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Water: Reprieve, but no resolution

By Curt Guyette
Special to the Michigan Citizen

After at least 17 people were arrested in two separate protests where activists attempted to block crews from going out into Detroit neighborhoods to shut off water to homes…

After more than 1,000 people marched down Woodward Avenue chanting “Water is a human right. Fight, fight, fight!”…

After the United Nations condemned the city for cutting off water to more than 17,000 homes since March…

After the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (where I work) and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sent a letter to city officials urging an “immediate moratorium on shutoffs while a fair, humane and meaningful review process can be evaluated and implemented to help indigent residents.”…

After U.S. Bankruptcy Court Steven Rhodes told the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department that it was generating too much negative publicity and wanted to know what they were going to do about it…

After all that and more, the department decided to halt the shutoffs.

For 15 days.

“We need time to make sure our aggressive communications efforts reach customers,” Darryl Latimer, the department’s deputy director, told Rhodes on Monday morning.

“It is a victory on our part, if it is real,” said activist Patrick Driscoll as he stood outside the federal courthouse.

The victory, though, is a temporary one at best.

“What we need is a real affordability plan,” Driscoll said.

Driscoll was among ten people arrested July 10 as they attempted to block crews from leaving the Homrich Wrecking site, on the city’s east side, from leaving for their day’s work. He and the others were charged with disorderly conduct and quickly released from custody.

Darryl Latimer

Darryl Latimer

No mention of pursuing such a plan was made when Latimer outlined the department’s immediate plans to Rhodes.

Instead, the department is going to “aggressively” alert the people of Detroit that help is available if they are having trouble paying their bills.

There is a fund with $1 million available, according to the department. And there is, according to the most recent published reports, about $90 million in outstanding bills to be collected.

You do the math.

The protests and civil disobedience and international condemnations have been enough to prompt department officials to offer a reprieve, but not devise a solution.

The department claims there is a lot of misinformation being spread.

“In May, for example, DWSD sent out 46,000 shut off notices. Of those, only 4,531 customers — less than 10 percent of the total — had their water service shut off for any period of time. Within 24 hours, 60 percent of the affected customers paid their accounts in full and had their service immediately restored. Forty percent of the remaining customers had their service restored within 48 hours.”

That’s according to a press release issued in late June.

Based on those numbers, more than 75 percent of the homes that had service disconnected in May were getting water again within 48 hours. However, based on data the department provided me last week, of the 4,531 homes that had water cut off in May, just 2,324 had their water turned on — not within 24 or 48 hours, but at all.

That works out to slightly more than 50 percent. And even though it has been widely reported that the turn-on rate tops 60 percent, from March through June — according to the department’s own data — only about 48 percent of those who’ve lost water service have been able to come up with the money to have it restored.

So, who’s spreading the myths?

Here’s what not a myth: Fewer than 700,000 people live in a city that once held nearly 2 million. Nearly 40 percent of the people who remain here live below the poverty line. Detroit’s official unemployment rate, at 14.5 percent, is twice the state’s average. Water rates have increased by almost 120 percent in the past decade.

Cities such as Washington, D.C., and Cleveland have devised ways to make sure poor people have access to water they can afford.

What is it going to take to have the same thing happen in Detroit?

On July 21, along with listening to Latimer describe the department’s “aggressive” outreach plans for the next few weeks, Judge Rhodes also received a class-action complaint filed on behalf of residents and a variety of organizations.

The big-picture purpose of the legal action is to obtain a court order requiring the department to “implement a water affordability plan with income-based payments” for the people of Detroit.

That is what a resolution to this problem looks like.

Curt Guyette is an investigative reporter for the ACLU of Michigan. His work, which focuses on Michigan’s emergency management law and open government, is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation. You can find more of his reporting at Contact him at 313.578.6834 or

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