Activists call on city, state to end water shutoffs in Detroit

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News
Former Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson addresses the crowd Thursday during a press conference in  front of the Spirit of Detroit, asking for government officials to restore water service and stop future water shutoffs.

Detroit — A diverse coalition of clergy and water rights activist are demanding Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Rick Snyder bring an end to water shutoffs in the city and to adopt a water affordability plan for residents.

The group marched Thursday across Jefferson from Hart Plaza near the Detroit riverfront to the Spirit of Detroit statue outside City Hall to decry the water department shutoff campaign as unjust and inhumane.

"How dare anybody remove water, which is a human right, from the people of this community," said former Detroit City Councilwoman JoAnn Watson, a pastor at West Side Unity Church. "It's a death sentence for people not to have water."

Mary Ellen Howard, a nurse and public policy advocate, also joined in the call, arguing city residents who cannot afford to have their water cut back on are "living in third-world conditions" and "I don't know how they survive."

Monica Lewis-Patrick, a member of the People's Water Board, addresses the crowd during a prayer service held near the Detroit Riverwalk, Thursday.  A coalition of clergy and water rights activists are demanding an end to water shutoffs.

Alexis Wiley, Duggan's chief of staff, noted Thursday that the mayor has implemented a multi-million dollar water assistance program for residents.

"With the programs we now have in place, every Detroiter who is at risk of having their water shut off has a path to help them keep it flowing," Wiley said in a released statement. "We've always been open to discussions on this topic and have held many meetings with community members at the mayor's office."

Ari Adler, a spokesman for Snyder, noted in an email to The Detroit News that the city operates the system and oversees its water accounts.  

"This really is an issue between the city and its residents," he said. 

Through Oct. 1, Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department has sent out notices to 23,372 households, warning that service was scheduled to be interrupted for non-payment within seven days.

Of those households, 11,422 did have service interruptions. But 10,936 of the impacted accounts entered customer assistance programs or paid the balance. There were 8,559 with services restored, water officials said. 

Imam Mohammad Ali Elahi (in front of statue) addresses the crowd during a prayer service Thursday in Detroit. A coalition of clergy and water rights activists are demanding an end to water shutoffs.

The department has 244,319 residential accounts and 15,401 of them — or 6.3 percent — are delinquent, according to DWSD data provided to The News. 

In the spring, more than 17,000 residential customers in the city were at-risk of having their water turned off for past due bills.

The department, in a released statement, noted it's not lawful in Michigan to set income-based water rates and noted ongoing efforts to assist those struggling to pay bills.

“The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) provides a path for every residential water customer to avoid a service interruption, and we partner with non-profits, faith-based leaders and members of city council to reach those who need help," said Palencia Mobley, deputy director and chief engineer of DWSD.

In the past two years, more than $8 million has assisted low-income households with water bills and minor plumbing repairs through its Water Residential Assistance Program, or WRAP.

WRAP is designed to help qualifying 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 their average monthly bill and freezing overdue amounts.

Currently, 9,100 Detroit households are enrolled in the program, water officials said. The city also offers payment plans.

Members from various groups walk from Hart Plaza toward a press conference at the Spirit of Detroit as they carry a sign asking government officials to stop Detroit water shutoffs.

"While Michigan’s legal framework gives municipal water utilities the authority to set rates, basing those rates on income is currently illegal in this state ...," added Mobley, citing the Headlee Amendment and a court ruling. "DWSD will continue to work with community leaders on water affordability, including avenues to address high water bills through water conservation such as minor home plumbing repairs and toilet replacement.”

Detroit City Councilwoman Mary Sheffield is crafting an affordability ordinance as part of a legislative package she's coined "The People's Bills" that she's hoping to introduce before the end of the year. 

Sheffield said Thursday she's working to organize water advocates and legal experts to draft a water affordability ordinance.

"At this point, we're ready to challenge the law, and we're ready to do whatever we need to do to get an income-based water affordability plan in place," she said. "I don't buy that it's not legal — and even if it is true, at some point in time, we need to challenge the law because it's not just. People in this city need access to clean, safe water."