In the name of improving my health, I’ve spent a fair number of mornings walking to the nearby track at Central High School, here in Detroit. Last week, I noticed that the school had been closed a number of days and only discovered over the weekend that it was due to water pressure issues at the school, as documented in this WDIV news story. The story also documents the disagreements between the high school/Michigan Education Achievement Authority, Great Lakes Water Authority, and the Detroit Department of Water and Sewage over where the problem lies, though it doesn’t seem to take into account a major part of the history of the site. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for over 30 of my 44 years, so I’m very familiar with the history, I hope that I can properly enlighten you about what I suspect is going on.
Central High School opened at its current location in 1926, along with Durfee Middle School and Roosevelt Elementary School (which was torn down a few decades ago and integrated into Durfee). At the time of the construction, and until sometime around 2004, the school complex had a steam plant that provided steam (and I believe electricity) to the three schools on the campus. The steam plant (and its long shadow) can be seen on the left side of this satellite photo from December 30, 2002 (courtesy of Google Earth):
For documentation’s sake, Central High School is the large building at the top of the image, Durfee Elementary and Middle School is the large building at the bottom. During the improvements to the complex approximately 11-13 years ago, the plant was torn down and replaced with a plant integrated into Central High School. (Among other changes, the track and football field were relocated slightly, and one of the drive ways at the rear of the complex was removed.) The current complex can be seen in this satellite photo from April 11, 2015 (again courtesy of Google Earth):
What you can also see in this second photo, is evidence supporting my suspicion that the problem with water pressure at the schools has nothing to do with the water supplied to the complex by the Detroit Department of Water and Sewage, but water leaking into the old steam pipes from the steam plant.
Although I have only been walking at the track for a short time, I noticed on my very first visit and every visit since these standing pools of water:
In addition to these, there’s another pool I didn’t photograph next to the stands at the track. The photo below is the merged satellite photos with the locations marked in red.
If you look at the April 2015 satellite photo, you can actually make out two of the pools in the access road from Linwood, which is an indicator that these pools of water have been present for at least a year. Given they haven’t changed much in size during the month or so that I’ve been walking at the complex, these pools must be getting fed by an underground water source that has saturated the land. I’m not an engineer, but I think it’s a short jump in logic to connect the water pressure issues at Central High School with these pools of water.
What I suspect is that the old steam pipes from the steam plant are still present underground, and are still connected to both Central and Durfee, and may even still run to the old location of Roosevelt which sat between the two schools. Durfee, on November 12-13, 2014, had heating issues as documented by another local television station, WXYZ in their news story. At that time, there was a small pit emitting steam near the northwest corner of the school; while that was probably a connecting pipe from the new steam/heating plant at Central, it still could be a sign that the old pipes are still in place and water might be leaking into them.
My final bit of supporting evidence is personal testimony; on several occasions while walking on the track, I saw the new steam plant venting large amounts of steam. I believe the date was Saturday April 30, 2016 when I witnessed it belching steam every 1-2 minutes while I walked around the track. Again, I’m no engineer or expert on steam boilers, but from experience with the boiler in my home, they tend to build up a lot of pressure when the water level in the boiler is low. Releasing/venting steam might have been done automatically to prevent catastrophic failure of the system. (In other words, an explosion.)
Given the large amounts of water at and next to the track, I don’t believe that the Detroit Department of Water and Sewage is responsible for the low water pressure that Central experienced; I believe that the construction to build the new heating plant failed to secure the old pipes and is currently leaking water into the surrounding land. Given that Central is run by the Michigan Education Achievement Authority, which took it over from the Detroit Public Schools, I don’t believe there’s anyone employed at Central that would even be aware of the old steam plant, let alone suspect that there might be leaks to the old pipes.
Finally, given the sinkhole that opened up down the street at Linwood and Monterey on March 29, 2014, I would be surprised that there isn’t a very large sinkhole developing beneath this complex, and would recommend that the immediate area be given a thorough stability study in the near future.