Heat prompts water shut-off moratorium in Detroit

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — The city’s water department has implemented a moratorium on shutting off water for delinquent residential accounts when temperatures exceed 90 degrees.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown made the disclosure Tuesday during Detroit City Council’s formal session, saying it kicked in this week.

“While we have 90-degree temperatures, we will not be shutting off customers for delinquent accounts,” said Brown, noting the policy was put in place as temperatures have soared, prompting Detroit to open cooling centers at various library and recreation center locations. It will be evaluated daily and in effect when city cooling centers are activated, he said.

Meantime, about 1,000 residential customers in the city remain at risk of shut-offs over delinquent bills, Brown said Tuesday. That’s down from nearly 18,000 in April, when the department resumed its controversial practice of cutting off accounts for some customers who received final notices.

“We’ve been through that complete list, and there’s less than 1,000 to go,” said Brown, who could not say how many accounts have been turned off and restored since spring.

At the beginning of the month, there were close to 5,000 at-risk for a service interruption. The department is currently in its third round of providing final notices including to households that recently became at-risk due to nonpayment or were part of the original group and broke a payment plan, officials said.

Water department officials in April said 17,995 households were at risk of having their water turned off. But those who contacted the department before their scheduled shut-offs to make a payment or enter into an assistance plan avoided it.

Last month, Brown announced the number of vulnerable customers had been cut in half. Most, he said, had avoided it by getting into assistance programs. About 90 percent of customers who are turned off are restored within 24 hours, Brown said.

“We’re not shutting them people off to leave them off,” he said. “We are shutting them off to get compliance, get them some assistance and get them back on.”

But Sylvia Orduno, an organizer with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, argued the water department’s “propaganda campaign” isn’t a true reflection of the water crisis in the city.

“We’re normalizing water shut-offs and we’re normalizing that people should expect to live without water. That is a grossly inhuman thing to do and just reckless in terms of our public health,” she said. “They need to have a real conversation about water affordability. This is about ensuring that every single person in this city has water if they need it.”

Detroit in 2015 launched its Water Residential Assistance Program. The regional aid fund was created as part of the Great Lakes Water Authority forged in the city’s bankruptcy. It launched in 2015 and is designed to help customers in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties who are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level — $36,450 for a family of four — by covering one-third of the cost of their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts.

The water department has said about 6,000 Detroit households are enrolled in the program and the retention rate is 90 percent.

Separately, the council on Tuesday unanimously signed off on a five-year, $57 million contract for the water department’s capital improvement program.

The agreement, with AECOM Great Lakes Inc., will assist DWSD with the design and engineering overhaul of the city’s water infrastructure. The contract must now go to the city’s Financial Review Commission. Officials hope the work can begin next month.

“This is a significant step in moving the city forward in providing reliable water and sewer service,” said Palencia Mobley, deputy director for DWSD.