The Battle for Water in Detroit Continues

by People’s Water Board Coalition
It’s unbelievable that a community surrounded by 20 percent of the fresh surface water in the world would have to worry about water shut offs and billions of gallons of sewage pollution; however that’s what is happening in Detroit.  In early 2009, a Detroit-based coalition of labor, social justice, environmental, and public interest organizations, formed the People’s Water Board Coalition. This included the Sierra Club, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, the Green Party of Michigan, Food & Water Watch, Michigan Emergency Committee Against War and Injustice, the Rosa Parks Institute, and AFSCME Local 207.  The PWBC focuses on three aspects of water issues in Detroit: Access and Affordability, Protection and Conservation, and Water as a Public Trust.As water rates increase, water shutoffs in homes have as well, along with pollution in the Rouge and Detroit rivers. On top of all this, a federal judge, Sean Cox, has decided to strip democracy away from a publicly owned water department.  Water is a human right and all people should have access to clean and affordable water.  Yet, thousands of homes are shut off from water each year in Detroit alone.  In fact, water rates and the unemployment rate have more than doubled over the past decade.  Water rates increase to pay for the department’s aging infrastructure and to cover the declining sale of water. When this happens more and more people cannot afford to pay their water bill, creating a vicious cycle.   The Coalition, following the lead of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, advocates that the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department (DWSD) implements a water affordability program based on one’s income to assist families in paying their water bills.

Years after the Clean Water Act passed, DWSD continues to pollute our rivers.   DWSD takes wastewater from 77 communities including Detroit, which cover 906 square miles of land.   In 2011, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality reported that over 45 billion gallons of raw and partially treated sewage from these 77 communities went into the Rouge and Detroit Rivers.  This sewage contained phosphorus, pathogens, heavy metals, and other harmful chemicals.  This pollution has also resulted in beach closings and contributes to the algae problem in Lake Erie.

The threat of privatization to DWSD is a huge concern of all of us.  Federal Judge Cox’s recent November decision (USA v. City of Detroit) proves this concern to be a reality. When the Clean Water Act was passed, many water departments were not in compliance and as a result the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sued water departments to force them to clean our waterways.  In Detroit’s case, the city and the EPA entered into a federal consent decree in 1977 to improve the quality of the Rouge and Detroit Rivers.

While this case has been active over the past 30 plus years, it has helped DWSD improve some of its infrastructure preventing some sewage pollution.  However, this case has had serious setbacks as well.  Federal Judge Cox’s decision deliberately removes the City Charter provisions related to privatization, so in turn, it sets the stage for privatization.  It will now be easier for the regionally represented DWSD Board of Water Commissioners to sell off pieces of Detroit’s public water system to private companies without seeking the approval of Detroit voters. Research conducted by Food & Water Watch shows that after a water system is sold or leased to a private entity, rates typically increase and service declines, as companies attempt to regain their capital investment.   The study offers additional trends in water privatization and can be found at the link below.

DWSD needs a plan that truly addresses compliance issues and comes up with long-term solutions for meeting the Clean Water Act and keeping the Rouge and Detroit Rivers free from pollution.  Not a decision that abandons the City Charter and removes the public’s right to determine what happens to this public utility.

It’s time for the water department, public officials, and judges to think outside the pipe.  We need actions that actually improve our water quality, keep the cost of water affordable, and maintain democratic controls in  a public water system.  It’s time for change.

For more information or call (313) 965-0055.  You can also find the coalition on Facebook or you can attend their monthly meeting, which takes place on the second Monday of every month at 5:30pm at the Metropolitan Center for High Technology building located at 2727 Second Avenue in Detroit.

Trends in Water Privatization

EPA Clean Water Act

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