City commission debates grant for cleaner water

MARQUETTE — Stormwater runoff along Hawley Street in Marquette may be filtered through a wetland before running into Lake Superior if a grant application approved Monday by the Marquette City Commission is successful.

The commission voted 6-1 in support of the application, which will now be submitted by city staff to the Environmental Protection Agency by the Friday deadline.

If approved, the $401,000 project would be covered with $288,500 from the federal government and a local match of $112,500 through a public-private partnership.

The city would contribute $20,000 — half in cash and half in in-kind services — while the Superior Watershed Partnership has pledged $7,500 and property owner Michele Butler has pledged $85,000, plus an additional $15,000 for engineering costs related to the project.

Commissioners discussed the project’s alleged ties to private development.

Through a deal that established the now publicly owned Clark Lambros’ Beach Park, property immediately north of the run-off site was retained as private property by the Lambros family, and had been previously discussed as the potential site of a condominium development.

Butler said the property is for sale and there is interest, but that’s as far as they’ve gotten.

“Part of my commitment when doing the (Clark Lambros’ Beach) Park was looking at how to reroute that so it doesn’t run into Lake Superior, and my goal and my intent was on the environmental side,” Butler said.

Mayor Pro Tem Tom Baldini said none of the runoff from Hawley Street is treated, but wetlands naturally do that.

“It’s something that everybody on the Great Lakes is attempting to do. How do we, in effect, treat water that’s going directly into the lakes without some sort of filtration?” Baldini said. “When you don’t build filtration plants, which I’m not advocating here, wetlands help us do that.”

Commissioner Sara Cambensy was absent and Commissioner Mike Conley voted against, saying it’s a non-budgeted, non-emergency expense.

“We’re already deficit-spending, and we have just unimaginable unfunded liabilities,” Conley said.

According to commission supplements, the project would disconnect and re-route urban stormwater runoff from an open-channel storm drain into restored coastal wetlands — reducing negative impacts to water quality and human health at public beaches.

Concern about the runoff was identified through a previous EPA-funded Great Lakes Sanitary Survey/beach monitoring program. The restored wetlands would filter between 7-9 million gallons of water per year, according to the supplemental materials.

If approved, the project would get underway in June and be completed by the end of 2018.

Director of Public Works Curt Goodman said the city has to be the grant originator and submit the grant on behalf of the public-private partnership.

“If we do not submit the grant, the project is pretty much dead in the water,” Goodman said.

City Manager Mike Angeli said the application wouldn’t be seen favorably if the city did not put forward some funds, which likely would be discretionary water/sewer funds, or the commission could pass a budget adjustment upon final approval of the grant.

Conley said potential infrastructure damage from freezing temperatures is a bigger priority for discretionary funds.

“If something’s on sale, … I don’t buy it if I can’t afford it, even at the sale price,” Conley said. “I’m just trying to defend the budget here, and I’m feeling like the last one standing at the fort.”

Conley argued all stormwater runoff should be addressed at once as part of a comprehensive plan.

“The only reason we’re talking about this tonight is because there’s going to be a condo development immediately north on the beach 500 feet from the storm outlet,” Conley said. “This is not part of the comprehensive plan. We’re not worried about storm water, we’re worried about private development and that’s a different issue.”

Baldini said he is a fiscal conservative, but to “not do anything until we can do everything” is unrealistic.

“I think it would be almost reckless and careless of us to pass up this opportunity for $20,000,” Baldini said.

Goodman said the site is one of a few along the city’s nearly 12 miles of waterfront property that was identified in the EPA survey, with another by Lakeview Arena that already received a $200,000 grant, and another near McCarty’s Cove by Crescent Street.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have a good track record with the federal government and the EPA through this program,” Goodman said, adding a wetland is “a low-cost technology that works.”

Goodman said funding would come out of the stormwater utility fee, for a stormwater project that “has always been on the radar.”

Marquette resident Jorma Lankinen said the private developer should pay the full cost of the project, calling it an “incredible political maneuver” at the taxpayer’s expense.

But Marquette resident Brice Burge thanked commissioners for showing “good economic logic,” noting the city would contribute just 5 percent of the total cost of the project.

“Five percent for clean water, which is a value that so many people in this community have,” Burge said.

The private developer may have personal goals, but the end result still benefits everybody, Burge said, adding costly comprehensive studies have “already brought a ton of disdain and just sarcasm from so many people in the community.”

“To be able to just throw in as part of something, it’s more inclusive, it’s more understanding, it’s more efficient, and you guys did a really good job of spending $20,000 in a way to pick up a $10 bill, when you could’ve tripped over a $100 bill,” Burge said.

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is mwardell@miningjournal.net.