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The struggle for the right to water in Detroit continues

In her book Blue Future: Protecting Water for People and the Planet Forever, Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow writes, “[The People’s Water Board is] rallying to maintain ownership and establish public control of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department… They are working to ensure that Detroit’s water remains in the public trust, free of privatization.”


Our friends with the People’s Water Board face a continuing fight on this front.


The Detroit Free Press reports, “Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr said his team is exploring options – including privatizing the city’s water department – amid signs of suburban reluctance to sign on to a deal that would give more control over the sprawling system to Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties…. [Orr says he prefers to] raise much-needed money through leasing the system to a regional authority that would run the water and sewer system.” The leasing option is also controversial. In February 2011, the Detroit Free Press reported, “Many Detroiters are enraged over a proposed bill by state Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, to give the suburbs control of the troubled Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Since the city owns the property, it should continue managing it, Detroit leaders have said.”


Yesterday’s news report notes, “Orr said the chance of an outright sale of the water department is remote; that would, for one, cost the department its tax-exempt status and make it ineligible for some forms of federal funding not available to private companies. But Orr said he has to take a closer look at options, including privatization or leasing the system to contractors, noting that the private American Water Works Company, based in New Jersey, operates water and sewer systems in 16 states.”


The article explains, “[By leasing the water and sewer system to a regional authority that would run it,] Detroit [would get] $47 million a year for 40 years to invest in public services such as police and firefighters…. [But] Oakland County officials said Wednesday they were frustrated that after eight months of urgent inquiries Detroit’s negotiators still won’t hand over the information that suburban officials need to be sure county residents won’t be gouged on their next 40 years of water and sewer rates…. Orr said his team is working on providing financial details that suburban leaders have requested, and said he understands their concerns about a history of rate increases, delinquent water bills and corruption in contracts that he said the city has now moved beyond.”


It remains to be seen, but it appears the controversial leasing option to Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties is unlikely. “[Macomb county executive Mark Hackel] said Wednesday he remains unconvinced the city can create a deal he would support that raises fees solely for maintenance and improvements of the water system and not to help Detroit fund city services or pay off creditors and pensions. He also said he supports the notion of the city more seriously looking into privatization options.”


The issue of the human right to water in Detroit is very real and serious. It has been noted that more than 42,000 residences lost their connection to the city’s water system in 2005.


In her book, Barlow states, “Using the obligation to respect [in the United Nations recognition of the right to water and sanitation], we need to assert that no government has the right to remove existing services… as authorities in Detroit did to tens of thousands of residents, cutting off their water supply when rising water rates made it hard for them to pay their bills.” She also notes, “U.S.-based Food and Water Watch published a report that identified rural Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and African Americans as especially vulnerable segments of the U.S. population that lives without secure access to clean drinking water and functional sanitation systems…. Of the tens of thousands of water cut-offs in Detroit, the vast majority are to people of colour.”


Further reading