Across Detroit the effects of climate change are evident. In the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood on the city’s lower east side, overflowing stormwater drains, contaminated waterways and flooded basements are just a few examples of how the city’s aging infrastructure struggles to keep up with our changing climate.  

The city’s combined sewer system is the crux of the problem. The increasingly heavy rains bring stormwater together with sewage waste leading to the overflows into streets, basements and the backyard canals in this historic neighborhood. Residents are now also measuring the toxicity levels of the canals where Detroiters have been able to fish and swim. 

Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood

An aerial view of the canal that runs behind the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood on Detroit’s lower east side. | Photo by One Detroit

In recent years the city has tried to protect the community from record high waters on the Great Lakes and the Detroit River, installing Tiger dams and sandbags, but with lake levels now receding, flooding from the sewer capacity problems is a bigger concern. Federal funding may be able to help alleviate the problem, but will it be enough? Some residents now are suggesting some new technology should be considered to fix the problem.  

During Earth Month, One Detroit Senior Producer Bill Kubota visited the hard-hit Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood as residents there explore possible solutions. He talked with Jay Juergensen, who’s leading the neighborhood advocacy efforts, along with Myrtle Thompson, John Myers and Blake Grannum, who endured the flood damage and clean-ups from the 2014, 2016, 2019 and 2021 overflows. 

He also talked with Detroit Building Authority Director Tyrone Clifton about the unpredictable nature of change that may occur as the city and residents learn to navigate uncharted waters in the future.

This story was produced in partnership with Great Lakes Now and in connection to PBS NOVA’s new documentary “Weathering the Future.” For more on the impact of global climate change, watch “Weathering the Future” on Detroit Public Television at 9 p.m. ET Wednesday, April 12. 

Full Transcript:

Bill Kubota, Senior Producer, One Detroit: Blake Grannum lives on a canal down by the Detroit River, the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood on the Lower East Side. 

Blake Grannum, Jefferson-Chalmers Resident: I’ve been over here my whole life. Jefferson Chalmers has been a secret, and it’s now not a secret anymore. It was just a little gem in the city where the canals run behind these houses. And you have such a diverse neighborhood. 

Bill Kubota: But every time it rains, Grannum documents what goes on in the streets. 

Blake Grannum: This is an ongoing problem and it needs to be resolved because of all the water that we’re getting. 

Bill Kubota: Flood insurance in this low-lying area. Expensive. The flooding. It wasn’t always this way. 

Blake Grannum: You know, we get basement backups and then we get streams in the… 

Bill Kubota: So you’re talking right, right here. 

Blake Grannum: Right here in front of our house. 

Bill Kubota: The fight is on to save Jefferson Chalmers. Jay Juergensen, one of its leaders. Is this neighborhood at risk? 

Jay Juergensen, Jefferson-Chalmers Resident: Very much so. Yeah. I would say that we are at a critical point in our neighborhood’s trajectory and its history. If we don’t fix the problems that are happening now, our neighborhood will go the way of the dinosaur. There’s no question about it. 

John Myers: Then the water receded. 

Bill Kubota: We first met John Myers back in 2019. It was record high water on the Great Lakes, the Detroit River, causing the canals to overflow. 

John Myers: The Army Corps and the city volunteers sandbag this, which is good because I did breach the cap by an inch or so. 

Bill Kubota: With the heavy rains, the attention now, what goes on down below? 

John Myers: This was just rebuilt in October and it was collapsed from the construction. They ran a truck over and it just caved in. So they rebuilt it and all cement and bricks and such. And ever since then, it hasn’t rained. So. There were some serious mistakes made about 100 years ago when they filled this piece of land in.

I mean, this is this is all the Grand Marais or the Great Marsh. Basically, this was a village called Fairview Village. It went from Waterworks Park to Cadieux in Grosse Pointe. But there were six automobile manufacturers right in this neighborhood, Chalmers, Continental, Hudson. And they wanted the tax base. So they said, look, we’ll we’ll suck you into Detroit and you can go into our sewer system. 

Bill Kubota: An historic neighborhood with a historic combined sewer system. Where sewage water mixes with stormwater. Too much rain. You get combined sewer overflows. 

John Myers: When you try to throw everything into pipes underground, they fill up and once they get to a certain point, the city goes down to the Fox Creek and they remove the log jams and they let it go right out the canal and that’s to keep it out of the basements. But 2014, 2016, 2019, and then 2021, I had a swimming pool in my basement along with a lot of other people. 

Bill Kubota: It trashed basements across Detroit, especially the East Side. 

Myrtle Thompson, Jefferson-Chalmers Resident: So I’ll tell you, when the flood came, everybody on that side of the street lost their car. Every time it rains here, we get flooding. We get flooding in the streets and that’s eroding things. Things are swelling and going down and swelling and going down. My house is moving right there. 

Bill Kubota: What, it looks like it’s damp. 

Myrtle Thompson: Yeah. 

Bill Kubota: Probably all the time it looks damp. 

Myrtle Thompson: Yeah. Yeah. 

Bill Kubota: Along the canals, tiger dams intended to ward off high water, although lake levels have been receding of late. 

Myrtle Thompson: That orange thing. Yeah. 

Bill Kubota: Now that’s been there a while. 

Myrtle Thompson: It was put there after 2016. That was the solution. 

Bill Kubota: That’s not a permanent solution. Is it? 

Myrtle Thompson: No. 

Bill Kubota: Well, it’s not going away any time soon, is it? 

Myrtle Thompson: I hope it goes away. It’s not doing anything now but junking up the place. That and all the sandbags that went down. 

Bill Kubota: Waterfront estates with boat docks, that’s nice. But the tiger dams and it’d be better without sewage in the water. 

Greg Sawyer, Jefferson-Chalmers Resident: It’s only supposed to be utilized in emergency situations. But of course, more than twice a year for the last dozen years, we’ve had discharges into the canal. 

Bill Kubota: Greg Sawyer wants better notification when the sewage discharges happen. 

Greg Sawyer: I mean we’ve had people we’ve caught people fishing in the water the day after the discharge and nobody’s informed them that that is not the appropriate thing to do. We have people that swim in the canal. 

Keisa Davis, Jefferson-Chalmers Resident: We do know that raw sewage is being dumped into the canals. So what we want to do is test the toxicity. 

Unknown Speaker 1: Grab the handle so you don’t lose it all. 

Keisa Davis: And we decided to tap our local teens who are an environmental science class at King High School and take it to the lab and see what the results are. 

James Armelagos, Jefferson-Chalmers Resident: Below that time. But above the second line. 

Bill Kubota: Has there been a lot of testing in the water here? 

Keisa Davis: I don’t think so. So this is something that we’re doing grassroots on our own. 

James Armelagos: And so we’re going to get a reference point of the bacteriological load as well as the chemical load, so that when there is an event, we can have a team out here within 24 to 36 hours to take a sample and compare the two so we can say this is what happens when we have a global climate event in the city. 

Bill Kubota: There’s federal money to upgrade the region’s infrastructure. Jefferson-Chalmers will need a lot of it. 

Tyrone Clifton, Director, Detroit Building Authority: We’ve got to look at all the options. We’ve got to work with the federal government. We’ve got to understand how climate is changing and shifting and what that means when you live along any major body of water. So we’ve got to understand everything and how are you now going to live in that area? 

Bill Kubota: One proposed fix, install locks separating the canals from the river. 

John Myers: It would be a permanent situation until they got the crane back out there to pull it back out. It would not. 

Bill Kubota: What would that do? And what did you think about? 

John Myers: Well, it’s not the answer. Closing off waterways doesn’t stop water. 

Bill Kubota: Blocking the canals rejected by the residents. Some who want consideration for other, bigger, bolder ideas. 

Jay Juergensen: What we’re talking about is a demonstration project. A demonstration project takes a look at a variety of technologies and said, How can we deploy these different technologies? 

Bill Kubota: Not new technologies, really, just not seen so much in these parts. 

Jay Juergensen: Take a look at this. This plastic device is driven into the soil and it allows for infiltration to happen more quickly. 

Bill Kubota: More than that, Juergensen suggesting underground storm water holding tanks installed under vacant fields and city streets. A lot of digging. Better the water there than in people’s basements. 

Tyrone Clifton: I don’t know if that can be successful, but those are the type of things that need to come together so we can have all the facts and say what is going to be successful and the reason why and also what’s the cost associated with that. That was a pretty ambitious plan from what I saw. 

Bill Kubota: And who’s offering up all the property where these tanks might go, even if there are the many, many millions of dollars it take to do it. If water is a problem, maybe you ought to move. 

Keisa Davis: Well, that’s one option. You have to think about affordability. Not everybody has that option, unfortunately. So what you can do is just work together as citizens and organize ourselves, educate ourselves and figure out some solutions. 

Bill Kubota: Why do you stay here with all this water? 

Myrtle Thompson: I was born and raised in Detroit. I’m a lifelong Detroiter. Most of my… all my children live here. I really like. Who doesn’t like living off the water? 

Tyrone Clifton: Given where climate change is and water levels rising… Changes, we’re all going to have to adapt. Not to say that they can’t have what they have it’s just going to have to change is probably a more accurate. And we don’t know what that change is unless we work together. 

Blake Grannum: We already know what the problem is. We don’t need to investigate a million other things. We know what the issue is. We just need to now find a solution of how to fix our infrastructure. And I know that costs a lot of money, but I mean, our neighborhood and the people in this community we’re worth were worth it. We’re worth you guys spending the money.

Jay Juergensen: We’ve got to solve these problems or the residents in our neighborhood and not just our neighborhood. Dearborn. The Detroit Aviation Sub, Morningside, the areas that are plagued with these chronic infrastructure problems will continue to see their property values go down because they won’t have the resources to invest in their homes to improve their value and have them appreciate over time. So we have to solve this. We don’t have a choice. Or like I said, our neighborhood will go the way of the dinosaurs. 

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