Water is still the source of life


If you’re in Detroit in three weeks, or can get there, I hope you will go to this. Two years ago, I created a multimedia presentation on the Detroit Water Crisis. Shortly thereafter, the Flint Water Crisis flowed in. There are those who feel access to clean water is a privilege, not a human right. A pro-life solution would seem to be water for all. Be part of the solution.

Follow up: Detroit Water Crisis

The Detroit Water Brigade is gearing up for the second summer of water shutoffs. After a respite, and despite the Detroit city council’s recommendation that the shutoffs cease, Mayor Duggan ordered the shutoffs to continue.

Despite the work of the Detroit Water Brigade  to stop the shutoffs and mitigate the effect on residences cut off, the contractors’ trucks are again out painting sidewalks blue to indicate this place is next.

Detroit is not alone in facing water shutoffs to its poorest residents. Lost in the #BlackLivesMatter riots after the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore was the news that Baltimore was set to begin shutting off water to 20,000 homes last month.

Detroit could see the landscape and conditions in the city rapidly deteriorate as 40% of the city’s homes face cut off of their water supply with the latest round of disconnect notices.

Despite the admonition in October from the United Nations that cutting people off from water is a human rights violation, city officials maintain that they are simply responding to the issue of unpaid bills.  However, Motor City Muckracker reported that the city was also cutting off water to homes with up to date payments. 

Social justice leaders and observers warn that the water shutoffs could lead to an unprecedented revolution in Detroit. Investigation shows that many of the residents living without water, or who are in danger of losing water service, are disabled, raising children, working, or have been employed recently before losing jobs. Compared with the staggering delinquent amounts for which the city has let commercial accounts slide by, the residential accounts will not make much more of a dent in the city’s financial disaster.

Detroit Water Crisis

Infographic by Amy Peterson (click to enlarge)

Detroit Residents Fight for Affordable Water Service

You stand in front of the window watching as they jump out of the truck and paint a blue streak of shame on the sidewalk in front of your home. They paint the blue streak so they will remember to come back and turn off your water. The bill is $500.00 and your job brings in $1,000.00 per month. It’s an insurmountable amount, especially considering the City won’t allow you to enter into a payment arrangement. You watch up and down the block, and the workers continue up the road, stopping the truck to paint several more blue streaks. This is Detroit.

The people facing shutoff of water to their homes have had help. Mark Ruffalo joined the protests. The United Nations has come to learn more and make recommendations. There is an action group called the Detroit Water Brigade standing up for citizens’ rights and delivering bottles of water and other help to residents living without water.  They’ve stated water is a human right. Pro bono lawyers have converged to file a lawsuit. Lyda,et. al. vs. City of Detroit presented testimony from various Detroiters who told their stories of how the shutoffs have impacted their lives.

Nicole Hill is a mom of three who had run up at $8,000.00 water bill. She stayed in the house and sent her children to live with another relative after their water was disconnected. Her seven-year-old daughter awoke at 2:00 a.m. wanting her mother, so she set off on the streets of Detroit to find her. She was spotted by a neighbor who called police. After speaking to the child, the police brought her to her mother. Her crying child pleaded, “Mommy, don’t make me leave you again.”

Ms. Hill reported her water bills ranged from $27.00 to $689.00 in the months preceding the shutoff. She continued to receive bills for water service while it was shutoff.

The consequences of disconnected water service were more dire for Nicole Cannon, whose testimony was taken September 22, 2014 in an earlier hearing. Ms. Cannon, 44, died of sarcidosis after her water was shut off.

The City of Detroit fell into bankruptcy in 2014, in the largest city bankruptcy in the history of the United States. The City is accused of taking its financial issues out on its poor citizens. Commercial customers, the stadiums for the athletic teams, and schools and civic buildings have remained connected to running water while up to 30,000 households have been shut off. Testimony continues before Congress and in the lawsuit, and the Detroit Water Brigade continues connecting with other human rights organizations to provide access to water for people in Detroit now living without.
Detroit Water Crisis

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.”

Screenshot 2014-12-20 19.23.13
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.”

Screenshot 2014-12-20 19.02.40

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.