It's Miller Time: Meet the Detroit educator who's helping solve water issues around the country

It's clear Wayne State professor Carol Miller loves Belle Isle. That's where we decide to meet for our talk, and she immediately comes to the island's defense. 

Miller, whose bronzed skin suggests lots of time spent outdoors, tells me the Detroit River's unfair reputation for being dirty is based more on rumor than fact. And she's proud that Wayne State University (WSU) has included Belle Isle in the Adopt-A-Beach program for student research.

"Belle Isle beach is important," Miller says. "It's a tremendous asset of southeastern Michigan. It's another one of the Great Lakes beaches and undervalued." 

Miller, who's taught at WSU for 30 years, is part of a prestigious cohort of water-quality engineers and science professionals from the state who are tackling issues in Flint, Detroit, and areas around the Great Lakes.

Pollutants in water, the cost of water, and access to water are all major concerns for Michigan, which has the largest supply of fresh water in the world. Unfortunately, the state has been stricken by a series of mostly self-inflicted water crises in the last half-decade.

In 2010, a pipeline operated by Enbridge burst and flowed into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River resulting in an inland oil spill, and one of the largest and costliest spills in U.S. history. Chemical constituents of oils are poisonous and the ramifications of that oil spill will be felt on the environment for decades.

Budget decisions led to the poisoning of the Flint water system and the state's handling of the crises became a national disgrace.

This summer, residents in southwest Detroit were told that their water was unsafe and given a "boil water advisory," meaning they had to boil water before drinking it.

The Detroit Water and Sewage Department shut-off water to thousands of Detroiters behind on their bills between May and July of 2016.

When our conversation turns to this topic, Miller sighs. As a proponent for clean and accessible water, the water shutoffs troubled her in profound ways. "Shutoffs don't save money," she says. "You're not saving significant quantities of money by shutting off water to all these people, you're making a statement."

Miller adds that with drinking water, delivery is tied intricately to water cost as well as water availability, which has a clear connection to human health. She's part of a new initiative called The Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors at WSU, which deals with environmental contaminants related to health issues.

"Children," says Miller, "are most often the first affected by such environmental pollutants."

John Austin is the co-author of the Michigan Blue Economy, a 10-year study that is a portrait of Michigan's water-based economy, past, present, and future. Austin says that as a state, we must ask ourselves, does everyone have a right to clean safe drinking water?

Miller thinks so. "Water is a human right, a political and a justice issue," she says. "Water shutoffs are in conflict with the common good."

The common good is something she and Lance Franklin, one of her prized pupils, have in common.

"I teach with a  humanistic approach to engineering," says Franklin. "We can't bring biases into our profession. We should approach problems as though they are happening to our own family."

Dr. Lance Franklin is the first African-American to hold the post of Director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety at Virginia Tech. He remembers the first day at his new job well. Armed with a doctorate and years of teaching experience, Franklin felt enthusiastic about engineering and looked forward to vigorous discourse with his students. 

"I like discussion," Franklin says. "I want to hear what's on their mind. I like to push them to think about the ramifications of playing politics with engineering." 

Over the years, Franklin has honed a style of debate that's both spirited and engaging—a style he learned from professor Carol Miller when he was a WSU student in the 1990s.  

"She was incredibly gracious, kind, and attentive," Franklin says. "She encouraged me to pursue my interests in environmental racism and research the hazardous waste sites primarily found in areas where Latinos, blacks, and poor whites live."

Flattered by the compliment, Miller then waved it off. "I'm a civil engineer, which means engineering for all people, for their good and their health," she says. "I grew up in Detroit. I don't have a fear of dealing with race and inequality." 

After decades of teaching, Miller has built a network of student admirers, like Franklin, who now work and teach across the country. Another such admirer is Brianna Harte, who came from Massachusetts to do research with Miller in Detroit and was struck by how encouraging she was.

"Being with her felt like I was in such a supportive environment," Harte says. "She made me feel that my work was important."

Miller's work as a professor has helped build a small army of civil engineers solving real-world water problems. She's creating the next generation of water engineers, and that excites her too.

"They want to make a difference," Miller says. "They are aware of the social and political issues related to water."

In 2005, Miller's dedication to teaching won her the prestigious Michigan Society of Professional Engineers, Engineer of the Year award—one of the many accolades from her long list of awards.

But after years of being an instructor, Miller wanted to focus more closely on urban water issues, in particular the narrow Huron–Erie Corridor (HEC) where the upper Great Lakes and lower Great Lakes connect on the east side of the state, as well as Lake St. Claire and the Detroit River.

Miller believes the HEC, a surface-water drinking resource satisfying more than six million people, is too often overlooked. So in 2009 she created Healthy Urban Waters, a multi-million dollar initiative to advance civil engineering, and give WSU students real-world experience dealing with projects that address the challenges of environmental degradation due to human activity.

Major funders hailed her brainchild. The Erb Family Foundation, the Great Lakes Protection, and the National Science Foundation have each awarded grants to WSU to develop Healthy Urban Waters and further Miller's work.

WSU has since cemented its national status as a major player in water education and research. Along with the University of Michigan and Lawrence Tech, WSU is investing in water fieldwork and pioneering solutions that address freshwater ecosystem restoration to provide potable drinking water for a water-starved developing world.

Several national water-consulting companies, along with the The Great Lakes Water Authority, now have headquarters or major offices in Detroit.

"Detroit is definitely a superb place to be positioned right now if you have a passion for water," Miller says.

According to the consulting and economics finance firm, Anderson Economic Group, Michigan ranks in the top five in the nation in the percentage of jobs associated with industries related to water.

What keeps Michigan lagging is the state's aging infrastructure. Often pipes and mains are more than 100 years old and in need of replacement. The American Society of Civil Engineers released a report on America's infrastructure that states that much of our drinking water infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life.

Urban planners and civil engineers have worked tirelessly on this issue for years. "Every time sewage mixes with our drinking water supply, it's a failure of government," says Paul Fontaine, urban planner and program manager of the Michigan Engaging Community initiative at the University of Michigan.

"Infrastructure decay and lack of investment is a problem," Fontaine continues. "Engineers have been excellent, consistent, and thorough at sounding the alarm on this for the past 20 years. They have said that we are going to pay for having less safe drinking water, less safe roads and less safe infrastructure."

Aging infrastructure plays a dominant role in Miller's research. Several recent grants she's received deal with the energy inefficiency of aging infrastructure, and ways to improve it.

"Energy consumption plays a dominant role in the cost associated with high quality, reliable water," she says.

You might think that with all Miller's accomplished and the network of students carrying on her work, she'd be content to take it easy. But no, there's still important work to do. And first on the list is the development of a fully vested Water Center at Wayne State University.

"It's critical that we have a center focused on urban issues," says Miller. "One that's focused on the social, and political issues around water in Michigan."
This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

All photos by Sean Work
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Read more articles by Martina Guzmán.

Martina Guzmán is an award winning reporter and nationally recognized journalist who writes about race, justice and culture. She is the proud daughter of Mexican immigrants and a graduate of Journalism School at Columbia University in New York City.