was a mess. The city required homeowners to use their 'selected' contractors and their 'approved' pumps. Some of the contractors worked for the city before the program began. Cronyism in government is the norm, so why not here. The equipment approved is not high quality and the evidence is the amount of replacements done on sump pumps (at the homeowners cost because their is no city warranty, the city makes homeowners sign a waiver BEFORE any work is done). Whats that sound like? Moblike behavior? The city forces you to do the work, they select the contractor, they pick the equipment, they give no warranty, and you have to maintain questionable work, poor equipment, or your home gets flooded, and if you do not have flood insurance, you do not get any coverage from your personal insurance (even if your not in flood plain). And by the way the work done in my home was never finished. The city would not respond to complaints, and neither did the 'consultant' we were directed too.

Irvin Mermelstein

Sat, Apr 13, 2013 : 5:06 a.m.

If you email us at Ann Arbor Underwater (, we'll try to help with your problem. A lot of information about what A2U has learned about the the mechanics of disconnecting footing drains and of the resulting flooding, how the FDDP really works, and tramples on private property rights of owners whom the City forces to have construction and plumbing performed inside and outside their homes.

Silly Sally

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 10:42 p.m.

You "fully agree that the storm related water should go into the sanitary system, .." Why? Why not have storm water go into a storm water system and toilet water go into a sanitary sewer? The whole point was to not have storm water over load the sanitary sewer system Oh, so silly.


Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 11:45 a.m.

"the project includes an 18- to 24-month study to monitor the flow within the city's sanitary sewer system" what you're saying is that you're not going to fix the problem for nearly 2 years but instead THINK about fixing the problem... I'm sure the residents in those flooded areas are going to love to hear that...

Irvin Mermelstein

Sat, Apr 13, 2013 : 4:57 a.m.

If all the City ever does is FDDs, they will not fix the problem of a surcharged sewer and storm water system in 2 years or 200 years. With the City never having proven that FDDs do what the City and CDMI say they do, we have wasted twelve years on a program that adds no new sewer capacity or storm water capacity. As one City Council member recently said publicly, "cheap fixes" are the City's goal.


Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 11:59 a.m.

A tip to the consultants: water flows downhill


Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 11:44 a.m.

$1,200,000 to complete the study and for public engagement? Why did they ever start the program if the study was not completed? Why can't the city do its own public engagement?


Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 11:17 a.m.

Ahhhh yet another " Study "...Just ask the taxpayers who's basements and streets flood , map it out , look at the infrastructure maps and ...vola ! another $1,200,00.00 to spend on real time'd think that the " powers to be " all come out of big blue...

A A Resident

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 11:16 a.m.

Thank goodness the footing drain disconnection program hasn't quite reached my street yet, and hopefully it never will. While I can see a few good things about it, It's a shame to replace an ultra-reliable gravity-powered home drain system, with one powered by electricity, which has the greatest tendency to fail during a storm when you need it most..

Irvin Mermelstein

Sat, Apr 13, 2013 : 4:52 a.m.

Ann Arbor Underwater is sending out a piece tomorrow on that very subject (that is, the plumbing problems of FDDs). If you send us your email at, we'll add you to the list. This will be first of a series of pieces providing a more accurate picture than the City's of FDDs and the FDDP.

Post It Notes

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 10:28 a.m.

Which neighborhoods in Southwest Ann Arbor are affected? Any chance we could get a map along with this article highlighting the flooded areas so we know the location. Or is it all of SW Ann Arbor around Dicken school and around Lawton school?

Post It Notes

Sat, Apr 13, 2013 : 11:07 a.m.

Thank you for the info! Very helpful!

Irvin Mermelstein

Sat, Apr 13, 2013 : 4:49 a.m.

The neighborhoods affected going forward (including Lansdowne and Churchill Downs) are in three sewage districts in Wards 4 and 5, called Morehead, Glenleven and Dartmoor. These are along the western edge of these two wards. There is a map of these "Target Areas" (though not a very good one) at

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Apr 12, 2013 : 3:02 p.m.

Affected by flooding? Different areas are affected at different times, depending on the storm, but I'm most familiar with the flooding issues in the Lansdowne and Churchill Downs neighborhoods.