In 2014, the Detroit Water and Sewage Department began the largest water shutoff in United States history. To date, more than 141,000 households have been left without running water and 23,000 homes had their water turned off in 2019 alone.
The city claims its campaign is in response to years of negligent nonpayment on the part of many residents. However, Detroiters have been paying more than double what constitutes an affordable water bill, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. On average, Detroiters have been paying $45.08 more than what is affordable based on their income, and the water bill constitutes about 10 percent of their monthly income, while an affordable monthly water bill should be about 4.5 percent of monthly income.
The water shutoffs fit into the larger ruling-class program for austerity in Detroit. On March 25, 2013, emergency manager Kevyn Orr was appointed by right-wing Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. Orr, who had nearly unilateral control over the financial affairs of the City of Detroit, proceeded to recommend that the city file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy, which was done with Governor Snyder’s approval on July 18, 2013. Less than a year later, the city was refusing to pay out pensions, provide running water for citizens or provide adequate funding for a nearly bankrupt public school system. The net effect of the bankruptcy was to allow for the privatization of large parts of the city’s public resources for the benefit of finance capital. The privatization of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was attempted, but eventually fell apart, largely because of citizen protests.
Today, many residents are carrying a water bill debt of $1,000 or more. When the water was shut off, residents were left to purchase bottled water for washing, bathing and drinking. Many residents have been without running water for years. Outspoken resident groups, including the People’s Water Board Coalition and its constituent organizations, have been organizing against the shutoffs. Until quite recently, city and state officials have completely ignored the public outcry.
On February 28, a broad coalition of working class organizations released a statement to the office of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on the water shutoffs, urging her to issue a moratorium on the shutoffs in order to prevent the public health catastrophe of having COVID-19 descend on a city which lacks universal access to clean tap water. On March 9, the city announced a “Coronavirus Water Restart Program,” which will charge residents $25 a month to regain access to their water. The city has made it clear that this program will be discontinued once the immediate threat of COVID-19 has passed, and residents will then be expected to pay their exorbitant water bill rates and accumulated debt. It is shameful that it took the crisis of COVID-19 to force the hand of the city and the state in the matter of clean water in Detroit. It is also shameful that the city expects to take clean water away from Detroit residents as soon as possible. Even with this action, hundreds of households still have not had their water restored.
The workers of Detroit who won this concession from the state do not intend to stop there. The community is organizing to stop water shutoffs for vulnerable populations, get more resources and assistance from the state in turning the water back on and fixing toxic lead service lines, and reinstitute the government water stations that came after the Flint Water Crisis, among other things. The temporary and flawed solution that the state has offered is insufficient to meet our human need, and it is incumbent on all workers to continue fighting with Detroit for water rights.