Detroit Water Works: How a Bankrupt City Is Putting the Squeeze on Its Tapped-Out Residents


A total of $150 or two months of past-due water bills is all it takes for the already bankrupt city of Detroit to shut off someone's water. With work scarce and money even harder to find, some 150,000 residents have been threatened with shutoffs by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, and local activists told The Guardian that the water shutoffs could affect up to 300,000 of the city's poor African-American community.


According to the Detroit Free Press, the city announced in March that it was going to start cracking down on residents with unpaid bills totaling approximately $118 million. If payment arrangements were not made, residents' water would be shut off. The Free Press notes that the city's water department planned to shut off about 3,000 customers per week.  

"Detroit's water crisis did not happen in a vacuum," Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) said in a statement viewed by the Free Press. "Over the past decade, Detroiters have seen their water rates increase by 119 percent. Over this same period, forces beyond city residents' control—including a global financial crisis that left one in five local residences in foreclosure and sent local unemployment rates skyrocketing—severely undercut Detroiters' ability to pay."

In the coming days, Conyers plans to introduce legislation that would eliminate massive shutoffs, a process he considers inhumane and "economically shortsighted," the Free Press reports.

On Thursday Change Agent Consortium, a coalition group in Detroit, plans to protest in front of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Board Building.

In the past weeks the water war became so drastic that local groups appealed to the United Nations for support in hopes that service would be restored, the Associated Press reports.  

"There are people who can't cook, can't clean; people coming off surgery who can't wash. This is an affront to human dignity," community leader Charity Hicks told The Guardian.

The news site notes that households with children and no running water run the risk of having their children taken from the homes by welfare authorities.


The DWSD says that residents of Detroit are responding to bogus information. According to DWSD Director Sue McCormick, who spoke with My Fox Detroit, the water department is working closely with its delinquent customers to prevent water shutoffs and notes that some 17,000 customers are enrolled in payment programs tailored to their income.

"Our goal is to have as few shutoffs as possible," she told the news station.

According to AP, three U.N. experts said that the massive shutoffs "could constitute a violation of the human right to water."


"Disconnections due to nonpayment are only permissible if it can be shown that the resident is able to pay but is not paying," Catarina de Albuquerque, an expert on the human right to water and sanitation, told AP in a statement issued from the U.N. in Geneva. "In other words, when there is genuine inability to pay, human rights simply forbids disconnections."

AP notes that beyond shaming the city for its lack of empathy for those who can't afford to pay their water bills, there may not be much that the U.N. can legally do.


Blue Planet Project, Food & Water Watch, Detroit People's Water Board and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization—the groups that wrote the U.N.—have concerns that clearing the city water department's massive debt through bully collection tactics could be a ploy for privatization of the department.

According to AP, Detroit's water department, responsible for close to "$6 billion of the city's $18 billion in debt, is one of the major issues in the bankruptcy."


Unlike Detroit's high-end golf club, the Red Wing's hockey arena and the Ford football stadium—all income-generating businesses that contributed to the city's debt—the water department's debt and existence depend on bill-paying customers.

The issue is "something a little bit bigger than some people who can't pay their water bills," Kate Fried, a spokeswoman for Food & Water Watch, told AP. "Shutoffs … are indicative of a broader, systemwide problem. It's quite possible the emergency manager is kind of clearing the books in order to make the water system more attractive to potential private investors."


Fried also told AP that private companies tend to increase rates and are "unreliable service providers and beholden to shareholders rather than customers."

Bill Nowling, a spokesman for the city's emergency manager, told AP that selling the water department "is not an option under consideration."