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Although Detroit sits on the edge of the Great Lakes, which hold a fifth of the world’s fresh water, thousands of impoverished Detroiters are unable to afford that most basic necessity.
When Bobbi Thompson’s water got shut off due to a delinquent bill, the state took away her children.
In 2000, Thompson fell about $200 behind on the water bill for her Detroit home. With steady work as a singer and choir director, she says she was planning to pay in a few weeks.
But before she could pay, the city shut off her water and lights. Soon after, a worker with Children’s Protective Services came to check on her four daughters—aged eleven, nine, seven, and four.
“The lady came in and questioned each child on a Friday, and Monday she came and got them. That’s how fast it was—seventy-two hours,” says Thompson. “There’s no kind of way to get yourself ready for that.”
Thompson wasn’t able to see her kids for twenty days, and although she says the utilities were back on soon after, it was two years before she was able to get custody of her children back.
“It was a horrendous experience,” says Thompson.
“They divided my family into four, five equal pieces. They had two kids in one home and the other two were in two separate places,” she says. “One daughter was living in a house with a child abuser. She had to be moved. I don’t know if she was touched or not. It was really bad.”
Almost everyone in Detroit knows people who have had their water shut off. Advocates estimate around 40,000 households in the city are without water service. “Those are astronomical numbers,” says Maureen Taylor, chair of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, which helps people avoid shutoffs.
In Michigan, an unpaid water bill can also lead to the loss of a home. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department eventually hands delinquent accounts to the city and county treasurers, who can add them as tax liens against the property. If those don’t get paid, the house can be foreclosed on.
Taylor says a pattern of water bill-related foreclosures was halted in 2004, when Wayne County’s chief deputy treasurer, Terrance Keith, refused to take action on those liens. But in December, Keith was given a judicial appointment, and it’s yet to be seen if his replacement will take the same position.
“People may own their home outright, after living there for thirty or forty years, but because they can’t pay a $1,200 water bill, they’re going to lose their home,” says Lou Novak, treasurer of the Detroit Green Party.
Water rates have risen almost every year since 1986, and they’ve nearly quadrupled in that time. Last June, the Detroit City Council voted to increase water rates again. More rate increases are scheduled for July.
Access to water isn’t worth much if the water isn’t clean. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has been under federal supervision since 1977 for pollution of the Detroit River that violated the Clean Water Act. But things haven’t improved much in thirty-four years. According to a report by the Healing Our Waters—Great Lakes Coalition, Detroit dumped thirty-four billion gallons of raw sewage and storm water into local rivers in 2009. The resulting E. coli bacteria forced the closing of a record 205 beaches in suburban Macomb County.
In 2009, a coalition of environmental groups, labor unions, and social activists came together to address this problem. The coalition, called the People’s Water Board, began holding pickets in front of the monthly water department board meetings and demanded to see the water contracts the city was awarding.
Taylor calls many of the contracts “theft without a gun.” Her longstanding cynicism was given credence last December when former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, former water department director Victor Mercado, and three others were indicted for giving out lucrative water and sewer contracts to private companies in exchange for kickbacks. All five pleaded not guilty to thirty-eight charges, including bribery, extortion, and fraud.
Kilpatrick, already in prison for probation violations related to other corruption charges, allegedly received $424,000 for work he awarded his friend Bobby Ferguson.
“Sections of the water department actually closed because their work was contracted out to Ferguson and other companies,” says Derek Grigsby, who worked for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department for many years and is now on the People’s Water Board.
Now that the corruption has hit the headlines, there’s renewed momentum to create a regional authority overseeing the water department. The Detroit city council is threatening to sue mayor Dave Bing for a February deal changing the makeup of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department board, which gave more power to representatives from suburban counties.
A bill by state representative Kurt Heise would go even further, allowing for the hiring of a private company to operate the water and sewer system.
“Water is a needed commodity and human right and it should not be privatized,” says Grigsby. He had his own water shut off for non-payment more than fifteen years ago. At the time, he was working at the water department.
“It’s just so frustrating and so ironic that the pro-privatization forces are kind of turning it around and using that corruption against the city,” says Ann Rall, a local activist. “They use it as an excuse for privatizing it.”
So far, the People’s Water Board has managed to get the water department to publish its board meeting agendas and minutes online. As for their request to have board meetings televised, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department spokeswoman Mary Sevakis says cost concerns make that prohibitive.
“The system is broken. And we need to collectively fix it,” says Charity Hicks, one of nine People’s Water Board commissioners voted in by the group, which meets a day or two before each of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department board meetings. “Or we’re all going to be shut off, and we’re all going to be toting water from a creek.”
The other demands of the People’s Water Board remain unfulfilled, including a moratorium on all water shutoffs. This means that more people in Detroit will experience the hardships that Bobbi Thompson faced.
Her kids missed a year of school, bouncing from one foster home to another. And even after reuniting, it took two or three years for her family to feel whole again.
“Taking my children away from me instead of helping me restore the water was dumb,” she says. “It cost us all—the kind of cost no one can ever pay back.”
Andrew Stelzer is a producer at the weekly public affairs radio show Making Contact. His work has aired on NPR, Radio Netherlands, and many other stations. Find him at andrewstelzer.com. Rachel Zurer is a freelance writer and radio producer in Oakland, California.
"To hear some of the voices of the Detroit People's Water Board, check out this radio story by Making Contact".