Detroit finally embraces opportunity to be a playe...

Detroit finally embraces opportunity to be a player in regional water issues

After a decade on the sidelines as over 100 Great Lakes region cities collaborated on common water issues, Detroit has bought in. Can it help drive a water infrastructure agenda? And what about shutoffs?

For well more than a decade at Great Lakes conferences an unspoken question was: where’s Detroit? The city was conspicuously absent as the region was gathering to address common problems and use its combined clout to advocate in Washington.   

But that could change as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced last September that the city was joining a collaboration of Great Lakes mayors that lobbies the federal government on water infrastructure issues. 

After President George W, Bush signed an executive order declaring the Great Lakes a “national treasure” in 2004, regional groups including governors, mayors, environmental groups and agencies began to coalesce and lobby the federal government on behalf of the Great Lakes. The days of entities going it alone with conflicting priorities that would accomplish little were over.  

Collaboration was and is the watchword. 

One of the groups was the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, composed of mayors from approximately 100 U.S. and Canadian cities. It was founded by former Mayors Richard M. Daley from Chicago and Toronto’s David Miller. 

Its purpose was to ensure the mayor’s voices were heard at the federal level concerning Great Lakes and water issues, according to former executive director David Ullrich.

And the regional mayors wanted Detroit, an iconic Great Lakes city, to be a part of the coalition. It is after all, in the heart of the region and its namesake river connects the upper and lower Great Lakes making it a perfect fit.

But former Mayor Dave Bing was a no sale, according to Ullrich. When Duggan took office in 2014 he also declined to join and Ullrich said he wasn’t optimistic about a change in the mayor’s thinking. 

Detroit buys in

But things changed over time and Detroit joined the mayors group last September and Duggan assumed a leadership role on the board.

Why the change of heart?

“When we looked at the group’s agenda, there were key areas of alignment, particularly as it related to the issues of water affordability and rising Great Lakes water levels, which have brought the kind of flooding we’ve seen the last two years in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood,” Hakim Berry, Detroit’s Chief Operating Officer told Planet Detroit in a statement. 

Berry said he couldn’t speak to why Detroit had previously declined to join. On Duggan joining the board, Berry said his work on water affordability was noticed by the regional mayors.  

“The Mayor was invited to join the board, as some of the Mayors were impressed with what Detroit has done in the area of water affordability, which has been both aggressive and fiscally sustainable for the city’s water utility.  In fact, Detroit has been viewed as a leader among the group,” Berry said. 

Duggan will have an opportunity to show his water affordability mettle as he is also part of a newly formed water affordability commission that includes Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. 

The commission will address water equity issues, the need for water infrastructure investments and expects to release a report in May. 

“Considering our dependency on clean water, it is time that we work together to alleviate the inequities that too many of our residents face in accessing safe and affordable water,” Duggan said in a statement on his appointment to the commission. 

But how engaged is the Great Lakes community on water equity issues after the Flint water crisis in 2016 put a spotlight on them? 

In a 2017 interview, prominent Detroit and Wayne State University environmental attorney Noah Hall called out various institutions for sitting on the sidelines as the Flint crisis unfolded, with an emphasis on not-for-profits. Hall said they had “a lot of looking in the mirror to do over their shortcomings and failings.” 

Water equity advocate Monica Lewis-Patrick told Planet Detroit that nonprofits Freshwater Future, National Wildlife Foundation and others have “stepped up” and are now engaged on water equity with grassroots groups. Lewis-Patrick is president and CEO of We the People of Detroit.

Lewis-Patrick did not comment on the Cities Initiative or other organizations. 

Not convinced 

Not everyone is convinced that Duggan has been a leader on ending the shutoffs as it took the COVID-19 pandemic to generate action. 

“Many individuals and groups had been pressing the (Duggan) administration to do more to address water shutoffs prior to the pandemic, so it’s not like this was an issue that didn’t have traction or attention,” University of Detroit Mercy Law Professor Nick Schroeck told Planet Detroit. Schroeck specializes in environmental law and urban policy issues. 

The city and state could have taken action on shutoffs years ago, according to Schroeck, who praised Duggan for joining the regional group of mayors. 

In a re-election campaign announcement, Duggan addressed the current two-year moratorium on water shutoffs, saying, “this is something we’ve been working on for five years.” He also praised Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for leading the way to fund it. 

We the People of Detroit’s Lewis-Patrick isn’t buying it.

“Duggan is not dedicated to water affordability,” she said, but instead has “taken a political posture of that of a water warrior.” Duggan has long said that water shutoffs are not an issue in Detroit, according to Lewis-Patrick. 

In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot in her first day in office in 2019 announced an end to shutoffs, saying that water is a human right and when water is turned off to a home you effectively evict people. “We will not do that,” Lightfoot said. Milwaukee does not disconnect water service because of unpaid bills.  

On infrastructure, Detroit Mercy’s Schroeck said it makes sense for Duggan to focus on water infrastructure and to try to secure as many federal dollars as possible while it’s a priority for the administration. 

“Detroit has a ton of deferred maintenance and as the city’s population declined, fewer residents were left to pay into the system for upkeep,” Schroeck said.  

A big federal infrastructure plan has had bipartisan support for years, yet has failed to materialize. Any plan put forth by President Joe Biden is expected to be difficult to pass as the parties differ on priorities and the size of the plan according to New York Times reporting.  

In October 2020, Whitmer proposed a $500 million water infrastructure plan for Michigan, including $207 million for drinking water quality and $293 million in wastewater protection. 

In a statement, Duggan said Detroit has “the oldest infrastructure in the state,” and that the state plan “would give us the ability to greatly expand our water main replacement program and replace an additional 2,000 lead service lines beyond our current program.”

Whitmer’s plan requires legislative approval.

Gary Wilson is a Chicago-based contributor who has reported on Great Lakes issues for public media since 2011.