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Detroit: While 'water is a human right,' water service 'isn't free'

The free water well runs dry in Detroit, Michigan
The free water well runs dry in Detroit, Michigan
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

As The Detroit News reported July 7, U.S. Rep. John Conyers, (D- Mich.) – who is running for reelection – said “water is a human right.” But as Nancy Kaffer wrote for The Detroit Free Press Friday: "Water isn’t free. Nor should it be. It takes money to treat and deliver water to residential and commercial customers."

"The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, like most water utilities," Kaffer noted, "charges customers on a fee-for-service basis. The department carries billions in debt from the build-out and maintenance of the system, which still requires substantial capital spending, and the city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant was the subject of decades-long federal oversight. It’s far from clear that the department has the ability to comply long-term with the U.S. Clean Water Act, a situation largely driven by antiquated equipment and insufficient investment."

However, Kaffer believes that "disconnecting folks en masse from a first-world water and sewerage system is terrible public policy."

The Detroit News reported Friday that about two dozen protesters gathered to block the entrance of Homrich Wrecking Inc., a private contractor that has executed some of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s (DWSD) controversial water shut-offs in Detroit, Michigan.

On July 14, The Detroit Free Press reported that, while DWSD had executed 14,766 shut-offs -- a combined total of 7,556 in April and May and an additional 7,210 in June alone – the department announced “that it is intensifying efforts to collect unpaid debts from its delinquent commercial customers.”

On March 22, The Detroit Free Press reported that DWSD announced “it would target Detroit households with overdue balances of more than $150, or more than two months behind on bills.”

According to DWSD, delinquent customers – both residential and commercial -- owed the department about $118 million, an amount that did not include customers on a “payment plan or involved in a bankruptcy case.”

As The Detroit News reported further Friday, DWSD Deputy Director Darryl Latimer “was in bankruptcy court this week explaining the once-lax department’s new policy of shutting off water.”

While the average monthly residential bill is around $75, Latimer said the average delinquency on residential accounts is around $540.

“Since last year,” The Atlantic's Rose Hackman reported Thursday, DWSD “has been turning off water at the homes of customers behind on their bills. The shut-off campaign comes at a time of crisis and hastened recovery for Detroit, which became the largest American city to ever file for bankruptcy last summer. The value of the bonds associated with the water department’s debt comes to $5.7 billion, which constitutes almost one-third of the amount estimated to have pushed Detroit into bankruptcy.”

According to Latimer, “the campaign has been extremely effective.”

Since the shut-off campaign began, the department has seen a 45 percent to 50 percent increase in revenue compared to previous years.

With 60 percent of the department’s water customers showing up to pay their past-due bills within 24 hours of having their water service shut off, and most of the rest of their delinquent customers coming in to pay their overdue bills within a couple of days, Hackman wrote that Latimer “appears to take this as proof that customers can afford to pay, but are just being irresponsible citizens, taking advantage of the system as much as they can.”

Despite the department’s offer to accept an initial 30 percent payment of their overdue balance to maintain water service, some water department customers -- who have had their water shut off and insist that they can’t afford to pay their water bills -- are choosing to pay a local handyman $30 to turn their water back on illegally.

"Forty percent of Detroiters are at or below poverty line, so based on the fact that, that does not mean they should be denied access," quoted Monica Lewis-Patrick, an organizer of Friday’s protest, saying. "I think the narrative gets to be sometimes that we are advocating for free water, but we're not.”

Lewis-Patrick – a former Legislative Policy Analyst for Detroit City Council and former precinct delegate who ran an unsuccessful effort in 2013 to become a Detroit City Council member -- did not, however, explain what they are “advocating.”

"Who's on their side? Corporations,” The Detroit News quoted 58-year old Baxter Jones chanting at Friday’s protest in Detroit. “Who's on our side? United Nations."

In response to the water department’s shut-off program, Hackman noted for The Atlantic that the United Nations issued a statement out of Geneva last month, saying: “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.

The European Citizens Initiative declared in 2012 that “water and sanitation is a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodity.”

In an undated "Forward" for "The River Network, former President Jimmy Carter also said, “clean water is a basic human right."

Conversely, Sharmila Murthy -- an associate professor of law at Suffolk University and an associate fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government -- said “the human right to water” does not infer that it should be provided for free.

“The key element here,” Murthy said, “is affordability.”

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “we generally pay much less for our drinking water than we do for most other goods and services, such as cable television, telephone service, and electricity. On average, tap water costs are slightly more than $2 per 1,000 gallons, although the costs tend to be lower for large water systems, and higher for small systems. Treatment accounts for about 15 percent of that cost. Other costs are for equipment (such as the treatment plants and distribution systems), and labor for operation and maintenance of the system.”

However, The Detroit Free Press reported June 17 that -- amid the DWSD shut-off efforts, the Detroit City Council “approved new water and sewerage rates that are expected to increase Detroiters’ water bills by more than $5 per month.”

While the average Detroit resident use to pay $64.99 per month for water and sewer charges, the 8.7 percent rate increase – passed by the City Council by a vote of 6-2 -- raised the average monthly bill for Detroit’s residents to $70.67 as of July 1, which is about $35 higher than the national average.