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Water Today Title July 7, 2022

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This story is brought to you in part by Glenergy

Update 2017/5/8
Municipal water


By Cori Marshall

Over the past few years, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has shut off water connections on tens of thousands of delinquent accounts leaving citizens without running water in their homes. Aside from being a necessity to live, not having running water can cause other hardships especially to families with young children. In the last decade, the city has seen housing foreclosures, Detroit went bankrupt, and now finds itself in the midst of a crisis surrounding this essential commons.

The Detroit Water Brigade has been on the ground helping those affected by these shutoffs for three years, the volunteer organization's Political Director, DeMeeko Williams walked us through the environment caused by the cuts to service.

Williams blames the city's "privatization model over [the] water commons," which has led to "the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) [launching] a campaign in 2013 to aggressively go after people who were delinquent on their water bills." The major problem with this policy, as Williams points out is that DSWD were "targeting people [living] below the poverty line."

According to the Blue Ribbon Panel on Affordability (BRPA) Final Report indicated that the retail DSWD needed to get "away from billing to resident and billing by name directly to the property owner [would] shift the burden where it belongs." As the addresses were billed and not the individuals may have been incurred by previous residents.

Williams explained that "in Detroit, they just shut the water off with no notice, no type of [resolution]," people are forced to got to the DSWD or their municipality and told they must pay half of the bill to get the water turned back on. Instead of communicating with clients Williams added that the DSWD "expects you to make a payment and get on a payment plan, [although] the payment plan is more than a monthly water bill." Essentially under a payment plan residents are expected to pay their monthly rate plus a percentage of the outstanding amount.

This system appears to be unsustainable for Detroit residents, as drainage fees and bonds impact the monthly usage fees. If water is shut off Williams underlined that "you have to make sure that your [bill] is zeroed out or at a manageable rate," because being on a payment plan, residents can easily get themselves back into a situation where water will be shut off again.

Williams said that "in Detroit, it's unfair rules, practices and procedures, [that] the water department has failed to look at and failed to revise." Detroit's water shutoff crisis has been going on for three years, and Williams added "it has impacted families and devastated our communities and has put people in [a state of] financial catastrophe."

The Detroit Water Brigade tries to provide people with funds to address shutoffs within in a week of contacting the organization. At the height of the crisis, the group was receiving 500 calls in a month. But Williams indicated that numbers fluctuate. The brigade works with residents and accompanies them to the water department to negotiate a plan.

A water shutoff situation leaves homes uninhabitable, and Williams said that he has "clients who are single mothers, and they have to hide their children," when their service has been shut off. The reason behind this drastic measure is that if there are "contractors who see children or toys they inform Child Protective Services (CPS) and they are knocking on your door within 48 hours." CPS then leaves the parent with the choice of paying the water bill or finding a place to put their child or else they will be taken away.

The last decade has been rough for Detroit, the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013. A big part of this is due to a loss of revenue based on a declining population. Demos indicates that the city revenue has declined "more than 20 percent since 2008, $257.7 million." Further, the city lost $67 million annually from the state due to population loss.

The DSWD fact sheet states that the city's "water and sewer charges are among the highest in the United States." Further the city's "poverty rate [was] at 39.9% for the period 2009-2013," more than twice the national average.

It does not help that under the current system, DSWD provides water to homes as a retail service and the wholesale provider to the utility is the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA). In its year-end report for the first time in 2016, the GLWA "approved both water and sewer charges for its customer communities." The authority boasts that "a key indicator of success is a strong financial performance."

Hard times have hit the Motor City, and high water bills have left residents in a very precarious position. The end of the shut off crisis is not near, Williams said that the group is currently "trying to retool for the summer season for the 18,000 shutoffs," that Detroit residents are facing as the weather warms up.

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