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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2004

Detroit engineer can tell you that water is liquid gold

DETROIT - Victor Mercado is a tough, short, and pudgy engineer who came here a year and a half ago to do a vital and largely thankless job. He is the man who runs Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department, most of whose customers don't live or work in the city at all, but in the suburbs and beyond. If he does a good job, nobody ever pays attention to him.

But if his department, some of whose pipes are well over a century old, should suffer a massive breakdown - well, imagine 4 million people without running water and with no plumbing, and you'll forget all about the Iowa caucuses in a hurry. Once upon a time, nearly everyone lived in Detroit, and what tiny suburbs existed were more than happy to be able to buy service from the city. Today, the population has moved out, and the water and sewer lines have expanded with them. Detroit's water pipes alone run 3,796 miles. But the era of good feeling is much shorter.

Today, more than a third of all Michiganders depend on Detroit for water. In some cities, water has been used as a weapon, to force outlying areas to annex themselves to a city. In Detroit, annexation is politically impossible. And since the city runs the system, suburbanites - especially, their politicians - often scream bloody murder when there is a rate increase, as there is now almost every year.

Nobody says it openly, but everybody has heard the whispers that the blacks who live in and run Detroit just want to fleece the wealthier white suburbanites. Naturally, many Detroiters see the suburban reaction as just one more case of more affluent whites wanting to get out of paying their fair share.

All this tends to exasperate Mr. Mercado, a no-nonsense type who, apart from occasionally lusting after a 1956 Crown Victoria, is mainly interested in efficiency - and a little more understanding. When asked what one thing he would most like to help him do his job better, he doesn't ask for more workers or more money for the system.

"What I would really like to see here is a better understanding between the suburbs and Detroit about how actually we do our work. And that way we wouldn't have as much of a conflict as we do now."

Mr. Mercado isn't naturally on anyone's side in this old and dreary racial and geographic divide. He is neither Anglo, African-American, nor a native of these parts. A 52-year-old Hispanic guy from the Bronx, he has spent his life working in and on a wide variety of public and private water and sewer systems from Delaware to Puerto Rico.

He knows what it is to go down a broken sewer main and look at a problem.

The good news is that Detroit's system is really not in terrible shape, he says. "The water itself is the best or among the best in the nation." The rates are reasonable, and the facilities, while in some cases aging, seem to work tolerably well.

Then why is Mr. Mercado going to ask for a water rate increase that will average 7.5 percent a year? That follows a 9 percent raise last year, both numbers substantially more than inflation. In fact, if approved, some suburbs will pay considerably more than that.

The reason, he argues persuasively, has nothing to do with trying to make money off the suburbs - or indeed to make a profit at all. "I think there is a lack of understanding as to how rates are set," he said. "People should come to our board meetings - they are open to the public, and they are posted on our web site (www.dwsd.org). What we charge the suburbs is based on cost of service. This has something to do with how far away they are - but also on how much water they use and how consistently they use it."

The suburbs also piggyback their own charges, and rate increases, onto the city's, which sometimes leaves suburbanites the impression that their entire bill goes to downtown Detroit, when it may be less than half.

Rates are set based on the cost of providing services at peak usage times. (For sewer use, the peak is always during commercial breaks in the Super Bowl.)

"Basically, we are keeping our costs flat. The only increases are because of capital improvements," he said. Last year, a water main broke on the east side that dated to 1877, a year when Detroit had barely 100,000 people. In the summer, they often pump a billion gallons of clean water a day, and can treat even more sewage.

He gets testy when asked his salary; $240,000 - more than the mayor or the governor. Not that he doesn't earn it. Imagine what it would mean to civilization in Detroit or Toledo or any other place if the water and sewer system broke down. Making sure that most people never have reason to think about that may be the biggest part of Victor Mercado's job.



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