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Environmental Justice


The Plight of the Waterless in Detroit

September 28th 2011

Social Topics - Water is Our Right

In Detroit, the business of water is a dirty one. Thousands of residents have their water shut off every year, but the issue reflects more than just unpaid bills. The shutoffs are at the heart of how the Great Lakes are being stewarded. As the world’s supply of fresh water dwindles, the Great Lakes will only continue to become more of a focal point. Who gets the water in these lakes and who goes without? The ways in which water equity issues play out in Detroit may foreshadow what’s on the horizon for other U.S. cities—and even the world.

Detroit resident Keith Bragg wears a faded blue jacket and stands behind a small wooden lectern. He glances down every now and again, but for the most part he keeps his head up. His voice and eyes are clear as he begins to tell the assembled crowd how he found himself without water.

“[My] water was shut off on Christmas Eve,” Bragg tells the Detroiters assembled at Central United Methodist Church. “I was on my way home from my family’s [house] and I found out my water was shut off with no warning.” Bragg was renting and didn’t own the property, which means the responsibility for the water bill fell to his landlord. Bragg paid his rent and never saw a shutoff notice, but it didn’t matter. He was still suddenly and irrevocably without water.

“I tried to pay the water bill but they couldn’t accept it,” Bragg says, perhaps because he wasn’t the property owner, or perhaps, as he says, “it was the holiday season,” and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) said they couldn’t process payment during that time. Whatever the reason, the issue didn’t get resolved. Bragg lived in the house, without water, for two weeks because he didn’t have the funds to move. He drove to his job every day. He borrowed water from friends, filling up jugs. He couldn’t flush the toilet very often. He had to shower elsewhere. He purchased gallons to drink.

After two weeks, he had to leave. Living without water was untenable. “It’s bad enough that the rates keep going up,” Bragg says, “but even when you come up with the money, [DWSD doesn’t] even want to turn the water back on.” Bragg steps down from the podium. Another Detroit resident steps up. Then another, then another—all with stories of frustration, confusion, and wrongdoing concerning their water.

The testimonies were all recorded as part of the Truth Commission on Water Rights, a 2008 event organized by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, a nonprofit that works on behalf of low-income individuals and families. Attended by regional leaders, environmental advocates, and everyday citizens, the Truth Commission presented their water testimonies, information, and recommendations to the United Nations in support of water as a human right. University of Michigan alumna Ann Rall (Ph.D. ’05) organized the Truth Commission and was there when Keith Bragg gave his testimony. She’s just one of many Michigan alumni and faculty who are looking at shutoffs not just as penalties for unpaid bills, but as events that carry grave consequences for families, communities, and for the larger ecosystem.

As the Earth’s freshwater supply dwindles, questions mount regarding the Great Lakes:

How can this resource, which represents 20 percent of the Earth’s freshwater, be kept safe?

Should privately owned bottling companies be allowed to pump and sell Great Lakes water when people in Detroit can’t turn on their taps?

To whom does the Great Lakes water belong and how should the resource be shared equitably?

The questions deepen as the shutoffs continue. Water bills are also on the rise, even though one in six Detroit workers is unemployed and more than 30 percent of Detroiters live below federal poverty levels. In 2005, more than 40,000 Detroit residents had their water turned off. It’s a crisis Rall and others like her are trying to bring attention to—and end.


At a meeting of the Detroit People’s Water Board (PWB)—a volunteer organization comprising community members and environmental leaders working on water issues in Detroit—Rall takes notes as the group sits around a long conference table and discusses how to get local officials to understand the gravityof the shutoffs in Detroit. “Children have been taken out of homes,” says Melissa Damaschke, PWB member and Great Lakes regional representative for the Sierra Club’s Detroit office, “but [government officials] don’t seem to know that.” One woman had her children taken away after her water was shut off, because without water a home is deemed a public health violation.

Damaschke personally heard the testimony from the mother of five. “I’m sure there are social workers out there who don’t take the kids out of the home when the water is shut off, but we have certainly heard that it does happen,” says Damaschke. At their meeting, Rall and the other PWB members formulate a plan to get these mothers in front of DWSD’s next board of commissioners meeting, so the board can hear the stories directly. Mary Blackmon, president of the DWSD board, recently expressed dismay when Damaschke told her shutoffs were negatively impacting families. Blackmon said she wasn’t aware of such consequences.

Rall doesn’t sugarcoat the chances of getting a witness in front of DWSD’s board. A social worker by day, Rall is pragmatic and knows how the game is played. “People are very reluctant to speak up about the problem [of shutoffs],” she says. “There’s a lot of shame around the topic and people think they can get in trouble if they’ve had their water shut off. Especially if they’re receiving cash assistance (welfare).”

Rall is right. The following week, not a single person shows up on behalf of PWB to testify. The people who are gathered are there to protest the shutoffs, or to contest their bills, like Deborah Duren. She lives on Woodward Avenue. “I have five bills [totaling] $1,300 in water and $800 in sewage,” Duren says. Her water has been shut off, and the overdue bills have rolled over onto her property taxes. If she doesn’t find a way to pay what she owes, she could eventually lose her house.

Duren contends the bills are wrong. “We weren’t even in the house for a lot of that time,” she says. Rather, she was in the hospital, caring for her husband, who’d had surgery. “How could we have possibly used that much water when we weren’t even there?” What’s more, Duren’s bills—like most residents’ bills—are estimated. They’re an approximation of what the water and sewage utility thinks Duren owes. Duren can’t understand why an estimated bill—a guess, really —was rolled onto her property taxes. “I want them to tell me what the meters said, not what they think the meters said. I want it adjusted.”

Unfortunately, Duren never gets the chance. As she and members from PWB wait, a small sign goes up in the building’s window. The Board of Water Commissioner’s regular meeting for Wednesday, November 17, 2010, has been cancelled. The protesters disperse. Duren and others like her walk away. If nothing else, Duren’s case shows how, with a publically held utility, there’s an excessive amount of red tape. It’s like magnifying the most bureaucratic aspects of government and then applying them not just to a passport or driver’s license, but to something people actually need to survive.

Rall has firsthand experience with such frustrations and roadblocks. In 2005, she and workers with Michigan Welfare Rights drafted and submitted the Water Affordability Plan (WAP) to the Detroit City Council. WAP proposed that city funds, supplemented by charitable donations, would help ensure at-risk Detroit residents would never be in danger of a shutoff again. WAP was designed specifically to help people like the mother of five who had her kids taken away, or the people who Maureen Taylor, chair of WelfareRights in Michigan, saw running hoses through their windows from a neighbor’s house.

The Detroit City Council passed the WAP resolution in 2005, and even allocated seed funding of $2.5 million to support the program. WAP was gaining ground until DWSD put forth its own plan to ease shutoffs: The Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program (DRWAP). DWSD’s director at the time, Victor Mercado, spearheaded the program’s effort, which had much the same structure as WAP: seed funding, and charitable giving (Detroit residents voluntarily agree to a donation every month on their water bill) providing a pool of money to help Detroit residents pay their bills.

Rall says DRWAP looked much like the WAP program—except gutted. “It was the same old tired social services approach, where sometimes people get help with their bills and sometimes they don’t.” For example, DRWAP caps assistance at $175 per family per year, whereas WAP would have ensured families only pay a small and reasonable portion of their income each month to ensure shutoffs cease permanently. DRWAP also requires multiple forms of identification in the application process. It might not sound like much, but Rall says finding a social security card might be a nearly insurmountable hurdle for someone just trying to survive.

DRWAP was instituted in 2007, and claims that 3,000 people have enrolled in the program since its inception. It’s a laughable number for Rall. With 40,000 shutoffs in 2005 and increases in local layoffs and poverty levels, DRWAP is only reaching a small percentage of the people who need it. Mary Sevakis, public affairs manager for DWSD, asserts that the city will work with anyone who wants help paying their water bill, but she can’t say whether or not the DRWAP program has been able to at all reduce the number of shutoffs in the city since 2007. “For me, the number [of shutoffs] hasn’t increased or decreased,” she says. After asking Sevakis outright to compile or locate hard numbers on shutoffs and DRWAP funding, then calling back a few weeks later, she wasn’t available for further comment. Meanwhile, the bills get worse. In June 2010, the Detroit City Council approved a rate increase, averaging eight percent. Another rate increase of 9.3 percent went into effect in early 2011.


Water shutoffs in Detroit aren’t just a problem of bureaucratic mismanagement by the city. According to Paul Webb, Director of LSA’s Program in the Environment, the shutoffs highlight the tension and inefficiencies regarding water supply and water use. “It’s an utter waste to use the same water [that we can drink] to flush our toilets, to water our lawns, and to water medians on freeways,” says Webb. “We should be prioritizing the highest quality water for the highest-quality uses.” Webb says that cities can and should “prioritize ways to deliver drinking water to everybody.” But it can only happen in conjunction with “changing the culture and use of water appropriately.”

For example, he suggests homes have dual plumbing systems whereby “grey water from sinks would go into a reservoir and we’d use that to flush toilets.” Rain barrels stationed outside homes would be used to water gardens and lawns. The highest quality, treated water from the Great Lakes, would only be used for consumption. Because people wouldn’t be using the same water they drink to wash their dishes, it might be easier to supply. Mike Shriberg, PhD agrees. A former Great Lakes advocate with the non-profit Environment Michigan, a current Program in the Environment lecturer, and the education director at U-Michigan’s Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute, he says that reallocating and reprioritizing resources will be critical to mitigate future water crises.

“Look at all the problems we’re having in the middle of the world’s largest freshwater resource,” Shriberg says. “When you then translate those issues to the water-scarce parts of the world—which are often some of the poorest parts of the world—you get people on the brink of, if not in the midst of, a global water crisis.” Shriberg says it’s critical to rethink water use not just as private consumers but as citizens belonging to an interconnected watershed. This became clear in 1998 when a private company proposed drawing water from Lake Superior and shipping it to China. “We’re all for water equity, but the Great Lakes should not be used as a source for the world’s water,” Shriberg says. “That water is in use here. It’s feeding the local people and ecosystems.”

Shriberg also points to a court case based in Mecosta county in west-central Michigan. Nestlé Waters North America began pumping water out of a local aquifer for its Ice Mountain brand of bottled water. In court, experts demonstrated that this damaged lakes, rivers, and streams in and around the area. In other words: all the water was connected, and taking it from one place affected numerous other locations as well. The court cases and efforts from organizers like Shriberg have made some headway in the state of Michigan. Nestlé still operates its plant in Mecosta, but Shriberg says that because of new laws, “when there are water withdrawals over a certain amount, you have to get a permit, and you have to show you’re using it effectively.

But the limits for permits are pretty high, and there are many wells that go in without any oversight at all.” Shriberg and his colleagues wanted to include language in the Michigan laws stating that all water is held in the public trust — that if the water is used, it must be to benefit the public good — but the language never passed through the state legislature because of strong opposition from water bottlers and other special interests, says Shriberg.

It’s a fact rarely overlooked by Detroiters. “It’s water in our own backyard and we can’t get it,” says Detroit resident Gwen Gaines at a recent PWB meeting. “We have to talk about what’s going on in Detroit and connect it to what’s going on around the world,” she adds, referring to the U.N. General Assembly’s vote this past July affirming that water is a basic human right. The resolution passed with support from 122 countries. The United States was not one of them.

Lara Zielin is Editor of LSA Magazine of the University of Michigan, from where this article is adapted.

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