The Water Justice Journey, a 70-mile, eight-day walk from Detroit to Flint, Mich., began July 3 with a gathering on the banks of the Detroit River, the main water supply to millions throughout southeast Michigan. The trek’s first day ended just north of Detroit in busy downtown Ferndale, where the Detroit Light Brigade shined the message: “Clean, Affordable Water Now!” The People’s Water Board organized the walk to force attention on the water crisis in southeast Michigan.
Tens of thousands of Detroit households, along with all 10,000-plus residents of Highland Park, face having their water service shut off. Without running water in their homes, parents are losing custody of their children to the state. Another crisis exists in Flint, where the water is undrinkable and unfit for washing and bathing.
This emergency situation was 100 percent preventable. The culprits are the banks, the corporations and the capitalist state. As Jerry Goldberg, representing the Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions and Utility Shutoffs, explained at the sendoff rally, “The termination fees on interest rate swaps represent $537 million of the $1.1 billion borrowed for infrastructure repair and maintenance. Without this profit gouging by the richest banks, DWSD [Detroit Water and Sewerage Department] would be in sound financial condition.”
Last summer Detroit’s water shutoffs drew worldwide attention. Two rapporteurs from the United Nations came here and issued a report blasting DWSD and city officials for depriving Detroiters of the human right to water. Mayor Mike Duggan, rather than taking measures to block the shutoffs and restore service, dismissed the rapporteurs as misinformed.
To keep their water on, residents signed payment plans, but the terms set by DWSD made it impossible for most to keep up. Now all but a handful of those on payment plans could lose service, as shutoffs have started for anyone more than $150 or two months behind.
Crisis expands beyond Detroit
With water quality among the best in the U.S., DWSD provides water to most of surrounding Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties and even communities as far away as Flint. Part of the racist looting of Detroit’s assets during the municipal bankruptcy was the plan to sell DWSD to the regional Great Lakes Water Authority, giving greater control outside Detroit to suburbs in Oakland and Macomb counties and in Wayne County.
The agreement to establish the regional authority has a provision to raise rates by over 10 percent in the suburbs and other cities. There is resistance to this plan, including a referendum petition to put the sale of DWSD on the ballot. A rate increase was rejected by the Detroit City Council on June 30.
Contained within Detroit city limits is the city of Highland Park. Like Detroit, Highland Park is overwhelmingly African American; the poverty rate hovers around 40 percent. That city had its own water pumping station until 2012, when the mayor shut it down for temporary repairs. But then he had the city connected to DWSD permanently, so Highland Park residents had to pay Detroit for water.
Now residents and small businesses, who were not billed for two years, are being hit with bills in the thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars. DWSD is threatening to cut off service to all of Highland Park, because the city allegedly owes Detroit millions of dollars. Highland Park City Council voted to raise water rates by 138 percent in June!
Flint, 70 miles north of Detroit, historically got its water from Detroit. Recently Flint began sourcing its water from the highly polluted Flint River. This has caused skin rashes, hair loss, autoimmune disorders and lead poisoning in children, along with unpayable rates.
Activists from Flint, Highland Park and Detroit are united and determined to go the distance, saying, “Water is a human right.”