Drinking Water reconsidered

What’s going on with drinking water in Detroit?

The Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD) has announced that they will shut off water to thousands of residential customers who are late in paying their bills (http://www.freep.com/article/20140322/NEWS01/303220010/Detroit-resume-water-shutoffs-delinquent-customers ). Simultaneously, Emergency Manager Kevin Orr is investigating a potential privatization of DWSD (http://www.freep.com/article/20140313/NEWS01/303130036/Kevyn-Orr-Detroit-water ).

Several distinguished water activists warned against these decisions at a public lecture sponsored by the Food and Water Watch and Wayne State’s Office of Sustainability on May 22nd. Charity Hicks of the People’s Water Board, Will See of East Michigan Environmental Action Coalition, Detroit City Councilwoman Joanne Watson, James Olson of Olson, Bzdok & Howard Law firm, Ann Rall of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, and Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians all spoke about the devastating impacts that privatization and restricted access to water supplies have caused before in places as far reaching as Bolivia, Botswana, Philadelphia – and Michigan’s very own Highland Park.

Let’s play Devil’s Advocate: “Doesn’t it make sense that people who don’t pay their water bills should have their services cut? And isn’t privatization in the city’s best interest, as it is the only way to fund a financially-strapped DWSD?”

There is a growing movement that dismisses such allegations. We argue that the right to water is critical enough to warrant negotiations against water shut-offs, and that privatization of the water system will not guarantee a water-secure city and region.

When water is run by a public department, as it is in Detroit, it is treated as a utility and its price should reflect the cost of service. In recent years, DWSD’s service rates have increased, due to declining customer base and rising infrastructure costs (http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/Southeast-Michigan-Water.pdf). Such increases are damaging to a city that is majority low-income or fixed-income, and to a region still hit hard by economic recession. Many customers struggle to pay their bills in completion and on time – the Free Press article cites nearly half of the accounts in Detroit proper have outstanding bills. Sadly, there is minimal infrastructure available to assist low-income customers in paying their bills.

The United Nations now officially considers water access a human right – “the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights” (http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=a/res/64/292 ). Maude Barlow stressed that countries which support this resolution (U.S. included here) are responsible for providing water sanitation for its inhabitants, protecting water from pollution and preventing against removal of water from a given system.

Shutting off the water supply to low-income customers, with no alternatives, deprives them of their right to clean drinking water, defying the United Nations’ August 2010 resolution. Water shut-offs further destabilize low-income families, as it is illegal for children to reside in homes without water, and puts those of poor health at greater risk. Substantial customer outreach and lower payment plans should be provided by DWSD to ensure that all of Metro Detroit’s inhabitants have drinking water access.

Repairing and maintaining infrastructure is critical to water access, too. Though privatization has been suggested as an option to clear a City in the midst of bankruptcy from the financial burden, it would change drinking water from a utility to a commodity, where its price would fluctuate with its market value. Many studies have shown that privatization of drinking water services are NOT financially conservative, nor more efficient, and can lead to higher service rates (Food and Water Watch, 2011). Instead, organizations like the Food and Water Watch propose public-public partnerships as a way to save and restore expensive and aging drinking water system departments. More information on these types of partnership can be found at http://documents.foodandwaterwatch.org/doc/BorrowingTrouble.pdf .

An alarming aspect of DWSD’s financial crisis is the void of water shutoffs to corporate and governmental customers with delinquent bills. As an example, the People’s Water Board cites Joe Louis Arena and Ford Field as each owing over $50,000 in water fees. This suggests that the city holds the right to water in lesser regard than the right to profit.

Jim Olson reminded the panel that the water of the Great Lakes System is held in trust by the states within its basin, according to the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources compact. However, it seems that further legislation is needed to strengthen the public trust. The organization FLOW is advocating for this, you can read about it here http://flowforwater.org/public-trust-solutions/what-is-public-trust/ .

Barlow left the audience with three proposals “Water is a human right; water is not a commodity; water and its associated ecosystems have rights, too.”

It’s important for residents of Southeast Michigan to think about if they want their home to be a place where generations of the near and distant future have access to safe and clean drinking water.

–          Julia, from the Clinton River and Detroit River watersheds