It's not all bad news: Detroit has seen some successes.
Combined sewer overflow discharges have reduced by more than 80 percent from the pre-1995 levels, according to the 2012 Alliance for the Great Lakes report. The city used to pour about 20 billion gallons of raw sewage into the Detroit River every year; now the average is about 2 billion, Schechter said.
Even though the nine holding basins have reduced overflow, Detroit needs "more innovative ways to deal with this than digging a big hole in the ground," said Brammeier, the Alliance's president. Detroit started using the storage basins in 1998, bolstering capacity. Meanwhile, over the past 15 years, the wastewater treatment plant has expanded. But plans for a large storage tunnel in 2009 that would have further reduced overflows were scrapped because of lack of money.
Streams used to do a lot of the work – carrying excess water from storms to the Detroit River. But many have long since been rerouted underground into pipes. One intriguing idea to alleviate sewer stress is to "daylight" an old stream – Bloody Run Creek – by busting up the concrete and letting it flow freely again.
In March a coalition of city officials, business leaders and nonprofits released a blueprint for Detroit's future that recommended greening vast amounts of vacant space to alleviate sewer strain. The plan, dubbed Detroit Future City, calls for the creation of ponds, lakes, even forests to ease sewer pressure and soak up other forms of pollution.
It's cheaper to put in and maintain such natural areas compared to sewer system upgrades, the authors say. Detroit also happens to have a lot of vacant land – about 20 square miles, roughly the size of Manhattan.
There have been a couple of benefits to the vacancy, Schechter said. Overgrown lots capture water, and as industry has left, the department has far fewer problems with toxic metals in the incoming water.
The department has committed $50 million toward disconnecting unused downspouts, removing vacant houses, planting trees and installing trenches, among other "green" techniques aimed at reducing runoff into the Rouge River over the next two decades.
But it's hard to estimate how much runoff green space will capture, Schechter said. "If you build a basin to hold overflow, you know exactly what you're getting."
No one has put an exact price tag on the Detroit Future City plan. The suburban Detroit-based Kresge Foundation has pledged $150 million over the next 5 years to kick-start it.
Still, the city's ability to undertake any sort of ambitious renewal is very much in doubt.
A bankruptcy court now controls much of the city's financial fate; a state-appointed emergency manager is tasked with improving the city's bottom line and streamlining services. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been eviscerated, down to about 600 employees from twice that number a couple of decades ago, Schechter said.
But from the ashes, Knott, at the environmental justice nonprofit, and others see a chance at rebirth.
"This could be a crisis," Knott said. "It's also an opportunity to revitalize the city."
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.