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COVID-19 exposed Detroit’s water insecurity....

COVID-19 exposed Detroit’s water insecurity. Activists fear ‘mass shutoffs’ will return

“Once again, there’s always these ridiculous obstacles for Black, brown and poor people to be able to access the supposed relief methods."

water filling a sink

This story originally appeared in Planet Detroit, a weekly email newsletter update to help you get smarter about the environment. (Subscribe here.) 

With Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency order for the COVID-19 pandemic set to expire on June 19, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) could begin shutting off people’s water again, a practice that has affected over 140,00 Detroiters since 2014. Shutoffs had been banned and reconnections ordered for all water customers in the state as part of Whitmer’s executive order (EO) on March 28. An earlier agreement set up a plan for Detroiters to maintain service for $25 a month during the COVID-19 emergency.

The EO is set to expire at a time when Detroiters are confronting an unemployment rate above 20% and some water users facing the prospect of needing to pay down arrears — including debt accumulated during the emergency while on the $25 plan — to DWSD.

“Because bills are not stopping and people are accumulating arrearages, we could face mass shutoffs at the end of this,” Charlotte Jameson, program director for legislative affairs, energy and drinking water at the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), told Planet Detroit.

Among other inequities, COVID-19 has helped expose ongoing water insecurity in a city where studies have shown that the poorest households often spend more than 10% of their income to maintain service. If the emergency order is lifted next month, the city will still be in the middle of a disease pandemic that could last until 2022 or longer. Renewed shutoffs could make it difficult for people to wash their hands or clean or exacerbate the effect of heatwaves, which on their own have the potential to make COVID-19 more deadly by driving people to cooling centers or other spaces where disease transmission is more likely.

Although various forms of assistance will be available after the emergency order is lifted, the state hasn’t put together a comprehensive plan for water service. Some groups like MEC and the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are calling for new safeguards and regulations to protect residents. They’re also trying to figure out who has had their water restored and who hasn’t.

Where does Detroit stand on water reconnections?

The number of water reconnections reported by the city and how this compares to previous shutoff estimates has been a subject of intense debate. DWSD lists 5 accounts remaining without water, according to data they provided to the state as part of a reporting requirement under the EO. However, the roughly 1,200 restorations they say they performed is much lower than an estimate of 9,500 shutoffs put forward by Bridge Magazine in February of 2020.

Bryan Peckinpaugh, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for DWSD, believes that some of the discrepancies could be because multiple accounts may have been present at the same address, potentially inflating the number of estimated shutoffs, although he did not produce any evidence to support that claim.

Michigan’s ACLU urged Whitmer in a letter on April 7 to “act immediately to understand why this vast discrepancy exists and to ameliorate it. Under the Restart Plan, you can obtain the list of the 9,500 occupied homes and have water restored to those residents now.”

Yet, Michigan doesn’t regulate water the way some other states do, neither tracking shutoffs nor overseeing water rates, something that makes it difficult to verify the information coming from utilities. “We have to trust that the city is giving us the right data,” Regina Strong, the Environmental Justice Public Advocate at the Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) says. “But if we can add to that data, then we try to do that.”

The city announced its plans to end water shutoffs on March 9 and rolled out a water restoration plan that would allow any person who called a hotline staffed by social services organization Wayne Metro to have their water restored at no cost and pay a $25/month fee through the pandemic. 

Reverend Roslyn Bouier, executive director of the Brightmoor Food Pantry — which distributes bottled water and food as well as helping residents with shut-offs — provided Planet Detroit documentation showing that the water department continued sending out past-due bills with shut-off warnings to customers as late as into May. The bills contained no information about the restoration plan.

Bouier says DWSD was not forthcoming with that information when her clients — who continued to come to the pantry for water and help to pay water bills — called the department. Instead, she told Planet Detroit, DWSD continued telling clients that they needed to pay a third of past-due balances to qualify for enrollment in a payment program, which was the requirement before the EO went into effect. Bouier also provided documentation showing that Brightmoor Pantry had paid thousands of dollars in water bills to avoid shutoffs or restore water to accounts.

Nor, she says, are she and her clients being directed to Wayne Metro for reconnection. Wayne Metro received $11 million through the CARES Act and is in charge of coordinating water restorations. Bouier says that clients have had trouble reaching the organization and that Wayne Metro hasn’t been offering reconnections to those she has worked with.

The ACLU letter also drew attention to the difficulty residents were having with Wayne Metro as well as the confusing and burdensome nature of the application process and the lack of a systematic program for reconnections.

“Currently a resident is required to call a third-party contractor to determine their eligibility, wait on the phone for hours potentially, and then start the application process,” the letter reads. “This administrative process by application has not produced the water restoration numbers consistent with DWSD’s own reported water shutoffs. DWSD went house-to-house to turn the water off, they should now go turn it back on.”

Bouier said that several clients she works with were told DWSD could not locate their accounts for reconnection, only to be told the account was found after Brightmoor Pantry offered to pay arrearages.

“I tell clients to call the water department to have that account restored because [Brightmoor Pantry] is willing to pay the bill,” she says. “The very next day, sometimes that same day, that account number is found.” Bouier believes this is an intentional act to avoid reconnections or at least avoid them when cash isn’t being offered.

Peckinpaugh responded to this allegation by saying “no one has been asked to pay any money to have their water restored.”

Jameson points out that other factors could be at play. Although DWSD doesn’t track immigration status, some undocumented people may be hesitant to contact authorities for restoration. Those squatting in buildings or people with plumbing problems may also not want to reach out for help.

What happens when the executive order expires?

Strong says she is worried about what happens when Michiganders –- many of whom have lost their jobs in the last few months –- come out from under the protection of the emergency order. She says state leaders are having “conversations” about what happens next with water shut offs. But so far, Whitmer hasn’t put forth a specific plan, although in the past she has campaigned on the promise that “water is a fundamental right and essential to public health.” As for the end of the emergency order, “It’s a fluid situation,” Strong says, “but as of right now it’s June 18.”

What seems to be on offer for Detroiters after the “emergency” ends is a confusing assemblage of payment programs and government grant money that may not be enough to prevent further shutoffs. Peckinpaugh says that 550 of those whose water was reconnected have been enrolled in DWSD’s Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP) which provides those at 150% of the federal poverty level or below with $25 a month in assistance and $700 for past due balances for customers who make their monthly payments for one year.

He says an additional $250 can be paid toward past due balances by Wayne Metro, although this last amount is for all utilities, which could create tough choices for some. These measures might not provide much relief for the folks Reverend Bouier works with, many of whom she says have thousands of dollars in arrearages and who would need to go a full year without missing a payment to receive $700 in assistance.

“Once again, there’s always these ridiculous obstacles for Black, brown and poor people to be able to access the supposed relief methods,” Bouier says.

Jameson hopes for at least a “buffer period” to give people a break from shutoffs after the emergency order ends, as well as emergency assistance to help with arrearages. “Longer term, we need regulation and a water affordability plan,” she says.

Right now, it’s unclear what power the state has to hold DWSD to account over water rates or reconnections. The ACLU has proposed a community task force to give ongoing input on water delivery and sanitation. Jameson says this could allow advocates “to really have accountability over DWSD or to know really what DWSD is doing or not doing.”

“What we’ve learned is turning people’s water off and on is not easy,” Nick Leonard from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center told Planet Detroit. “We just can’t — in the face of an immediate emergency — switch gears and turn everybody’s water on, because we don’t even know where they all are.”

For Bouier, the problems with water access have laid bare the deep divisions of race and class that have existed for years. “They keep claiming on every commercial that comes on TV that we’re all in this together and we’re clearly not,” she says, “most especially in this city.”

Brian Allnutt is a writer living in Detroit. He covers open space, environmental justice, food and gardening.


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