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Michigan’s water crisis is coming to city near you, report says

DETROIT –  Clergy members are warning that problems vexing Detroit’s water system –  aging pipes, service interruptions, rising bills and widespread shutoffs –  are coming soon to a Michigan town near you.

Gathering as downtown Detroit was under a boil water advisory because of a main break, religious leaders and academics on Monday released a 100-page report that calls for reinvestment and reform to Detroit’s system.

“The water crisis is a rolling crisis that will affect the entire country and indeed the entire world,” said John Powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California Berkeley that authored the report.

“If we don’t fix infrastructure, it won’t just be Flint, Detroit or Pontiac. It will be the entire country,” he said at an event unveiling the report at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Detroit.

Read the report

The report was released in conjunction with a faith-based group, Detroit Metropolitan Organizing Strategy Enabling Strength (known as MOSES) and funded by the Kresge Institute.

The report makes the case that century-old infrastructure and delayed maintenance are first affecting impoverished, minority communities such as Detroit and Flint and leading to what activists call “water instability” –  difficulty paying bills because of rising rates.

“Everything we recommend is going to cost money, but the problem is not going to go away,” said Joseph Recchie, a report author and founder of Praxis Partners, a Columbus, Ohio-based company.

It’s a similar warning that Michigan officials have sounded for years, as a task force appointed by former Gov. Rick Snyder warned the state needs another $4 billion per year to maintain roads and other infrastructure.

Among other things, the MOSES group is urging Detroit to renegotiate the 40-year lease of its water and sewer system to the Great Lakes Water Authority, which serves dozens of suburbs and 4 million residents.

As part of the city’s bankruptcy, Detroit agreed to the 2014 deal in exchange for $50 million per year, but the report claims the system was never properly assessed and the city deserves far more money.

Michelle Zdrodowski, chief public affairs officer of the authority, released a statement criticizing that conclusion, saying the deal was "extremely complex" and allowed Detroit to avoid selling the system and transfer "several billion dollars of debt obligations" to the authority. The report's authors did not attempt to contact the authority to "get an understanding of its formation or the parameters of its operations," Zdrodowski said. 

The report also recommends:
  • A moratorium on water shutoffs that have disconnected more than 100,000 residential accounts in Detroit since 2014 until payment systems are overhauled.
  • A switch to an income-based billing system that would cap rates at no more than 2-3 percent of residents’ income.

Detroit officials have decried both proposals as wildly unrealistic, saying that income-based billing would raise rates for most customers and is forbidden by state law.

The shutoffs have boosted collections rates to 91 percent this year from 77 percent in 2016, bringing in $56 million more per year for the city, according to city records.

Detroit officials issued a statement pointing to assistance programs that have helped 10,000 households since 2016, and another 2,500 families with repairs that cut bills.

“(Detroit) agrees more can be done to support water affordability and continually seeks additional funding for customer assistance programs through donations and grants,”  the city’s water director, Gary Brown, said in a written statement.

One thing activists and water officials agree on: There is a water crisis.

And it’s here now.

Here’s what you need to know:

What’s the issue?

Water affordability is fast becoming a huge issue.

Since 2010, average rates nationwide have climbed to $70 per month from $44 for a family using 100 gallons of water per day, according to surveys from Circle of Blue, a Traverse City-based website that covers water issues.

Rates are soaring because water and sewer systems are old –  100 years or so on average –  and usage is declining because of conservation efforts and efficiencies.

Costs increasingly are being born by local systems: Federal grants have dropped 77 percent in real dollars since their peak in 1977, according to Food and Water Watch, a Washington D.C. nonprofit.

As a result, 12 percent of households nationwide now pay more than 4.5 percent of their monthly income on water and sewer bills –  a rate the Environmental Protection Agency deems unaffordable, according to a 2017 study from Michigan State University.

In five years, more than 1 in 3 households won’t be able to afford water if trends continue, the study concluded.

A separate study from the University of Michigan last year found that Metro Detroit residents paid 10 percent of their incomes on water each month.

“The water issue does not stop at 8 Mile Road,” the Rev. Charles S. G. Boayue, superintendent of the Detroit Renaissance District of The United Methodist Church, said Monday.

Controversial collections

Shutoffs spread through city

Detroit shut water to more than 11,000 homes in 2018, a dramatic decrease from more than 33,000 in 2014. Here’s a look at where shutoffs occurred.

Scrambling for money, water systems are turning to aggressive collections.

Detroit ramped up water shutoffs in 2014, and has since disconnected 112,000 customers who were 60 days or $150 past due, according to city records obtained by Bridge Magazine.

The city didn’t release records on service restoration until this year, and they showed about 1 in 10 customers remained without water months after shutoffs.

Nationwide, an estimated 15 million people in 2016 experienced a water shutoff in 2016, according to a report last year by Food and Water Watch, a Washington D.C. nonprofit.

That year, Detroit ranked ninth nationwide in shutoffs with about 26,000, trailing predominantly southern cities such as Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Other large Michigan systems, including Lansing and Grand Rapids, have not made shutoff data public.

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