Onus is on State, Not Citizens, to Turn on Water in Detroit

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor

Jim Olson spoke last week at Columbia University’s Lenfest Center for the Arts in a program titled “Water Activism: Detroit, Flint, and the Great Lakes”. Photo by Michael DiVito 

By Jim Olson

Several newspapers recently reported on another 23,000 water service shutoffs of residences in Detroit whose occupants cannot afford to pay their excessive water bills, bringing the total to well over 100,000 shutoffs since 2014. The city has forced shutoffs of residential water for drinking, cooking, bathing, and sanitation ostensibly to improve the balance sheet of Detroit during and after its municipal bankruptcy.

And there’s no end in sight.

Late last week, state of Michigan officials rejected a request from Detroit residents and the American Civil Liberties Union to declare an emergency and stop the water shutoffs on the grounds that residents couldn’t scientifically prove there was a public health threat or crisis.

Clearly water service to these customers should be restored immediately. Not only was the rejection wrong on moral grounds, it also should never have been the residents’ burden to prove life without water is a crisis.

Putting the onus on citizens to prove harm ignores the reality of a person’s inherent right to access the sovereign or public waters of the state for drinking water, sanitation or health, and sustenance. The waters delivered by the City of Detroit’s Water Board are withdrawn, treated, distributed, collected, treated as sewage, and returned to Lake Huron and the Detroit River. These navigable waters are public and subject to what is known as the Public Trust Doctrine.

Michigan, like every state, took title to the waters of the Great Lakes and soils beneath them, as sovereign and in public trust for the people, on admission to the Union in 1837. Under this Public Trust Doctrine, the State of Michigan and its officials have a solemn, perpetual duty to prevent impairment or interference with the right of the public to use these waters for certain protected public trust purposes. 

Under the Public Trust Doctrine, each citizen, as a legally recognized beneficiary under the decisions of the Michigan Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court, has a right to access these waters for navigation, fishing, sustenance, including drinking water and growing and preparing food, bathing (more accurately described as sanitation), and swimming. Before the City of Detroit established a public water supply system in the late 1800s and early 1900s, residents depended on groundwater, Lake St. Clair, or the Detroit River.

As the city grew, the public water supply system expanded. In order to assure the costs of this expanded system were covered, Michigan passed a law requiring residents and occupants of the service area to shut down existing private wells and hook up to the system and prevented them from exercising their property right to reasonable use of the groundwater or navigable waters.

But their fundamental right to access and use these public waters was not denied, nor could it be. The public rights to use these public trust waters for navigation, fishing, drinking, food, and sanitation are paramount and can never be repealed or impaired. Detroit, like other cities and towns, withdraws and delivers public water as a service through its municipal water supply system as a substitute system for the water residents once obtained through their reasonable use of groundwater.

The public trust water that enters and flows through, and is discharged back into, Lake Huron or the Detroit River does not lose its public trust status just because it enters a pipe. The pipe and every aspect of the public water system backed by citizen ratepayers and the full faith and credit of the state (bonds, taxes, and other revenues) remains subject to the Public Trust Doctrine.

Under the Public Trust Doctrine, not only does government have a legal duty to protect and provide access for these paramount public trust uses of residents and citizens, but the burden of proof is not on the residents of Detroit or citizens of Michigan for access to water for drinking, food, and sanitation. The burden is on the government, that is the trustees, or any other person or institution who seeks to deny or deprive a resident of these paramount public trust rights. The solemn duty was on the state and city officials, not the residents. And, it remains forever so.

Since when is the burden of proof on residents to prove a health crisis to get a drink of water from the tap in their home? By refusing to grant relief to tens of thousands of residents in Detroit, the state has effectively deprived citizens of their rights under public trust law.

Once we see and understand this situation is a matter of the public trust law, it can be understood that citizens don’t have to prove to the state under public health statutes that there is a public health emergency. Legally and morally, it is the other way around. State officials have a mandatory duty to provide access to these public trust waters for drinking, food, and health. As trustee of the waters of Lake Huron and the Detroit River, state officials have sovereign control and power to assure water is provided without risks of health to residents.

Bottom line: The state has a duty to turn the water back on.

To refuse to do so because of some narrow statutory interpretation under a public health law, rather than fulfill its duty under public trust law, perpetuates the emotional trauma, risks, turmoil, and discrimination thrust on residents who should be treated like every other citizen when it comes to our common public waters. If the state does not turn on the water through its overarching role as trustee of the public trust waters of the state, the public trust duty has been violated.

What we need to do as a state, and as a civilized society, is to recognize and affirm this public water, this Public Trust, and start acting differently.

First, turn the water back on and provide a necessary minimum amount of 7,000 gallons a month—like Santa Fe, New Mexico, does—at a low rate everyone can pay; increase rates on all who use more than this amount, and move residents off a rate system that spreads the cost on resident ratepayers. The current system is obsolete.

With the slashes in federal grant and low interest infrastructure funding, the need for billions in repairs of systems that have been allowed to deteriorate, new demands from climate change effects, and dwindling customer populations with wages that lock them in poverty, it is time we start with the reality that the waters of the state are public for all of us, and assure that we provide water services shared by everyone in Michigan.

Public water is not about the “bottom-line,” it is about serving the public with safe water for drinking, food and health under the Public Trust Doctrine.

In addition to moving off a purely ratepayer based system in each city or town in favor of a state-wide responsibility for all of us to assure access to public water, we should pass a version of FLOW’s Public Water, Public Justice model law, which we released in September 2018. This policy will shift the burden and create flexibility for water boards to set prices in tiers, authorize affordability plans, and assure a certain amount of water is provided to each citizen shared by all citizens.

Then, because all water in the state is public, not private, the free lunch or massive subsidy to bottled water companies must end. Presently, bottled water companies convert the use of water into a sale of water, with huge profits not shared by the citizens of Michigan. Some companies, like Dasani or Aquafina, receive the water by tapping into a municipal or public water supply system. Other companies like Nestlé simply set up a system of large-volume pumps and withdraw public water from groundwater or springs that feed our lakes and streams; these companies pay a nominal fee to process applications and administer permits that seek to regulate environmental impacts, but they pay nothing for the public water that garners them hundreds of millions of dollars in profits.

The profits of bottled water companies constitute a massive subsidy to a few private corporations directly off the backs of all other ratepayers, taxpayers, and citizens of Michigan.

Then start requiring bottled water companies to obtain a license. If we allow the sale of water at all, under stringent impact and accounting standards, these companies should pay a royalty or fee to sell, not just use, our public water. Those royalties should be placed in a trust fund for public water and social justice needs of our cities, towns, and villages, and provide an open, participatory, transparent, and accountable means to right this inequity by assisting communities and citizens with the most critical needs. After all, when it comes to our shared public water, we are all citizens of Detroit.

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