A Detroit Panel Discussion Looks at the Issue’s Many Moving Parts as the Specter of Shutoffs Again Looms.

A Yale University philosophy professor posed a question on World Water Day last week that demands attention: 

“Why does the state with access to the world’s greatest supply of fresh water, why is that state, the state of Michigan, continually in crises about water?” 

The query by Jason Stanley was raised during a panel discussion focused on the fight for water affordability. It is a fight taking place on the ground and in the courts, and at every level of government, from city councils and mayors’ offices to Congress and the Oval Office.  

At its heart, it is a fight about the value of human life and the well-being of our communities. Looming as a backdrop over the discussion was the fact that a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs could end Wednesday.  

The impact of shutoffs was front and center at Monday’s panel discussion, which featured a host of experts who collectively stitched together a devastating picture of a crisis that continues to worsen. 

“I think of one resident on the east side,” said Cecily McClellan, co-founder of the activist group We the People of Detroit, which co-hosted Monday’s event with the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at the Wayne State University Law School.  

“This individual was bed-ridden. She had respiratory problems. She was diabetic. ... She had a water bill of $1,600. She was unable to pay that bill.” 

Consequently, the woman went without water for a year. It was only turned back on because of an order to restore service due to COVID-19 crisis.  

“What we are witnessing is the removal of a core public good from democracy,” Mr. Stanley said. 

“To my mind, the national and international news media have missed an extraordinary story of world historical purpose,” he said. 

Professor Stanley, an expert on fascism and propaganda, has also paid close attention to Michigan’s disastrous emergency manager law, which allows elected public officials to be replaced by state-appointed bureaucrats who possess vast, unilateral authority. Their job is to ensure that debts faced by the cities and school districts they control get paid, no matter what.  

That law, which primarily impacted majority-Black communities and remains on the books unchanged, played a crucial role in creating the Flint water crisis: It was an emergency manager who made the disastrous decision to begin using the highly corrosive Flint River as the city’s water source, causing lead to leach from old pipes and poison a community with nearly 100,000 residents.  

Peter Hammer, director of the Keith Center and a member of the ACLU of Michigan Board, presented a devastating PowerPoint showing the overlap between wealth and race in southeast Michigan. He showed a clear picture of urban islands, largely Black and poor, surrounded by a sea of suburban wealth. The terrible irony is those areas of wealth exist because the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department constructed the massive system of pipes and pumps needed to bring them clean safe water and take away their sewage to be treated. Without that, those suburbs could not have been built. 

Now, as the result of the Detroit’s bankruptcy (which the city was taken into by a  state-appointed emergency manager), control of that water system was wrested from the city and handed over to the newly created Great Lakes Water Authority for 40 years. 

That same sort of focus on the financial bottom line fueled the water shutoffs that were taking place across Michigan until the COVID-19 pandemic forced Governor Gretchen Whitmer to impose a moratorium intended to keep water flowing during the current crisis. Although Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has promised to keep a moratorium in place for another two years, others across the state could see shutoffs resuming as early as this week if an extension of the moratorium isn’t granted by the state.  

Water and Health 

With the Michigan Legislature on its spring break, the prospect is high that a moratorium on shutoffs initiated last year could screech to a halt on March 31 – at a time when the number of COVID-19 cases has been rising for the past five weeks. Allowing the moratorium to end now would be terribly dangerous.  

The moratorium was put in place because good hygiene is a critical component in the desperate fight to control the spread of COVID-19.  And the pandemic is far from over. 

In fact, shutting off water is a health threat whether there is a pandemic or not. Basic common sense dictates that if people are unable to wash their hands, bathe, clean their clothes or wash their dishes, illness is going to spread. That fundamental scientific fact has been understood since at least the 1800s. 

But it was left to Detroit activists and their allies to dig into the data to demonstrate the health consequences shutoffs in Detroit were having pre-pandemic. 

Nadia Gaber, who has a PhD in medical anthropology, has been part of We the People’s Community Research Collective, which has been working to uncover the connections between racism, water and health. During the panel discussion, Ms. Gaber pointed out that, starting in 2015, the Collective partnered with Henry Ford Health Systems to see if they could gauge the health effects of water shutoffs in Detroit. 

What they found was that people living in neighborhoods where high numbers of shutoffs occurred were 1.5 times more likely to contract an illness related to a lack of good sanitation. 

While it is incredibly disheartening that such a study had to be initiated by community activists, the work being done by people on the ground in Detroit is serving as a model for others to follow as they push to keep water flowing into the homes of poor people. They aren’t sitting around waiting for officials to act. They are taking matters into their own hands, doing the research and collecting the data needed to open eyes and change policies.  

A Better Way Forward 

More than 317,000 households serving an estimated 800,000 Michiganders throughout the state are known to be behind on their water bills, according to data compiled late last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council in in collaboration with the People’s Water Board Coalition. 

But it is also true that the problem is particularly acute in cities like Detroit and Flint – places that have seen their populations decimated by decades of white flight.  

Detroit is the starkest example. At its peak in the 1950s, nearly 2 million people called the city home. The number now is closer to 670,000. The problem is that, even though the population has shrunk by nearly two-thirds, aging water and sewer lines running through the entire city need to be maintained, regardless of how many homes have disappeared. In a city where nearly 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and residents are besieged by water bills that continue to climb, affordability is truly a crisis, and has been for years. 

That is why, since 2005, activists have been pressing the city to adopt a pay structure based on a percentage of income. Doing so would help keep water affordable for the city’s poorest residents.  

Those opposed to such a plan cynically argue that reducing water rates for low-income customers passes the cost on to other users. That may be true, but it is also misleading because it obscures the fact that other users also must pick up the tab for those who default on their bills and have their water shut off.  

Pointing to the work of utilities expert Roger Colton, who helped develop an income-based affordability plan that was passed by City Council in 2006 but never implemented, activists have long contended that it makes much more fiscal sense to keep water affordable for poor residents because doing so actually increases collection rates. If a bill is within reach, people will tend to pay it. Robert Ballenger, a lawyer with Community Legal Services, which serves low-income Philadelphians and helped draft water-affordability legislation that passed in 2015, said that is proving to be true there. 

“What we are seeing is that people who are provided affordable bills do pay them,” Mr. Ballenger said. “Low-income customers who get affordable bills under our water affordability program are twice as likely to pay them in full as low-income customers who aren’t participating in that program. So, we know this is the kind of thing that meaningfully contributes to the individual customer’s ability to interact with the utility, to make the payments and meet the demands placed on them.” 

To force the city of Detroit to permanently halt shutoffs and implement an income-based rate structure, the ACLU of Michigan, along with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and others, filed a federal class action lawsuit against the city and state last year. 

Turning to the Courts and Congress 

Coty Montag, a lawyer with LDF, explained that both the Detroit lawsuit, as well as a similar lawsuit LDF filed against Cleveland in 2019, are based in part on the fact that Black people are disproportionately affected by shutoffs. 

If successful, those lawsuits will establish a legal foundation for making water affordable to poor people and would be a crucial victory.  

But that’s just one prong in the attack.  

The fact is that water systems around the country are forced to raise rates beyond the reach of many of their customers because the federal government has slashed assistance to states and communities.  

“Exclusive analysis of 12 diverse cities shows the combined price of water and sewage increased by an average of 80 percent between 2010 and 2018, with more than two-fifths of residents in some cities living in neighborhoods with unaffordable bills,” the Guardian newspaper, in conjunction with Consumer Reports, reported last year. “Meanwhile, federal aid to public water utilities, which serve around 87 percent of people, has plummeted while maintenance, environmental and health threats, climate shocks, and other expenditures have skyrocketed.” 

The federal government’s abandonment of its responsibilities cannot be understated. 

“Federal funding for water systems has fallen by 77 percent in real terms since its peak in 1977 —leaving local utilities to raise the money that is needed to upgrade infrastructure, comply with standards for toxic contaminants like PFAS, lead, and algae blooms, and to adapt to extreme weather conditions like drought and floods linked to global heating,” according to the Guardian. 

To begin addressing that shortfall, 77 Members of Congress and 540 groups last month reportedly joined forces to endorse the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act of 2021. 

The act would create a trust fund that, according to the group Common Ground, “would dedicate $35 billion each year to grant programs and to the Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) programs. These programs include a specific focus on providing support for rural and small municipalities, Indigenous communities, and low-income Black and Brown communities who face disproportionate water issues.” 

Monica Lewis-Patrick, president and CEO of We the People of Detroit, summed up the current situation at the conclusion of Monday’s two-hour long program with these six words: 

“We cannot allow this to stand.”