Why Water Isn't Free

Tap water is one of the better values in southeast Michigan. For the price paid in a typical water bill, the quality of water in terms of taste, pressure and availability can’t be beat. The plentiful supply from our faucets is the result of a significant infrastructure investment made by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) in the treatment and distribution system, and by local governments in their distribution systems. While the source water from the Detroit River is free, costs are incurred for chemicals, treatment, pumping, distribution system operation and maintenance, meter reading, billing and customer support services. Safe drinking water is delivered to our taps as a not-for-profit service that covers these water production expenses.

Our water infrastructure, its work force and the regulatory environment are rarely in the public eye, but a tremendous amount of work is going on to ensure water demands are met each day. Five water treatment plants (WTPs) produce potable water for nearly 4 million people in 127 communities in the DWSD service area. This system pumps an average of 610 million gallons of drinking water each day delivering it to service area customers through 12,500 miles of distribution mains. A regional work force comprised of DWSD’s and local communities’ water departments operate, maintain and update this system to serve our needs and protect public health.

Four of Detroit’s WTPs obtain water from the Detroit River and the 5th plant draws from Lake Huron. These are convenient water sources to all areas served and represent smart, shared use of local water resources. Water is produced as needed, in response to demand. The system is designed to treat and deliver water on a continuous basis. A 12- to 16-hour supply of treated water is typically kept in the reservoir at each plant to supply potable water throughout the distribution system. If demand increases, production increases.

Guided By Many Workers

Water production by DWSD staff is a 24/7 operation 365 days a year. The 5 treatment plants, 22 booster pumping stations, 34 reservoirs and transmission mains are always in operation ready to meet demand. Three shifts of workers rotate through each plant every day to keep pace with demand. A water distribution sampling team travels throughout the system taking samples at customers’ taps and providing feedback to the WTPs if chlorine adjustments are needed. The Systems Control Group continuously monitors system performance and relays data to the WTPs to keep supply matching demand. The Maintenance and Repair and Meter Operations Groups provide additional support.

Once water crosses a meter facility and flows into a suburban community’s distribution system, it is entrusted to a new set of hands. In Inkster we have a Water Department staff of 12 that includes 2 licensed distribution system operators who manage the delivery of water to businesses and residents. Our system includes 106 miles of water main with 3 facility meter connections to Detroit, 860 valves and 758 fire hydrants that require routine maintenance. Valves are exercised, or turned, on a rotating basis to increase confidence that they will turn in an emergency situation. Fire hydrants are flushed to ensure they operate correctly, have adequate flow and pressure, and are ready for winter use. Meter reading, billing and customer service must also be provided for 9260 water accounts.

How Community Demand Impacts Production - From Tap to Plant

Consumers create demand every time they turn on their faucets or sprinkler systems. The level of service provided to residents and businesses in the Detroit service area is dictated by the users’ needs. DWSD produces the volume of water that communities request. Suburban communities deliver the volume of water that their customers use and manage their local system needs to optimize operations.

Water consumption is impacted by the weather. If the area has ten days of heat and no rain, consumption goes up. Once it rains, consumption drops. As a result, the highest usage occurs during the summer. The day of highest water usage in the system, called maximum day, and the hour of that day when the greatest amount of water is used, called peak hour demand, are the ultimate conditions that DWSD must be prepared to deliver water under. As part of their contracts, suburban communities commit to a peak hour demand usage value that they will not exceed during the year. DWSD, in turn, commits to deliver these flow rates at a specific pressure range and sets its operations and capital improvements budgets around this flow rate.

Electrical consumption plays a role in rising costs to meet peak hour demand. As electrical rates climb during peak power usage so does demand and the cost to transport water. Similar to DTE Energy’s rate plan that gives customers a lower rate during off-peak hours, DWSD’s wholesale rate formula allows suburban communities to balance summer water consumption by increasing use during off-peak hours which reduces their peak hour consumption on the highest demand day. Communities can reduce demand by moving automated water usage applications to the off-peak hours. The net effect is to balance the demands on the system and reduce pumping required during peak hours of electrical consumption. Several communities have successfully reduced their peak hour consumption using this approach.

An Industry Marked With Rising Expectations & Aging Infrastructure

New federal and state regulations are routinely implemented requiring detailed testing to assess the performance of the treatment process and implementation of updates if new standards are not being met. Public health data also initiates changes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended reducing the amount of fluoride added to water to promote dental health since we are getting fluoride from other sources now.

Aging infrastructure needs to be upgraded as it nears the end of its useful life and current technologies are incorporated into the treatment process. Water treatment plants, distribution mains and pump stations require rehabilitation.

The Value of Clean Water

A reliable, safe drinking water supply brings tremendous value to a community. Water supply does positively impacts our property values like sewer service, roads and schools. Water is a shared resource that must be used wisely and protected for future generations.

Monthly Utility Expenses for Three Detroit Metropolitan Area Households


2-Person Household

3-Person Household

4-Person Household

























Total Expense




Our views about the value and price of water can be conflicting. Bottles of water are purchased at costs ranging from $1.16 to $8 per gallon while the water from our tap runs around $0.03 per gallon. Because water is frequently billed on a quarterly basis to reduce administrative costs of meter reading and postage, the costs can seem higher than they really are compared to other utilities. This is particularly true when the third quarter bill arrives with outdoor summer water usage. Next time you get your water bill, compare it to the other expenditures that keep your household running. Your water bill is likely to be the lowest monthly expense in the pile.