Water Infrastructure in Detroit

The process of regionalizing Detroit’s water that culminated since 2014 in formation of the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) as lessee/statutory authority over the infrastructure, began (during the Bing administration) with an intense organizational root cause analysis under GLWA Director Gary Brown, Judge Sean Cox and others.

There’s not been a systemic root cause analysis of GLWA, and its roots in mass water shut offs against low-income water customers.  The emergency manager’s announcement in March 2014 calling for 500 shut off notices per week for months of that previous long hot summer triggered the formal regionalization process.  The city of Detroit, state of Michigan and suburban Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties invoked the state water authorities statute, and formed GLWA.

GLWA saved the water systems money on bonds by obtaining favorable interest rates.  One of the important conditions of those bonds was the water shut offs.  This is precisely why public utilities – from the internet to the water systems’ infrastructure and beyond – need to be run democratically as public utilities, rather than outright privatized or – in metro Detroit – as publicly owned and managed nonprofit corporate entities, with their peculiar politically-connected expenses-and-revenues challenges (as well as assets – our water) defining their bottom line.

Getting our water policy right (an essential prelude to getting everything else right) will require us to establish actual democratic governance, respect for human rights (like the right to water and sanitation), public health, and adequate collective funding for collective responsibilities, in lieu of balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.  Ben Tarnoff, writing about the internet in the New York Times recently, said “To put people over profit, you need to create spaces where the people can rule.” Just so with our water.

The existing corporate model GLWA that successfully financed its own standup and the post-emergency management water and sewerage policies, challenges and opportunities for southeast Michigan since 2014, now faces a further set of challenges that will determine its sustainability, equity, and longer term success regarding broader metrics of water policy like affordability, resilience and increased equity, not least in terms of the catastrophic risks posed by climate change-fueled flooding and other disruptions of the sacred human relationship with water.

To meet these challenges the governing stakeholder authorities of GLWA, both formally elected and appointed authorities and those relied on for public, consumer and local feedback, should thoroughly analyze the root cause(s) of the GLWA model of lower interest rate-financed infrastructure’s reliance on systematic violations of the human right to water and sanitation of poor People in the form of mass water shut offs.

In this context, and an initial offering to public water justice conversations, let me call readers’ attention to this graphic.  What We the People of Detroit’s pathbreaking community-sponsored research depicts here in the form of “suburban pricing discrepancies”, outlines and fiscally underlies whiteness and other forms of class and identity as property.  Nominally representing the proportion of individuals’ water (and sewer) bill payments flowing to the local suburban community rather than the regional wholesale systems, it powerfully signifies the power of those communities to retain control and benefit from their investments in Detroit’s invaluable water.

We’ve been here before: Race and Violence  Please consider what I said there in terms of the structural racism and economic violence of the mass water shut offs:

“To say that the existing school district boundaries in southeastern Michigan in Milliken v Bradley (Detroit school busing case) were the real constitutional issue is to acknowledge the supreme constitutional, politico-legal power in those boundaries, which, as Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dissent memorably foresaw, would divide our great metropolitan areas into two cities, one white and prosperous, the other of color and oppressed.

It’s all in the power of those lines. All the gentrification and displacement; the corporate-subsidized economic development and underdevelopment of the giant working class communities of color in our cities; the bloodletting of the guns and the corruption of democracy; the post-civil rights Obama-ization of our national politics and emergency management of the black and brown local municipalities in the former Milliken v Bradley region; brushing aside the sacred localities where the issue is fiscally disciplining low income People of color by shutting off their water, instead of black and white children learning together.”

This is why affordable, income-indexed water rates is a revolutionary reform whose time has come.  It connects systemic defense of basic human rights with public health-based institutional governance reform and, not least, with the history of Detroit as a movement city that changes the world.  Like a how-to manual for survival in an increasingly fraught crisis.

Liberating our water and sewer infrastructure from the constraints of Wall Street’s profit motive won’t make these fundamental questions of public funding, justice and survival go away. It will, however, create the conditions in which the answers to these urgent existential questions can be found.  Perhaps then the submerged pipes and mains that carry our fresh and waste water across the region can make the system more fiscally sound without making it worse for our most vulnerable neighbors and kin.

In short, GLWA needs to operate like a public utility to the extent necessary to help us solve our water challenges.  Its long-term “success” will depend on progress along these lines.  That conversation has not really begun.  We should start it.