Jim Olson Article on Detroit Water Shut Offs

Detroit’s Bankruptcy and Water Shutoffs Strike a Blow

  to the Rights and Public Trust in Water of Detroit’s Poor


By Jim Olson[1]

            Detroit’s emergency manager filed for bankruptcy in July 2013 to force creditors to negotiate a bankruptcy plan that would slash the city’s unwieldy debt, and, it appeared, to derail a state court constitutional challenge to the emergency manager’s authority. Last week the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Detroit approved a plan that would over time give Detroit a chance to survive. Missing from the plan, however, was any mention of the disturbance and threat to the rights to water, and health of Detroit’s poor caused by the abrupt termination of their water service.

             Over the past year, Detroit has shutoff an unprecedented 27,000 households- more than 10 percent of the city’s total, preventing families, children and those with medical conditions from accessing water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and flushing. The city launched the shutoffs without warning to improve its chances in negotiating the bankruptcy plan. The move sought to improve its position with suburbs and private water companies who have been eying the prize of taking over the bonanza of Detroit’s water system

            Notably, state, charities, and businesses stepped forward with donations of hundreds of millions to save the inestimable value of the collection of art and landmark buildings at the Detroit Art Institute. Ironically, no one has stepped forward to contribute to a plan for an affordable rate structure, based on individual ability to pay, to save Detroit’s water system that serves Detroit’s poor, mostly African American population – a wrenching irony for a city that runs along the shores of the Great Lakes, the world’s largest supply of fresh surface water and the source of Detroit’s drinking water.

            Detroit’s loss in population, increased costs of operations, aging infrastructure, unemployment, and the loss of tax base from the flight of the auto industry and people to the suburbs have combined to pump up the average water bill above $100 per month for a family – in some instances reportedly as high as $2,000 because of mistakes or charges for which residents were not responsible. This cost is simply staggering in a city rife with poverty, where 20 percent of the city’s population lives on less than $800 per month to meet all their needs. Failure to pay by those who cannot afford their water bill because of low income, medical conditions, or other competing basic needs – often a just position in a system beset with leaks and billing errors – has resulted in the massive shutoffs without notice or chance to respond.

[1]Jim Olson is a founder and President of FLOW (For Love of Water), a Great Lakes water policy center whose mission is to establish effective policy and law to protect the waters of the Great Lakes basin and the public uses that depend on them. www.flowforwater.org. The author also is one of several attorneys who have appeared of record in Lydia v City of Detroit, U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, on behalf of the plaintiffs- residents whose water has been or is threatened with shutoff. The author emphasizes that this article is only his personal opinion and not necessarily the view of the plaintiffs or FLOW.

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