The Detroit Water Crisis – the problem

This is the first in an investigative series on the Detroit Water Shutoffs. 

“Water is life!” The cheerful faces of the Detroit Water Brigade leaders in a happy holiday video are those of respite from a year-long battle to halt the city’s shutoff of water to thousands of homes in poor Detroit neighborhoods.

Corey Williams of the Associated Press reports shutoffs to over 30,000 Detroit homes in 2014. People peering anxiously out their windows for the utility workers, or who come home from work, turn on the faucet and breathe a sigh of relief that they can shower, cook, clean and flush toilets for one more day (not to mention drink water, make tea and coffee, and water their pets) will have a holiday reprieve. This is not due to any largesse on the part of the city, but because the billing system is down and it will be 10 to 15 days before it will be up and running again.

Shutoffs began January 2, 2014 and continued at a rapid clip with thousands of disconnections each month until a summer reprieve allowed customers to catch up or make payment arrangements. The relief was not to last, according to Williams, as shutoffs reached a high of 7,200 in June before dropping to a low of 1,600 in August. September, however, burgeoned again to over 5,000 shutoffs, and they continued at that rate into the winter.

The numbers

Detroit’s water system serves about 4 million people with just over 300,000 accounts, including schools and community facilities, commercial buildings and residences.

At one point over half of those accounts were overdue. Residential customers account for about half of the accounts in arrearage. Water and sewerage spokesman Curtise Garner said in an interview with the Associated Press: “We are trying to change the behavior so that the water bill is one of the top bills you pay,” said Garner. “If not, our paying customers have to pay for everybody.”

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This chart shows $92,000,000.00 in total delinquent accounts in the city of Detroit with $3.2 million due from residential customers the city has shut off.

City hands over dirty work to “demolition company.”

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It isn’t city-owned trucks traveling residential streets of Detroit finding water access points and locking them. That task falls to Homrich, a fifty-year-old private contractor specializing in “Demolition-Recycling-Remediation.”

In April, 2014, the city of Detroit contracted with Homrich to implement the Water Shutoff/Turn on Project at a cost of $5.6 million — more than the cost of the delinquent accounts.

July 10, protesters blocked the gates of Homrich to prevent their trucks from going out to complete more water shutoffs. Demeeko Williams of the Detroit Water Brigade said “during the arrests, police grabbed and twisted the arm of Michigan Citizen editor Teresa Kelly despite her statement that she would get up, and came down hard on Agnes Hitchcock, leader of the Call ‘em Out Coalition, as she lay on her stomach on the ground.”

Several members of the clergy were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace.