Growing Our Common Wealth™
Detroit Water


For immediate release: Contact Matt Stannard, Policy Director, Commonomics USA 304-5317
March 26, 2015
Beginning in mid-April, the Detroit water department will begin issuing shut-off notices to as many as 800 residents a day who have delinquent accounts with the city. This comes after massive rate hikes stemming from Detroit’s municipal bankruptcy, a rigged economic trauma that marginalized people and communities throughout the city. It also comes after far-reaching 2014 water shutoffs, a disaster for tens of thousands of Detroit families — a human rights violation that drew international condemnation.
Commonomics USA condemns the City of Detroit’s plan to impose yet another humanitarian disaster on many of Detroit’s most vulnerable families — again shutting off water to tens of thousands of residents.
Commonomics USA also condemns the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners’ 2015-16 rate hike and five-year, $1 billion capital improvement program as unreasonable burdens on lower-income families. Coming just after United Nations human rights officials condemned Detroit’s water practices, these decisions show flagrant disregard and disrespect of local and international outcries.
UN envoys studying Detroit’s 2014 water shutoffs took special note of “large-scale retrogression or backwards steps” in US citizens’ access to water. Human rights observers were shocked to see scarcity where Americans had once enjoyed near-universal water access and abundance. One official said, “any retrogression should be seen as a human right violation.”
Detroit officials say residents will be able to set up payment plans with the city. But last year's cruel, harsh shutoffs affected many residents who had been paying on their accounts. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and Great Lakes Water Authority claim they are now “evaluating options” for public or private assistance for residents having trouble paying their bills. A spokesman for DWSD-GLWA, Bill Nowling, told news media that until these agencies complete their evaluation, they won’t proceed with shutoffs.
Such reassurances are inadequate for two reasons. First, they do not constitute guarantees that the agencies will not actually or eventually shut off people's water. Indeed, Mr. Nowling said as much.
Second, these empty reassurances leave in place a corrupt system of commodified, unnecessarily expensive water services. Charity solutions amount to a smokescreen, a thin excuse to leave in place underlying corruption and an inherently flawed, commodified, financialized, system. Water should be a public utility and a human right of every Detroit family, regardless of ability to pay. Charity is not economic justice.
Urban residents of Detroit pay an average of $70 per month for water and sewer service. New, increased rates will drive these steep bills even higher.
Many policy alternatives exist. The People’s Water Board Coalition, for instance, recommends replacing Detroit’s current water billing system with an income-based approach, combined with a renewed federal commitment to repair the city’s aging water and sewer infrastructure.
But even those alternatives do not go far enough. The US needs to sign international protocols declaring that all human beings have a right to water, and enforce these commitments using a public trust doctrine or similar legal tools.
The US also needs to declare water, and watersheds, to be common resources, and water services to be public utilities.
As Food and Water Watch pointed out last year: “Water service is a natural monopoly. If the utility company increases rates dramatically or if service quickly deteriorates, a customer cannot simply select another provider without moving to another community.” However, when water is publicly managed and democratically controlled, “consumers can exercise their power at the ballot box when elected officials oversee their utilities.”
Working class Detroiters did not create the crisis under which they now suffer. They should not have to pay for that disaster, or the bad fruits of privatization, by themselves. Commonomics USA calls upon Detroit public officials to reevaluate their water distribution paradigm, mindful that water is best managed as a common resource rather than a privately held commodity.
Commonomics USA works to advance economic justice, reclaim the commons, and promote democratic economies through nonpartisan partnerships with America's public officials, grassroots activists, and the general public.