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Water is a Human Right
June 26, 2014 4:17 PM   Subscribe

Welcome to Detroit's water war – in which upward of 150,000 customers, late on bills that have increased 119 percent in the last decade, are now threatened with shut-offs. Local activists estimate this could impact nearly half of Detroit's mostly poor and black population – between 200,000 and 300,000 people.

Activists in Detroit have appealed to the United Nations over the city’s move to shut off the water of thousands of residents. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says half of its 323,000 accounts are delinquent and has begun turning off the taps of those who do not pay bills that total above $150 or that are 60 days late. Since March, up to 3,000 account holders have had their water cut off every week. The Detroit water authority carries an estimated $5 billion in debt and has been the subject of privatization talks. In a submission to the United Nations special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, activists say Detroit is trying to push through a private takeover of its water system at the expense of basic rights.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (39 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Man. When Detroit had democratic self-rule stolen from it, I knew bad things were on the way. I just didn't expect anything so brazen so soon.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 4:29 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


The amazing Charles Pierce puts it in context:

There is a new kind of systematized cruelty in our daily lives, in how we relate to each other, and in how we treat our fellow citizens, and, therefore, there is a new kind of systematized cruelty in our politics as well.
posted by PlusDistance at 4:31 PM on June 26 [13 favorites]


This is a particularly noteworthy paragraph from the Guardian article:
The official rationale for the water shut-downs – the Detroit Water Department's need to recoup millions – collapses on inspection. Detroit's high-end golf club, the Red Wing's hockey arena, the Ford football stadium, and more than half of the city's commercial and industrial users are also owing – a sum totalling $30 million. But no contractors have showed up on their doorstep.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 4:31 PM on June 26 [50 favorites]


Didn't they already do this a couple years ago? Or was that electricity, maybe?
posted by Sys Rq at 4:34 PM on June 26


...and the slide to third-world status continues for the world's richest nation.
posted by zardoz at 4:42 PM on June 26 [4 favorites]


Seriously, though, this is why we need democracy. This disgusting abuse of the people of Detroit would not happen if Detroit still had a real elected mayor with real powers, instead of being run by an appointed "emergency manager."
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 4:48 PM on June 26 [5 favorites]


The time to invest in cholera drugs is now!
posted by Nerd of the North at 4:50 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


Arg! Something that this reporting has missed which is pretty crucial is the actual, systemic reasons behind the rate hikes.

Basically: Detroit's infrastructure was built when the city had a) a giant manufacturing base, and b) an expanding population. So the water system was built to supply a demand that is larger than the current demand in Detroit by an order of magnitude. With the decline in population and — arguably more importantly — the manufacturing base, combined with aging infrastructure that needs massive repairs (not least because Detroit gets cold enough in the winter to freeze all sorts of shit), the price per resident has risen, as noted, 119 percent in a decade.

An earlier, smaller example of the same thing happened in Highland Park after the River Rouge plant was shut down.

And yes, the real answer to this is a massive state reinvestment in Detroit's crumbling infrastructure, and that won't happen basically because racism.

(Also, the sooner L. Brooks Patterson dies, the better Detroit, Southeast Michigan and even all of Michigan, will be.)
posted by klangklangston at 4:53 PM on June 26 [15 favorites]


Sorry, this is an issue that people were warning about at least a decade ago as an incipient threat. (So, no, having an elected mayor didn't help so much, though I'm open to arguments that Kwame et al. weren't real mayors.) The emergency manager is making it worse, but this was a problem before him and before Snyder.
posted by klangklangston at 4:54 PM on June 26 [5 favorites]


This sounds like one hell of a riot waiting to happen.
posted by rifflesby at 4:55 PM on June 26 [4 favorites]


Cochadetroitbamba
posted by symbioid at 4:56 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


You know how like people say they should just roll up a bunch of Detroit and let it go back to greenery. They are, the fuckers just ain't gonna do it an organized congenial way.

One of things I like about NYC is there's just enough distinction that one kinda can push it off and say "Geez, fuckin' Americans" - I think the thing with the cars and the nuclear families and the alienation, it's been a sickness on the place. The White Flight from the cities, it was like, what, let's roll back civilization? Now you see the divide between places that rejoin the world mainstream of urbanization (and get put on blast for gentrification) and places that continue dismantling the infrastructure. And perhaps a reduction in Detroit is called for, and it will be done, but of course not gracefully.

This fuckin' American exceptionalism, it's like people don't take having a civilization seriously at all, and I don't mean just this place's badguys. But like there are insurrections rising up with Cliven Bundy where the government needs to make fairly clear how rebellion will be dealt with and I don't see it happening yet.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 4:56 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


Arg! Something that this reporting has missed which is pretty crucial is the actual, systemic reasons behind the rate hikes.

Yea, every single place i've seen it posted. it doesn't make a good social media outrage silver bullet when you add in too many details i guess.

I'm not even saying that makes it any less fucked up, but it's definitely worth noting that the rates aren't going up for some comcast reason.
posted by emptythought at 4:56 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


I'm sort of with klangklangston on this one. I live in a city that lost its GM plant, which used a lot of water. So with less water use, the water utility should be doing less and charging less, right? No, because it has a high fixed cost ratio and those fixed costs need to be paid off by a smaller number of customers, most of them residential. So water rates went up despite less usage.

I've tried to popularize a metaphor for the Detroit dilemma with garbage trucks. Imagine half the people on a block move away. Less garbage, right? Fewer pickups, right? But the trucks still need to drive the entire distance of the block, with its proportionately higher fixed (maintenance, labor) cost structure that is now borne by fewer people. It's maddening but in some ways unavoidable.

I don't have an easy solution, either, although if it's true that major commercial customers are months behind and residential customers are being targeted with much smaller (proportionately) back invoices, that's troubling. But the utility may argue that a large commercial operation with some sort of payment plan in place is much more reliably going to contribute to the bottom line.
posted by dhartung at 5:00 PM on June 26 [12 favorites]


This disgusting abuse of the people of Detroit would not happen if Detroit still had a real elected mayor with real powers, instead of being run by an appointed "emergency manager."

Detroit had quite a few elected mayors up until very recently, and it wasn't like life was wonderful then either.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:02 PM on June 26 [9 favorites]


TL;DR: We should all strive thoroughly for a civilization with well maintained aqueducts and fountains provided as a public benefit. I learned this from vidya and history.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 5:07 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


That's great, save alive, but it doesn't really address the issue of how Detroit should be paying for those well-maintained public benefits. Although certainly the current plan (doubling rates in a decade and then cutting everyone off when they can't keep up) ain't much of a plan, either.
posted by notyou at 5:11 PM on June 26


Not cutting everyone off. Cutting the poor off. The rich and connected, they can fall behind on their bills all they want.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 5:13 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Agreed, you can't tip a buick, that feature makes it an even worse plan.
posted by notyou at 5:17 PM on June 26


"The system seems too full now of opportunities to grind and to bully."

Amen to that.
posted by turbid dahlia at 5:23 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


And just drilling down on the $30M in unpaid corporate and rich people bills number, from the Guardian's "collapses on inspection" link:
One of the ways we know this is not about unpaid bills is the glaring contradiction between the treatment of homeowners and corporate clients. DPS, under its emergency manger, owes $2.2 million in outstanding bills. Palmer Park Golf Club owes $200,000, Joe Louis Arena/Red Wings Hockey owes $80,000 and Ford Field $55,000. The struggling city of Highland Park, also under emergency management, owes $17.4 million.

Last month, Flint severed its connection to DWSD. Under its Emergency Manager it is constructing a new pipeline, to be placed right next to the DWSD pipeline, to get water from Lake Huron, 65 miles away. The Karegnondi Water Authority was established with the blessings of the State Legislature in 2010 to carry out this unnecessary, quarter-billion-dollar project. It is a loss of $22 million for Detroit, annually.
Absolutely the golf club and the Red Wings and Ford Field should pay up, but those big numbers -- $17M and $22M -- are other struggling municipalities that have decided to either not pay, because they can't, or go it alone, cause it's cheaper (and probably griftier).
posted by notyou at 5:27 PM on June 26 [5 favorites]


The decision to extend Detroit water service beyond the city is what made the suburbs possible in the first place, and from the very minute they got it, they have tried to steal that asset from the city. Anybody wanting city water should have had to submit to annexation from the get go.
posted by BinGregory at 6:33 PM on June 26 [4 favorites]


Detroit had quite a few elected mayors up until very recently, and it wasn't like life was wonderful then either.

No, but the mayors weren't put in place with the express purpose of selling Detroit for scrap to the highest bidder.
posted by Pope Guilty at 7:18 PM on June 26 [3 favorites]


If the basis for the shortfall is increased fixed costs, how does shutting people off really help the water company recoup any real costs?

(It doesn't, I know, but I had to throw that in there -- I thought maybe I misunderstood and they're shutting down half their pumps or whatever, to therefore save on half of some cost, but seems like they're just going house-by-house, like the garbage truck analogy).
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:27 PM on June 26


I recently had my water shut off. The past due balance was exactly $47, and it was less than 60days late (I changed my billpay settings and the local water co's website is literally unusable to fix it, then missed the shutoff notice like an idiot). So Im (1) surprised that Detroit residents haven't been getting cut off much earlier and (2) pretty bummed out that in an allegedly first world country, people can still go without access to effin water. The Romans had aqueducts and public baths 2500 years ago, and I don't think anyone was kicked out over 47 or 150 denarii.
posted by T.D. Strange at 8:00 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


The local activists seem to think it's a stealth move to get the poor to leave altogether and quit taxing (heh) the local infrastructure. And then sell it. Which, Occam's Razor, I guess.

On preview: Same here, T.D. Strange. Something like 15 years without missing a payment, got screwed up and behind, and boom! No water one morning. Reconnection fees, another deposit, it adds up! I have the wherewithal, but lots of folks do not (like me, a decade ago).

They've gotten sneaky on the billing. Statement arrives in the 25th or so, late fees start applying on the following 10th.

I'm on autopay now and a month ahead, just in case. But again, that's a luxury not all of us have.
posted by notyou at 8:10 PM on June 26


I'm reminded of the anti-fracking slogan I have been seeing: We Can't Drink Their Money
posted by thelonius at 8:31 PM on June 26 [5 favorites]


One of the ways we know this is not about unpaid bills is the glaring contradiction between the treatment of homeowners and corporate clients. DPS, under its emergency manger, owes $2.2 million in outstanding bills. Palmer Park Golf Club owes $200,000, Joe Louis Arena/Red Wings Hockey owes $80,000 and Ford Field $55,000. The struggling city of Highland Park, also under emergency management, owes $17.4 million.

Last month, Flint severed its connection to DWSD. Under its Emergency Manager it is constructing a new pipeline, to be placed right next to the DWSD pipeline, to get water from Lake Huron, 65 miles away. The Karegnondi Water Authority was established with the blessings of the State Legislature in 2010 to carry out this unnecessary, quarter-billion-dollar project. It is a loss of $22 million for Detroit, annually.


I have not been following this stuff at all, so forgive me for this basic question: I thought it was just Detroit that was controlled by an unelected emergency manager. You're telling me Highland Park and Flint, MI ALSO have no mayors and are ALSO under the rule of an emergency manager? How many cities in the United States are officially run by unelected managers?
posted by chrominance at 9:07 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


The only other emergency manager-ruled city I can think of, other than the ones on your list, is Benton Harbor, also in Michigan. Please tell me the emergency manager thing is just something that happens in Michigan.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:33 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Yeah, Highland Park has been under emergency managers on and off for over a decade after desperately fucking their finances. Highland Park is one of the perfect illustrations of flaws in Michigan's annexation laws. Forget Royal Oak or Livonia, Highland Park (along with Hamtramck) is totally surrounded by Detroit, but they spent a lot of money running an entirely separate government for a century or so.

And I haven't seen our Flint resident clavdivs around for a while, so I don't want to speak to what led to their emergency management, but the last time I drove through Flint, it seemed to mainly exist as a cautionary tale about what Detroit could become.

As a side note, Benton Harbor also had the same problems with water shutoffs a decade or so ago, and also petitioned the UN. I don't know what ever happened, but I'd be surprised if it was a good outcome.
posted by klangklangston at 9:40 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]




Please tell me the emergency manager thing is just something that happens in Michigan.

Most states have some form of receivership where a bankrupt municipality is put under a trustee or some such, but usually this is more of an arm's length relationship as in personal bankruptcy where the trustee is more like a judge or review board than an actual hands-on mayor/manager.

Michigan had an emergency manager law already, but they deliberately rewrote it in order to include Detroit. Usually a municipality would have to actually end up broke first then go into a restructuring or receivership or what have you, but Michigan created a pro-active law to force municipalities to prove their innocence, i.e. solvency, or have an emergency manager appointed. It was very politically motivated and also deliberately alarmist.
posted by dhartung at 10:13 PM on June 26 [3 favorites]


I'm currently living in a developing country, in a city with water service. When the water to my neighborhood was cut, and we went four days without water, a Malian friend said, "This is against humanity. It's against the law."

He's from a region where water access has been a real issue. He's worked as a well-digger. His government is unreliable. Yet he found it despicable that the government would cut off water service for so long. I wonder what he'll say if I tell him about Detroit. He will probably be shocked that an American city won't provide affordable water to its inhabitants.

Okay, so there are systematic rate hikes because the city is shrinking and the infrastructure is too large. What is wrong with our society when our solution to that problem is to cut off the people who can't pay?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 2:01 AM on June 27 [3 favorites]


He will probably be shocked that an American city won't provide affordable water to its inhabitants.

The average water/sewer bill in Detroit is now $65, unexceptional in American terms though high for a region with such abundant water. Detroit has high rates of poverty, but is almost unique in only just now restarting assistance programs for water bills; the sudden increase is a problem for anyone on a fixed income.

Detroit is a sad case study of the compounding effects of racism, administrative incompetence and venality, and deliberate disinvestment. The takeover was probably inevitable, but from the outside it also doesn't look like it's being managed fully for the city's benefit, either, and obviously corporate interests continue to be privileged. (Also, news about water shut offs goes back years; the cycle of undercharging and then raising rates to meet the shortfall is not new.)

The national and regional trend is for lower usage and higher rates:

Even though prices are comparatively low, rates in the Great Lakes region have increased in recent years because of declining consumption. Most of that decrease is attributed to the loss of industrial activity, though shrinking urban populations and personal frugality are also factors.

Falling demand is a concern for Carrie Lewis, the superintendent of Milwaukee Water Works, because the utility’s revenue comes from water sales, so less use means higher rates. In an interview, Lewis described a downward-sloping graph showing the decrease in water sales over the last three decades. Sales in Milwaukee dropped 41 percent from 1976 to 2008, primarily because water-intensive breweries and tanneries went out of business or left town.

“That’s a frightening graph if you make money selling water,” Lewis said.


posted by Dip Flash at 3:07 AM on June 27 [1 favorite]


We used to live in Michigan. Great state. But at some point we realized it wasn't a great place for a future.

Even the "left" there are beholden. Look at Dingell and his torpedoing of CAFE standards.

I know, reading this article and others you're wondering, is this a parody? Are we living in Robocop? But at some point you realize even if it's a parody, it's still true.
posted by formless at 12:11 PM on June 27


The average water/sewer bill in Detroit is now $65, unexceptional in American terms though high for a region with such abundant water.

Just to note that we're on the other end of the lake and our water bills are usually about $120 per quarter. So, yeah, expensive for sitting right in the middle of ~80% of the fresh water in North America.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:23 PM on June 27


unelected emergency manager

Fun fact: both "tyrant" and "dictator" used to be bland words with few negative connotations. I wonder if "emergency manager" will join the club.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 4:19 PM on June 27 [1 favorite]




The Detroit Water Project lets you pay people's bills.
posted by gingerbeer at 4:01 PM on July 23


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