A guide to understanding your water utility in the...

A guide to understanding your water utility in the climate change era

Get the 411 on DWSD, GLWA and your water bill.

Originally published by Planet Detroit and produced in partnership with Outlier Media. This guide was created as part of the American Press Institute’s Ideas to Action initiative to support accountability reporting that better prioritizes the needs of local communities.

Table of Contents

Who is responsible for my water and sewer service?

Help me understand my bill

Why are my water bills so high?

How can I lower my bill?

Can I get help paying my bill when I can’t afford it?

Why don’t my water utilities work?

What can I do to make my water utility better?

What is the future for my water utility?

Who is responsible for my water and sewer service?

In Southeast Michigan, there are two different agencies involved in providing fresh water and disposing of wastewater: the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD). GLWA handles regional management of the water and wastewater systems spanning eight counties, providing drinking water to nearly 40% of Michigan residents and wastewater services to 30%. DWSD owns and operates the city of Detroit’s water and wastewater systems, including treatment facilities used by, and leased to GLWA. If you’d like to better understand the relationship between the two entities, GLWA has an easy-to-read comparison chart here, explaining their various roles and responsibilities

Aside from any state or federal sources of funding, GLWA raises funds by selling the services it provides to its member communities, which then add their own costs and bill their citizens for usage. Rates are set individually by GLWA for each member, based on the needs of that community in terms of usage as well as distance and elevation from the water source, which is the Detroit River. DWSD raises $50 million annually by leasing its infrastructure to GLWA, via a 40-year contract. They raise additional funds by collecting payment of water service bills issued to residents in Detroit, where they are the local municipal provider.

GLWA is led by a CEO, appointed by its Board of Directors. The six-member board provides oversight, and is composed of one representative each for Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb counties, two representatives for the city of Detroit, and one representative appointed by the governor to represent members outside of the tri-county area. County and city representatives are appointed by the executive branches of each government.

DWSD is led by a Director, who is appointed by the mayor of Detroit with approval of the Board of Water Commissioners (BOWC). The BOWC provides the oversight, and is made up of seven Detroit residents, all appointed by the mayor.

GLWA was formed in 2014 near the end of Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings. In addition to agreeing to lease Detroit’’s water infrastructure, GLWA acquired billions of dollars in outstanding debt from Detroit. The idea was that GLWA’s double AA credit rating would allow it to spend less on the financing of that debt, freeing up cash to spend on capital improvements. Prior to the creation of GLWA, Detroit owned that debt, as well as the entirety of the water system, including the sections serving the suburbs. Much of the debt accrued over the years was taken on in order to build out those suburban water systems, and the costs were in part subsidized in billings to those communities. With the creation of GLWA, those communities now have representation on the Board of Directors, giving them a say in what they are charged, whereas before they had none.

Help me understand my bill

Water bills are issued by your municipality. Within the city of Detroit, water bills are issued by DWSD. Here’s a guide to understanding the basic charges on a DWSD water bill. If you live in the suburbs, check your municipal website or call your local water department for more information on understanding your bill.

Current Water Charges:

  • Water Usage | This is the amount charged for the freshwater used over the billing period. The water meter in your house, often found near the street-facing wall in your basement, electronically reports its readings and customers are charged for each CCF of water used. CCF stands for centrum cubic feet, and one CCF = 100 cubic feet or about 748 gallons of water. 
  • Water Service Charge | This is a fixed monthly charge based on the size of your water meter, and covers the cost of your meter, billing and customer service. Water meter sizes constrict the flow of water to a building. So, larger buildings require larger diameter meters. Most residential meters are either ⅝” or ¾”, and occasionally as large as one inch. Your specific meter size and information will be listed at the top left side of Page 2 of your bill under “Meter Information.”

Current Sewer Charges:

  • Sewerage Disposal | This is the cost to collect, treat and dispose of untreated sewage. The rate is charged for each CCF of water brought into your house, as measured on your water meter. The number of CCFs stated here should always match the number stated in the Water Usage section above it. There is no meter measuring the amount of water leaving your building. 
  • Sewerage Service Charge | Detroiters pay a fixed monthly charge for operations and maintenance of the wastewater systems and the cost of service centers and equipment. This charge is the same for all Detroit customers, and like all other charges and rates, is subject to change each year on July 1.
  • Drainage Charge | This fee is for treatment and disposal of stormwater or snowmelt, which run off your home or driveway. Detroit has a combined sewer system, where the sewage leaving your home gets combined with rainwater or snowmelt entering the street drains. Because it gets combined with untreated sewage, all naturally occurring water runoff must also be treated before being returned to the environment. The drainage charge is calculated based on the amount of hard, impervious surface acreage on your property. This includes the roofing of your home and garage as well as paved driveways and patios. Based on aerial flyover photographs and annual audits, the area of impervious surface on your parcel has been determined and listed by acreage. That acreage is then multiplied by the rate charged per month (set annually on July 1), per acre, to collect, treat and dispose of water runoff. Drainage Information is listed under your water bill’s meter information near the top left side of Page 2. It states your parcel number, total acres of your parcel and total acres of impervious surface. The city has an online parcel map where you can look up how impervious surfaces are drawn out for every parcel in the city. You can look up your parcel by address here
  • Green Credit | This is a 25% credit, meant to refund a quarter of your drainage charge. This credit is given automatically, on the assumption that your gutter downspouts are disconnected from the sewerage system, emptying instead into your yard, a rain garden or water barrel.

Here’s a guide to your water bill from DWSD.

Why are my water bills so high?

Regardless of whether a utility is public or private, the costs are always passed on to the users in some fashion. While public utilities are not organized around making a profit, the costs of operation are still paid by users’ service bills and taxes. In Detroit, where the population size and tax base continues to wither in comparison to the fixed size of its infrastructure, hard decisions must be made in terms of what improvements can be afforded. While Detroit’s infrastructure may be aging and inefficient to handle the increased needs placed on it by climate change, the cost of maintaining it is scant compared to the costs of replacement.

Factors driving costs for Detroit residents

Although Detroit’s population has decreased to about a third of what it was at its height, the city still has 2,700 miles of water main and 3,000 miles of sewage collection piping to maintain. With fewer people left to support a system of aging infrastructure, that cost is spread across fewer Detroiters who incur rising water and sewerage bills. Additionally, with billions of dollars of legacy debt still outstanding, GLWA has a constant need to divert revenues to pay the cost of the interest while attempting to pay down the principal. 

Because Detroit has combined sewers, the costs of handling wastewater far exceed the costs of providing drinking water. Currently, the average Detroit resident pays three-quarters of their monthly bill to sewer and drainage services.

Source: DWSD

While residents in the City of Detroit only represent around 25% of GLWA’s total customers, they pay around 40% of GLWA’s sewerage budget. GLWA inherited a cost allocation system from DWSD that charges customers in large part based on its wastewater volume. Suburbs can avoid some of these costs by reducing the amount of stormwater they contribute to the system.

The result is that Detroiters end up paying a disproportionate cost for GLWAs sewage infrastructure. Some believe this cost allocation is inequitable because it ignores the region’s historical development, in which Detroit’s wastewater infrastructure enabled the growth of the suburbs. 

Factors driving costs for suburban residents

GLWA bases its wholesale charges to each of its member communities on a set of variables unique to that community. Each member community then sets their own water and sewerage rates for their citizens, in part based on the charges they pay to GLWA, as well as their own costs for local projects and maintenance.

GLWA determines a fixed monthly charge to cover basic operations and a commodity charge for the actual water. You can view the charges for your community on p. 17 of GLWA’s fiscal year 2022 budget. When determining these charges for its member communities, GLWA considers the amount of water usage by that community as well as the distance and elevation of that community from the water source, because it takes more energy to pump water uphill or long distances than it does to pump it to areas near the source. Finally, the local water storage capacity of each member community can affect the rates they pay to GLWA.

How can I lower my bill?

Water is one of the most basic requirements for life, so access and affordability are paramount. Everyone wishes their water bills could be more affordable, but there are very few practical ways to lower your water costs. 

Unfortunately, there aren’t many easy, safe, cheap, or effective ways to reduce your water bills. Here are a few:

REDUCE CONSUMPTION: Common methods for reducing consumption include installing low-flow toilets and faucet aerators, which themselves cost money. But because much of what water customers pay are fixed costs, simply reducing personal consumption will not make their water bill much more affordable. Fixed charges, such as the service and drainage charges, will never change month-to-month regardless of your usage. According to DWSD, roughly 51% of the average monthly Detroit bill was based on water usage, with the remaining 49% being fixed monthly costs. 

(FOR DETROITERS) REDUCE IMPERVIOUS SURFACE: Detroiters have several options for reducing their drainage charge, which is based on the impervious surface area on their property All customers gain a 25% credit on their drainage fees on the assumption that they have disconnected their downspouts. Detroiters can apply for a drainage charge adjustment if they believe the city has overestimated the amount of impervious surface on their property. Finally, they can work with adjacent property owners to install Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) — such as permeable pavement or a rain garden — that reduces the amount of stormwater runoff from their property. DWSD will then issue a “GSI or Green Credit” on their bill. However, many people experiencing difficulty paying a water bill lack the resources to enact such a change to their property.

FIX LEAKS: Typically when a consumer gets an unusually high bill, it is due to an unknown leak somewhere in their home. Toilets running constantly or intermittently are often the culprit, but it’s also possible to have a leak that is undetected. A single stream of water only 1/16 inch in diameter can waste around 72,000 gallons of water over a billing cycle. The best way to determine whether water is being wasted is to turn all the water off in your home, and then look at your meter. If the numbers are moving or the dial is spinning, water is still flowing through it and going somewhere. If that happens, and you can’t find the source of the leak to fix yourself, call a plumber. One thing to note: A common misperception when getting a large water bill is that perhaps the water meter in your home is overcounting the amount of water used. The way water meters are designed, they can only read water that has flowed through them. As they age and get less accurate, they will only under measure the water that flowed through them, which actually saves the consumer money on their bill.

Can I get help paying my bill when I can’t afford it?

Many people struggling to pay their bills are dealing with larger systemic issues than just their water bills. Poverty, lack of opportunity in the workforce, lack of education and access to affordable transportation are all intrinsically tied together. For that reason, utility affordability needs to be a part of any wraparound services already being offered to those in need.

And while there are assistance programs to help pay utility bills and manage or avoid shutoffs, they are often poorly designed or designed to fail. Any program whose main point of entry is a website fails from the very start. It assumes that a person experiencing difficulty paying their utility has no issues with access to the internet or technology, which is rarely the case. What people typically need most is an individual who can help them navigate the process of applying for assistance. This is another reason why assistance programs should be incorporated with wraparound services where people are already finding personal help and assistance. 

In the Metro Detroit area, WRAP (Water Residential Assistance Program) provides assistance up to $1,500 per household, with bill credits up to $25 per month and assistance with past due balances. WRAP was a condition of the agreement which created GLWA, and sets aside 0.5% of GLWA’s revenue to fund it. They offer a service line to call at (313) 386-9727, as well as a “contact the Wayne Metro Connect Center” link which takes you to their “get-help” page, which at the time of this writing simply states “PAGE NOT FOUND”. Eligibility is based on household incomes at or below 200% Federal Poverty level, and proof of income for 30 days prior to date of application and photo ID for all household members 18 years of age or older is required. 

Additional organizations offering support and assistance include:

When discussing water affordability, it’s important to understand costs of water services as a percentage of income. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has established an affordability threshold of 2.0-2.5% of household income. That cost of water, in a city like Detroit, where people of color have faced decades of redlining and disinvestment, can easily exceed 10% of household income. Energy utility bills often consume another 10-30% of income. In addition, most of the assistance programs, while lowering monthly costs and avoiding shutoffs, fail to address any arrears the customer owes the utility. Because of that failure, as soon as assistance ends, those customers are left still owing the arrears and facing another shutoff. 

A water affordability plan is one that bases costs of water services on a percent of household income. In 2005, a plan was proposed for DWSD by Roger Colton on behalf of the Michigan Poverty Law program/Michigan Legal Services. It addressed the issue of arrears and based costs on the “burden” of that bill, measured as a percentage of income. In Philadelphia, a similar plan known as the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP) was launched in 2017, and has been successful in reducing levels of new water debt in the city. Ninety-six percent of participants have not experienced a water shutoff, and eighty-eight percent felt it helped them with their budget. 

In Detroit, Mayor Duggan has discussed instituting a water affordability plan, but so far has remained focused on ending water shutoffs. His advisor on water issues, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, recently told Planet Detroit that a Philadelphia-style plan where rates are tied to income is “the gold standard plan that would solve a lot of these issues once and for all.”

Why don’t my water utilities work?

Why are streets flooding? Why did wastewater back up into people’s basements this last summer? Why do so many Detroiters still have lead service lines contaminating the water to their homes? Like everything else related to water, there are deep systemic issues at play that have led us to where we are now.

Lead water service lines were not banned by Congress until 1986. By that time, most of Detroit and its inner-ring suburbs were built out. This means that the burden of replacing lead pipes falls on older, lower-income communities already dealing with aging infrastructure, with the least resources to pay for maintenance and replacement. 

The nature of infrastructure is that it ages, and must be maintained throughout its life and ultimately replaced when its useful lifespan has ended. Investment in infrastructure is costly, and governments and utilities constantly weigh where they feel their limited budget is best spent. Often this means if something isn’t outright broken, it gets passed by for more immediate and pressing needs. If your car had a flat tire on the way to get an oil change, you’d postpone the oil change and deal with the tire first. This flat-tire-gets-the-air approach is a short-term way of maintaining infrastructure. And just like a car, infrastructure can reach the point where the cost to maintain it exceeds the cost of total replacement. Long-term solutions, including replacement and upgrades, involve planning, with an understanding of future needs. 

The focus of investments must also take place at all levels. If one part of the infrastructure is broken, it will affect the entire system. At the home level, sewage laterals must be clear and free of blockage, and freshwater service lines should be lead-free to provide safe water for those living in the home. Out on the street, the water mains running underneath must not leak or be subject to contamination, and the storm drains should remain clear so roads don’t flood during weather events.

Of course, if a neighborhood pumping station is only operating at 40% due to power issues, that will affect everything upstream of it regardless of how well the homes and wastewater lines are maintained. And ultimately, if the wastewater treatment centers and Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) facilities are inadequate, the entire system will back up into people’s basements, and overflows will spill untreated sewage into the Detroit and Rouge Rivers. For these reasons, maintenance and replacement decisions must look holistically at the entire system and the needs of its residents.

Unfortunately, the needs of certain residents over the years have been ignored, or given lesser priority due to a number of factors. Poor, Black and brown communities have for decades had their needs overlooked when investment decisions were being made. Some of that was surely racist in origin, while the rest was a result of economic conditions resulting from that original racism. White flight away from Detroit to the suburbs left fewer consumers for neighborhood grocers, department stores and businesses. 

With declining sales, businesses followed the migration to the suburbs, further reducing the tax base used by Detroit to maintain the infrastructure it built for all those people. Fewer amenities and steadily crumbling infrastructure offered even less incentive for people to move to these inner-city neighborhoods or invest in them. Banks further escalated this by redlining areas and drawing maps of where they would and would not offer loans. This domino effect played out over decades, but is a fundamental reason why many white, middle and upper-class citizens live with newer infrastructure and access to clean drinking water while poorer people of color who remained in Detroit are facing lead in their pipes and sewage in their basements. 

Holding anyone to account for the years of neglect and racial and economic disparity in services at this point would be difficult. What can be done, however, is hold those in power now accountable for changing how decisions get made, whose needs are given priority, and for addressing some of these systemic issues that have caused a section of the public to be neglected, underserved, and overcharged.

What can I do to make my water utility better?

HOLD UTILITY PROVIDERS ACCOUNTABLE: To hold utility providers accountable, it’s important to understand who the players are and how decisions get made. GLWA is led by a CEO and governed by a board of directors, and DWSD is led by a director and governed by a board of water commissioners. They approve or reject all infrastructure investments, rate changes, and all other matters concerning the utility’s operations. Understanding how these boards are composed and who gets to appoint the board members helps clarify who and where accountability can be focused. 

A great resource for keeping tabs on what these agencies are up to is Detroit Documenters. They train and pay local citizens to attend meetings and report on what happens. Their news is searchable by agency, allowing you to view all their published reporting on GLWA meetings, as well as their reporting on DWSD.

Utility providers participate heavily in politics and are keen to influence elections and government officials. As they are heavily regulated by the government, they have an enormous incentive to support candidates who will support their goals, and keep their existing leadership in power through appointments. Since none of the decision makers sitting on these boards are elected, the strongest way for a voter to check their power is by electing the person who appoints them. 

The mayor of Detroit and the executives of Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne counties wield a huge amount of power by making these appointments, and can steer a utility’s direction and focus by choosing who they appoint. Detroit’s mayor undoubtedly wields the most, and is the only individual with appointment powers for both utilities. Aside from appointing all of DWSD’s leadership and a third of GLWA’s, those appointed serve “at the pleasure of” the Detroit mayor. This means while they are technically given terms of appointment, the mayor may end those terms whenever he sees fit, or whenever a new mayor is elected. 

UNDERSTAND CLIMATE CHANGE: We saw earlier this year the devastating effects just one storm can have. Tens of thousands of homes were devastated by a historic rainfall, the second of its magnitude in the last seven years. As the effects of climate change increase and become more frequent, it’s important to understand they will only exacerbate the struggles people face in meeting basic needs. Climate scientists expect Michigan to experience more frequent high-intensity rainfalls in the years to come. This will continue to put a stress on an aging system that was not designed for such high-volume rain events. Water utilities will need to add climate change adaptation to their long, expensive list of infrastructure maintenance and replacement costs.

UNDERSTAND ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE: For those living in the Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood in Detroit, the connections between climate change and environmental justice are about to get very real. Climate change has caused water levels in Lake St. Clair to rise, raising the level of the Detroit River and frequently flooding low lying areas of the eastside neighborhood in recent years. While their wealthier neighbors next door in Grosse Pointe Park could afford to raise their seawall, the Detroit side of the seawall still needs to be raised almost two feet. 

Because of the constant flooding in Jefferson Chalmers, FEMA recently expanded the designated flood zone. This means anyone with a federally-backed mortgage in the newly expanded zone must now purchase an expensive flood insurance policy. The higher seawall in Grosse Pointe Park spared those residents from being included in the expanded zone, saving them money. It’s another example of the costs of climate change being levied on those least able to pay them. 

LEARN ABOUT ORGANIZATIONS THAT ADVOCATE FOR RESIDENTS AND HOW TO GET INVOLVED: Several organizations advocate on behalf of residents in metro Detroit and southeast Michigan. Volunteering with or joining these groups is one way to help. Among them are We The People of DetroitClean Water ActionHYDRATE Detroit, FLOW, and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, and each is in need of financial support and volunteers. 

LEARN TO ADVOCATE FOR AND PROTECT YOURSELF: There are numerous ways to advocate for your own clean water and affordable utilities. Familiarize yourself with your local water utility’s annual water quality report, which it is required to publish annually under state law. Read Detroit’s Water Quality Reports, published by DWSD, or search your municipal website if you live in the suburbs. These reports inform citizens about services provided, health concerns, affordability programs, lead service line replacements, stormwater management and more.

Determine whether you have a lead service line providing water to your home. DWSD estimates there are over 80,000 houses in Detroit with lead service lines. NPR created this handy online tool that walks you through the steps to determine this for yourself. All you need to conduct the test at home is a magnet and a coin.

If you discover you do have a lead service line, confirm its presence with DWSD by filling out this online form, or contact your municipal water utility if you live in the suburbs. This informs them so they can add your address to a database, and gives them a better understanding of what houses are in need of service line replacement, and which neighborhoods to address first. 

Detroiters can request their water be tested by filling out the Lead & Copper Sample Request. The process is simple, and they will drop off instructions and everything needed to your front door, returning the following day to pick up the samples. The results for your home’s water will then arrive by mail roughly a month or so later, with measurements of both copper and lead in your water. If your home is found to have over 10 parts per billion of lead, DWSD will provide you with a water filter to remove it. Suburban residents can contact their local municipal water utility, request testing through the State of Michigan by calling 517-335-8184, or can contact a private lab.

What is the future for my water utility?

GLWA and DWSD have constant projects underway to maintain infrastructure and prepare for the effects of climate change. GLWA organizes and prioritizes its scheduled investments in its Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The CIP is a five year plan, which GLWA updates annually to represent the ever-changing needs of the system. Viewing the Board-Approved 2021-2025 CIP provides a comprehensive representation of the investment needs identified by the utility. It’s hundreds of pages long, with dozens of projects both planned and underway. One of its costliest projects listed is CIP# 232002, Freud & Conner Creek Pump Station Improvements, to the tune of $222 million over more than six years.

Occasionally projects are required for reasons other than deteriorating infrastructure. As one example, a 2.5 mile section of 96-inch freshwater transmission line is being relocated, to remove it from running underneath a closed industrial landfill, a sportsman’s gun club, and other private properties to improve future access. Concerns were expressed at a Board of Directors meeting that cracks over time in the transmission line could allow contaminants from the landfill to leach into drinking water serving over one million people.

Aside from enormous capital investments, which often take years of planning and construction, GLWA and DWSD are undertaking less costly green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) projects. GSI includes bioretention of stormwater that can be planned economically and implemented quickly on a small, localized basis. The addition of shallow depressions, meant to temporarily hold excess stormwater while it slowly absorbs into the soil, can alleviate some flooding of surrounding houses and streets due to standing water on the ground. GSI projects may also reduce the total amount of stormwater introduced to the combined sewer system, reducing the likelihood of basement backups or a combined sewer overflow. While cost effective and relatively quick to construct, GSI projects must be numerous and widespread to achieve maximum effect.

The future of our water utilities has yet to be determined, and it remains to be seen how much money they will receive from recently passed infrastructure spending bills. Any influx of federal funds will be welcome. In contrast, the future in relation to climate change has been established. With existing environmental concerns, an aging infrastructure, and the increasing effects of climate change, a need for constant, expanded, and creative solutions is clear.

Top image via FreeVector.com