Several environmental, legal and advocacy groups, including the ACLU of Michigan and Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, have petitioned the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to intervene in water shutoffs in Detroit, calling them a public health emergency.
ACLU attorney Mark Fancher says more than 112,000 Detroit households had their water shut off at some point between 2014 and 2018.
He says it's a "quiet crisis," unlike what happened in Flint, where federal, state, and local inaction exposed city residents to high lead levels in the water.
But he says the harms people in Detroit are experiencing from shutoffs are nonetheless very serious. He says the MDHHS should conduct an investigation.
"When there is no water in the house, then mothers are not able to prepare infant formula to feed their babies," says Fancher. "People have put out containers in order to collect rainwater and illness frequently results from people who drink that."
Fancher says Detroit's water rates are simply unaffordable for many low-income Detroiters, and the city should set rates based upon ability to pay.
A statement from Detroit Water and Sewerage reads, in part:
We provide a path for every customer who struggles in paying their bill to avoid a service interruption. Today, more than 50 percent of the households who receive a notice of a scheduled service interruption due to nonpayment either pay their bill, enroll in a payment arrangement or pre-qualify for the Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP), and DWSD cancels the service interruption.
In 2018, there were 17,366 residential and 252 non-residential water service interruptions for non-payment. Based upon our records, water was restored to all properties except for approximately 250 accounts.
While more work needs to be done to address affordability, we are compassionately managing our legal requirement to charge for the cost of service, to keep water rates affordable and to provide robust assistance programs. We encourage those in the community who know someone without water to contact DWSD so we can work with our partners to restore service.
A statement from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services says the agency is reviewing the petition, and that "ensuring all Michiganders have access to basic needs, including water, is a priority."
07/24/19: This story was corrected to add Great Lakes Environmental Law Center as one of the groups sending the petition.