With the Flint water crisis drawing headlines and igniting an international dialogue on inadequate access to safe, clean, affordable water in Michigan and beyond, it’s easy to forget that another water crisis has been raging in the state—the Detroit water shutoffs. The results of a new Freedom of Information Act request filed by Food & Water Watch find that 23,883 households — an estimated 64,000 people — in Detroit lost water service in 2015.
That’s 64,000 too many. Meanwhile, the Detroit City Council voted last summer to raise water rates by 7.5 percent, with another 3.25 percent increase expected this July.
Speaking to this issue, Congressman John Conyers, a Democrat who represents Detroit said, “I remain appalled by the unrelenting and widely-condemned continuation of water shutoffs in Detroit. It is unacceptable, arbitrary and inhumane to have shut off water to nearly 25,000 residential households in 2015—a number made public thanks to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by Food & Water Watch. I renew my call for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to cease using water shutoffs as a means of collection enforcement, and I ask them to instead work with their counterparts in state and federal government to pursue a course that does not violate international norms of human rights.”
Soaring Rates, Little Relief
Over the last decade, Detroit residents have seen their water rates rise by 119 percent. But about 40 percent of the city lives in poverty, with an unemployment rate over 10 percent. Many in Detroit simply could not afford to pay their water bills. Community activists had attempted to address this problem as far back as 2006 with a Water Affordability Plan that was approved by the Detroit City Council. But the DWSD chose not to implement this plan, and instead created its own program—it did not work.
In March 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced it would begin shutting off water service for 1,500 to 3,000 customers every week if their water bills were not paid. Many of those affected by the shut-offs were given no warning. The infirm were left without water and functioning toilets, children could not bathe and parents could not adequately prepare food for their families.
Subsequent plans by the city to address the crisis also failed, mainly because they only applied to households behind on water bills and did nothing to address the overall problems with high water rates. According to an April 2015 Michigan ACLU investigation, of the 24,743 residential customers enrolled in the city’s 10-point plan, only about 300 were able to keep up with their payments, leaving 24,450 households to default.
More False Solutions
Last October the City of Detroit convened the Blue Ribbon Panel on Affordability to finally address the problem with water affordability in Detroit. The results, which were recently released, and propose to charge higher rates the more water customers use, once again miss the mark. Speaking before the Detroit City Council, Food & Water Watch Senior Organizer Lynna Kaucheck noted that “an inclining block rate design for water and sewer service [the technical term for the type of plan the panel released] does not amount to an affordability plan.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, combined water and sewer rates should not exceed 4.5 percent of a household’s income. But the Blue Ribbon Panel’s plan’s water prices for “minimal levels of service” are expected to range from 4-8 percent of a household’s income. Roughly 40 percent of the city’s households are at or below the federal poverty level—$24,000 a year for a family of four. Under the panel’s plan, their water bill would run $80-160 a month. When added to the cost of housing, food, heat, electricity and transportation—other basic human needs—that water is unaffordable.
Moreover, the plan would take two years to fully implement. But Detroit residents need affordable access to water, and they need it now (actually, they needed it several years ago). The Blue Ribbon Panel’s plan is not only overdue—it’s completely inadequate. Instead, Detroit residents need a plan based on income.
But unreasonably high water prices are not just a problem in Detroit. The Maryland House of Delegates recently introduced a plan to protect vulnerable populations from water shutoffs after many households in Baltimore struggled to pay their water bills too.
It’s time for the federal government to step up and intervene by establishing a sustainable source of funding for community water systems so this essential resource can be democratically controlled and affordable for all. Since today is World Water Day it seems fitting to announce that in the coming weeks we will unveil our new vision to ensure that the human right to water is fulfilled in every community in the United States. Stay tuned for more.
In the meantime, you can observe World Water Day by urging your elected officials to support access to safe and locally managed drinking water for all.