Opinion: Detroit keeps the water running

Gary A. Brown

Now, more than ever, we need to come together as a city during the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. 

During this crisis, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is operating near full capacity — focusing on water restorations, customer service, and emergency water and sewer repairs.

On March 9, Mayor Mike Duggan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the Water Restart Plan designed to restore water in occupied households with water off in Detroit, amid the pending outbreak.  

To date, nearly 1,000 households have taken advantage of the plan and had their water service restored. Another 300 have avoided a service interruption.

Another 100 homes await restoration. Based on the initial visit, many of these homes require major plumbing work before DWSD can reconnect water service. The department was recently awarded state grants to cover repair costs.

During our outreach efforts, we’ve found that there are a relatively small number of occupied Detroit households without water. The overwhelming majority of homes without water service are vacant.

Kirk Myers of Human Fliers leaves a restore water service notice from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department at a home on Edgewood Street in Detroit, Wednesday, March 25, 2020.

Here are the steps we have taken to determine who is living in a household without water and the results of our efforts:

DWSD hired a third party, Detroit-based company called Human Fliers to personally visit nearly 9,000 houses, where service had once been interrupted, to determine if anyone was living without water. So far, they found 68% — nearly 7 in 10 — were abandoned or unoccupied houses; 15% were occupied and had water; 12% appeared to have occupants who did not answer the door; and 5% were confirmed to be occupied and living without water. 

Initially, the Water Restart Plan had unexpectedly high call volumes — 80% of which were households that already had water and were not eligible for the plan. Within days, call volumes fell precipitously — an indication that department efforts to reach customers with water service challenges is working and the Water Restart Plan, is succeeding. These households will transition to existing customer assistance programs when the crisis is over.

Some 16,000 households have enrolled in the Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP) since it launched in 2016, and $2.4 million is currently available. WRAP includes payment assistance, minor plumbing repairs and debt forgiveness for families earning up to 200% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that is $52,400 in calendar year 2020. Thousands of other households enroll in the DWSD 10/30/50 payment plan. 

Despite our various financial assistance programs, we recognize our most impoverished residents cannot benefit from the above programs because they lack a steady source of documented income, and that the Water Restart Plan is not a long-term solution. It will take a village — of health, housing and social service agencies; city departments; state and regional governments; and sincere water advocates — to provide these residents with basic living necessities. DWSD commits to be an integral partner in that village.

If you know anyone living without water, tell them to call Wayne Metro at 313-386-9727 to enroll in the Water Restart Plan and get their water back on. The state of Michigan will pay the first month’s $25 payment, and the customer pays $25 per month thereafter. DWSD will defer the accrued balance and these customers will transition to another helpful program once the coronavirus pandemic subsides.

Stay well, stay at home, and let’s do our best to take care of one another. The current situation demands nothing less.

Gary A. Brown is director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and a member of the Great Lakes Water Authority board.