Detroit’s poor struggle to keep the water on amidst coronavirus crisis


A very large segment of Detroit is simply unable to pay market rates for water service.

For more than 15 years, Detroit’s poor and their advocates have struggled to end the shutoffs and to urge the adoption of a water affordability plan that will index actual household income to fees for water service on a sliding scale.

Those efforts intensified in 2014, when the City drastically increased shut-offs as part of the municipal bankruptcy process. In the years since then, more than 140,000 homes lost water service.

When the coronavirus arrived, many of these households were simply unable to follow the oft-repeated directions to engage in regular hand washing.

Nevertheless, public officials feigned ignorance and persisted in shutting off water service, leaving thousands of people to get their water by filling buckets from relatives’ taps, seeking bottled water from support organizations, and collecting rainwater and melted snow in trash cans and barrels.

The agitation against this madness has been constant, with grassroots activists using every conceivable tactic. In addition, I was part of a team of lawyers that litigated a class action lawsuit challenging the shutoffs all the way to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The court ruled it could not tell a city in bankruptcy how to manage its fiscal affairs, and that even if it could, they didn’t believe that people have a fundamental right to water.

Last summer, in frustration and desperation, members of this legal team filed a petition with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that proposed the declaration of a public health emergency in Detroit and a moratorium on water shutoffs.

 In addition to references to scientific studies that demonstrated a correlation between the lack of water and the spread of disease, the petition also emphasized that water is a necessity of life, and without water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and bathing, people are certain to become ill and eventually die, regardless of whether they become infected by bacteria or a virus. The petition was denied on grounds that it showed no “causal association between water shutoffs and water-borne disease.”

We made a formal request to Governor Gretchen Whitmer that she overrule the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. On February 21, the governor’s lawyer responded saying that there was “insufficient data to support the use of emergency powers in this instance.”

 Yet, on March 9, in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak and after claiming that there was no connection between disease and water shutoffs, the governor and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced water shutoffs would end, and interrupted service would be restored.

It was too little too late, and we shudder at the thought that, but for activists’ agitation about the water issue in the days leading up to the pandemic, the general disregard for the plight of Black Detroit might have meant water shutoffs would have been ignored until much later, and with even more tragic consequences.

Mark P. Fancher is an attorney and longtime writer for Black Agenda Report.