City of Detroit, GLWA and MSU Expand Partnership on Virus Detection Project During the Pandemic


DETROIT – The City of Detroit and the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) have expanded their partnership with Michigan State University’s (MSU) College of Engineering to use samples of untreated sewage as one of several methods to detect virus outbreaks, including COVID-19. Phase One of the partnership was initiated in November 2017 between the MSU engineering research team led by Associate Professor Irene Xagoraraki, Ph.D., and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and continued into Phase Two to focus on the COVID-19 outbreak using funding from GLWA in Spring 2020. This fall, a grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) is funding the expansion to monitoring of sewage in nine zip codes throughout southeast Michigan.


DWSD, GLWA, and MSU have been at the forefront of U.S. wastewater utilities using the sewer system to help identify virus outbreaks. Starting in November 2017, the National Science Foundation funded the Phase One, and the team proved the hypothesis that untreated sewage coming from homes and businesses could help provide advance notice of virus outbreaks using the molecular analysis of the samples. The outcomes of Phase One have been published in two scientific journals, by Science Direct and the Journal of Applied Microbiology.

Since April 2020, GLWA has been funding Phase Two of the project, helping the MSU team refine the process to focus on COVID-19. The MSU/GLWA team began sampling for SARs-CoV-2, commonly known as COVID-19, in the three primary regional GLWA sewer interceptors in April and already have published results in a scientific journal, the Journal of Environmental Engineering. CDM Smith is also a significant partner in this phase of the research study.


The expanded virus detection partnership, which is Phase Three of the project, funded by EGLE will:

•    Enhance the collaboration to include the public health officials from the City of Detroit, as well as Wayne, Oakland and Macomb Counties, to participate in the data analysis.

•    Target the monitoring to include nine selected locations in the sewer-shed: 48235 (Detroit), 48210 (Detroit), 48205 (Detroit), 48076 (Southfield), 48237 (Oak Park), 48322 (West Bloomfield Twp.), 48021 (Eastpointe), 48310 (Sterling Heights), and 48044 (Macomb Township). These targeted zip codes were selected in consultation with the Detroit Health Department and the three county health departments.


Funding from GLWA will provide the following:

•    Continued monitoring of the three sewer interceptors that feed GLWA’s Water Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF) in Detroit. These interceptors collect untreated wastewater from the city of Detroit, and large portions of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

The method led by the MSU Engineering research team goes above and beyond simple surveillance of SARs-CoV-2 in wastewater outlined in this published paper.


The MSU study’s findings show that RNA markers can be detected in untreated sewage, including coronaviruses. When that data is combined with healthcare data, the research scientists can determine how the sewer signal provides advance notice of outbreaks. Using the data from the sewage samples and the county health data for the same timeframe the researchers discovered that viruses were apparent in the sewer collection system approximately 1-2 weeks prior to seeing increases in reported data at health departments for those same viruses. It should be noted that, per MIOSHA guidelines, individuals working with sewage wear standard personal protective equipment, which has been determined to provide the proper protection.

“The expansion of the partnership gives us targeted information that is critical in our battle against COVID-19,” said Denise Fair, City of Detroit Chief Public Health Officer. “The expanded reach of this study allows us to pinpoint neighborhoods and zip codes where COVID-19 is trending upward, and we can use this information to reach out to residents and businesses in those areas to reinforce our messaging with regard to testing, quarantine protocols, contact tracing, and even assistance for businesses who need help in developing a plan to operate while keeping their employees safe during this pandemic.”

DWSD Deputy Director and Chief Engineer Palencia Mobley, P.E., who authorized the department’s participation in the study, said, “When we were approached by Dr. Irene Xagoraraki about her MSU research project in the fall of 2017, we immediately saw the value of using the sewer collection system to aid health officials in virus detection. I directed our DWSD staff to give the researchers complete access. This partnership continues to support our vision of DWSD being an anchor institution that solves problems in the community.”

"This new Phase of the research adds considerable value to the project,” said John Norton, PhD, director of Energy, Research, and Innovation at GLWA. “By collaborating with the City and County public health officials, along with the regional wastewater services, we should make significant progress in determining the best approach for providing advance notice of emerging public health conditions. Inter-agency collaboration is key to success.”

The study is being led by Dr. Xagoraraki, associate professor of environmental engineering at MSU. In 2017, Dr. Xagoraraki received a two-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant titled: “A Wastewater-Based-Epidemiology System for Early Detection of Viral Outbreaks in Detroit MI.” This grant was followed by a two-year grant from GLWA titled: “SARS-CoV-2 in Detroit: Surveillance and Prediction” which started in April 2020.

The approach that Dr. Xagoraraki and the team are using is focused on community composite sampling and analysis. It is a wastewater-based-epidemiology method directly applicable to urban metropolitan areas with centralized wastewater collection.

“Our approach has the potential to provide warnings earlier than traditional systems focused on clinical diagnostics – rapid or not – which are inherently limited to an after analysis of an outbreak,” said Dr. Xagoraraki. “Our approach goes above and beyond simple surveillance of wastewater.”


Two models are developed:

1.    The Viral Identification Model (Viral-ID) that determines diversity and genetic makeup of viral infections in a certain population; and

2.    The Viral Prediction Model (Viral-PD) that provides early detection of fluctuations of specific viral disease, such as hepatitis, COVID-19 and others, in certain geographical areas over time.


The public is not vulnerable to untreated sewage

The public can be assured that once sewage enters the sewer collection pipe, it is not encountered by the general public. Most basement backups are either stormwater or the household’s own untreated sewage. The treatment process uses chlorine to kill viruses in sewage at the WRRF. DWSD, GLWA and health experts always advise precautions when encountering raw fecal matter and sewage.


About The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) serves more than 230,000 accounts that includes a residential population of nearly 700,000. DWSD’s water system consists of more than 2,700 miles of water main and 30,000-plus fire hydrants, and the combined sewer collection system has nearly 3,000 miles of sewer piping, more than 90,000 catch basins and 16 green stormwater infrastructure projects within the city of Detroit. Beginning in June 2019, DWSD embarked on a five-year, $500 million program to begin to address the aging infrastructure, including replacing lead service lines. To learn more about DWSD or to request water services, make payments, enroll in assistance programs, or report water or sewer emergencies, call DWSD Customer Care at 313-267-8000, use the Improve Detroit mobile app, or visit


About the Great Lakes Water Authority

The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) is the provider-of-choice for drinking water services to nearly 40 percent and efficient and effective wastewater services to nearly 30 percent of Michigan’s population. With the Great Lakes as source water, GLWA is uniquely positioned to provide those it serves with water of unquestionable quality. GLWA also has the capacity to extend its service beyond its 88 member partner communities. As part of its commitment to water affordability, the Authority offers a Water Residential Assistance Program to assist low-income households in participating member communities throughout the system. GLWA’s board includes one representative each from Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties, two representatives from the city of Detroit and one appointed by the Michigan governor to represent customer communities outside of the tri-county area.