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Water Today Title December 15, 2017

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The Stories ...so far
Posted 11/5/14
Update - 11/9/14


Something weird is going on just across the border,
within sight of Windsor.
Thousands of people have no tap water.
From activists to the president
no one can sort this out.
This is what we learned so far.

    "It's abandonment by government. The street lights don't work, there's abandoned factories, there's abandoned houses. The schools are not performing for people. There are no jobs."
    Jerry Smith, Executive Director, Capuchin Soup Kitchen & Urban Farm.

    "This is Detroit; nothing is without reference to race here. Where do you want to start brother? Are you looking for something that's bumper sticker or are you looking for analysis?"
    Michael Mulholland, acting president AFSCMEF Local 207

    "You can't look at any issue in the Detroit without mentioning the 3Rs and the 3Rs are really race, regionalism and reconciliation."
    Peter Hammer Director, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, Professor, Wayne State University Law School.

    "Can you call me back in 10, I'm eating my breakfast."
    Justin Wedes, Co-founder Occupy Wall Street, Detroit Water Brigade


Jerry Smith, Executive Director

"The population we serve here is predominantly African American, I would say a full 95%. Yeah, we're right here in the heart of the city where the poor people live."

"A lot of the people we serve are already invading abandoned buildings, or they're homeless; so for years - we've been doing this forty 85 years now - we've been operating a shelter because a lot of the people don't have bathing facilities in their homes or they're living on the streets and don't have anywhere else to shower. So, this situation with the water shut-offs now in Detroit doesn't affect many of the people we deal with."

"There are some jobs, some of he people that come to us do have jobs, but it's pretty much low-paying service jobs. You know it's working in fast food, some people are working with cleaning services. Once in while some people get decent jobs but it's pretty much beyond the boundaries of the city and they have to get there somehow."

Justin Wedes

The Issue
"The story goes a long way back when the city began its economic and population decline. As the population dwindled, there were huge gaps in water revenue so the city took on a large amount of debt. This led to an aggressive campaign to try to collect more money to pay off this large debt.

Detroit water is about $80 to 90 a month which is twice the national average in a city where over 60% of the population lives below the poverty level. Low income residents have to make the difficult decisions of what to pay first. They are juggling with rent, medical costs, food, and all the other everyday costs. Nearly half the city's water bills are delinquent."

"There are 1000s of families currently without water and hundreds more shut-offs every day. What we try to do is provide financial and legal support, and we deliver water."

"The city has outsourced the water shut-offs to a private company called Homrich for about $5 million dollars. I've been around the neighbouroods and seen the shut-down valves. It's even worse, after they turn your water off they spay a big neon blue X in front of your house. So you bear the stigma of having your water shut-off in addition to having pipes running to your house that don't work."

"This is one of the most important examples of the 99% that led to the creation of movements such as Occupy Wall Street."

Peter Hammer

Race, Regionalism, Reconciliation
"The first fundamental problem is that more than 40% of the Detroit population lives below the federal poverty line and they are faced with some of the highest water bills in the country. Detroit has tremendous financial problems but south-east Michigan and the region surrounding Detroit does not."

"Detroit has become - trough prophecies of white flight and white exodus - an opportunity desert, surrounded by a relatively resource-rich region; and ironically Detroit Water and Sewerage provides water services to the entire region, so we're connected by our water service but were not connected by our tax base.

So it's a conscious decision within the state and within the region not to view each other as part of one community and to act in an incredibly punitive way when people who cannot afford to pay their bills are then denied access to water."

"Other cities have issues and a utility has got to be paid for. I'm an economist as well as a lawyer so I understand the economic side of it. But every other city that has done it first, has had a realistic safety net in place before they go forward; and second there are clear exception based on public health which means if you're elderly you should not have the water shut off , if you have children you should not have the water shut off. Cities around the US and around the world have managed this problem in ways that haven't produced the draconian, the dyre results that we have in Detroit."

"There's certainly a lot of mismanagement but there's also a serious underlying problem in that Detroit's footprint which is extraordinarily large, around 140 square miles, was intended to service a population of 2 million or more and we now have a population which is likely under 700,000, and the infrastructure is ageing."

"So one of the problems with billing is that when you have a water main break, there are so many abandoned homes that there could be a house next to you where the water is still on and flooding the basement, and they can't know that the water is not going into your account. So, you can be charged with water you're not even using, and water that is being wasted through the aged infrastructure or through the dis-functionality of the water system."

Safety Net
"About 10 years ago some very thoughtful people put together what is called the Water Affordability Plan and it rethinks the way that you view your water rate structure, taking into account the fact that some people have more money than others, and that it's better to get a little money from somebody than to get nothing at all.

But to show you just how dysfunctional the City is, first they adopted a very watered down version of the Water Affordabilty Plan, then they put it to be implemented in the department of human services, and then they disbanded the department of human services. So even the remnants of the Affordability Plan were then eliminated. So when they started shutting off the water in this very draconian way, they had absolutely no safety net in place."

"Other cities have issues and a utility has got to be paid for. I'm an economist as well as a lawyer so I understand the economic side of it. But every other city that has done it, first has had a realistic safety net in place before they go forward, and second there are clear exception based on public health which means if you're elderly you should not have the water shut off, if you have children you should not have the water shut off. Cities around the US and around the world have managed this problem in ways that haven't produced the draconian the dire results that we have in Detroit."


Michael Mulholland - August 26, 2014 - After nearly 10 billion gallons of sewage overflowed in Metro Detroit during a storm

"There's a kind of creeping privatization in that more and more of the work being done in the Department is being taken over by private contractors, not city workers. I don't want to make too much of an accusation but the declining city water staff didn't help. ..I do think it's an interesting coincidence that after EMA took control of the Toronto Authority there was a storm and the water flooded the subway tunnels and then we get a rainstorm here and it floods our freeways and people's basements."

"I was hired in 1983 and the staff has been reduced by half since '83. So, when EMA came in there were already massive cuts and they wanted to cut that by 81%, and they said they didn't want to staff for emergencies. But in a wastewater plant especially when you have combined sewage, as opposed to separate systems for storm water and sewage water, you know when the rains come you need to have staff and equipment to handle emergencies."

The 1%
"In the receding wake of concern for urban area rebellion, the federal government cut more and more slack to corporations and after decades of this your infrastructure is falling apart, bridges are falling apart, sewers, freeways, everything needs to be rebuilt and Detroit is part of that pattern but it's made worse by the way the Water Department is always subject to take-over bids by the regions we bring water to."

"As the civil rights movement became more and more of a distant memory the racism that was pumped in the suburbs became more and more bold and they were constantly trying to take over Detroit, essentially because it was run by black people, seen as incompetent and corrupt."


Special rapporteurs Catarina de Albuquerque and Leilani Farha said they determined in a three-day visit to Detroit neighborhoods where the water had been cut off that the water shutoffs threaten a range of human rights.

"The denial of access to a sufficient quantity of water ... (threatens) the right to life and the right [to not] be discriminated against. It exacerbates inequalities, it stigmatizes people, and renders the most vulnerable even more helpless," Albuquerque said. That the water shutoffs seem to affect almost exclusively black Americans living in low-income housing furthers the problem.


According to the October report submitted by Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) Director Sue McCormick, there have been 29,625 accounts shut off since January of this year, some 5,000 in September alone. Of that total 16,234 have been restored-leaving some 13,000 households without water.*

To date, The Detroit Water Fund has approved 573 applicants for assistance ...and 740 customers have ben enrolled in the Detroit Residential Water Assistance Program

* NOTE: As there are likely 2 to 4 people per household, that's at least 30,000-40,000 people without access to water to drink, cook, bathe, wash clothes or flush their toilets.


"I've been incredibly disappointed that the Water Department has not been more receptive, I was disappointed that Mayor Duggan's reaction to the UN Special Rapporteurs findings was so hostile. Given the mindset that was demonstrated by the Mayor's office and by the water department there is no light at the end of the tunnel; they're not willing to entertain any of these proposals and they're not willing to meet anybody halfway. As long as that's their position you're going to hear about water shut-offs in Detroit, unfortunately for a long time to come."

Peter Hammer - Wayne State University Law School

"A promising thing is urban farming, it's not going to employ huge numbers of people, but there are jobs to be had. There's a huge market for fresh grown food in Detroit, and we have all kinds of vacant land here. I know people who are farming and they can't produce enough. So, I think it's going to be small-scale things like that. We have a program in our soup kitchen where we have an internship program for urban farmers. Some of these people are finding that they have marketable products and they're able to sell what they can produce. So that's certainly one place where we could employ small numbers of people."

"It develops confidence in people making them realize that, yes, they do have skills and they can move onto something else perhaps. It's a beginning at least, it's hope."

Jerry Smith - Capuchin Soup Kitchen & Urban Farm

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