During and After COVID-19 Crisis: Detroiters Continue Struggle Against Water Shutoffs

Eric T. Campbell

Photo credit: Valerie Jean

Like most people in the world right now, the Riverwise family is grappling with the new paradigm that the covid-19 pandemic has brought to us, so suddenly; the new routines, the new activism, the new contradictions, the new realities— how do we continue with our work of visioning a new world now that this fog of suffering and misery has rolled in, forcing us to reconcile the needless deaths of thousands? How do we keep focused on the opportunities for convergence, when they are clouded by tears? How do we provide support during a medical crisis which continues to baffle health professionals? For the sake of our sanity, it’s become a time of restoration and return— in the face of systemic failures we are returning to the basic things that we need to survive; returning to community-based mutual aid and returning to the comfort of our loved ones. In the meantime corporations and the state are taking every opportunity to advance control and the privatization of public life. 

            For many Detroiters, the coronavirus has only intensified economic emergencies that were already a daily nightmare. Access to clean water, for example, is an ongoing catastrophe for affected Detroit households. The medical community at large is still grappling to understand the virus and why it has manifested the way it has. The fact remains, however, that the effects are disproportionately greater in black communities than anywhere else. To be denied water during a viral pandemic, with news sources indicating constantly that hand-washing is the best defense against contagion, amounts to the continued humiliation and subjugation of communities of color.

          After receiving pressure from grassroots activists, Michigan finally ordered the state-wide restoration of water service on March 10, 2020, through an executive order issued by Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The order states clearly that, “To mitigate the spread of COVID-19, protect the public health, and avoid needless deaths, it is crucial that all Michiganders remain in their homes or residences to the greatest extent possible and wash their hands thoroughly and regularly. Now, more than ever, the provision of clean water to residences is essential to human health and hygiene, and to the public health and safety of this state…….Due to the vital need to ensure that Michigan residents have access to clean water at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is reasonable and necessary to require the restoration of clean water to residences across the State of Michigan throughout this state of emergency.” (italics added)

       This same wording could easily apply to the water situation in Detroit households regardless of the public health climate— people need clean water all the time to remain healthy,  and to maintain proper sanitation and quality of life. Nowhere in the Governor’s order, or in statements by Mayor Duggan, is there mention of the United Nations declaration that, in any health situation, ‘water is a human right’.

       Despite implications that the state’s relief order was initiated by Mayor Duggan, questions remain about the city’s commitment to actually restoring water, based on water warriors’ findings that restoration actions have occurred sluggishly or, in some cases, not at all. The city’s ‘COVID-19 Water Restart Plan’ put the onus on citizens to call the city to get their water restored by April 9. Calling the water department, only to be put on hold for hours, was just the first barrier to getting through city bureaucracy and toward maintaining service.  

           The city’s documentation of the process has caused further confusion. The most recent update on the water restoration plan reveals large discrepancies between the number of callers to the water department (25,000), and, out of those, the number of households that have had water restored (1,400). For reasons that remain unclear, the remaining 23,600 callers “did not qualify” for the restart plan. Some of those disqualified may have already been involved in payment plans, and were looking for additional assistance, according to grassroots activists from organizations such as We the People of Detroit. But that doesn’t negate the fact that water restoration has been a fallacy for thousands of water-insecure Detroiters. In fact, additional water shutoffs have occurred during the state-wide emergency, according to some.

The following is testimony of a local water warrior who intervened during a city water shutoff proceeding at the home of her elderly next door neighbor on April 23, 2020:

“By the time I got there, my neighbor stood crying in her front yard pleading with a DWSD  (Detroit Water and Sewage Department) employee, who was wearing a facemask and rubber gloves, to not shut her water off. The young woman was standing in the front yard holding the water key to shut my neighbor off. She had already dug a hole for access and spray painted the water access point with what water activists call “the blue line of shame.”  

I told the young DWSD employee that there was a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs and DWSD is not allowed to shut off water during a pandemic.  She looked at me and my still-crying neighbor and said, “you can’t tell me what I can and can’t do. I am doing my job.” 

The thing is, my neighbor’s water bill is all caught up. The DWSD worker stated that the meter wasn’t working and she had to shut it off until someone could get in the house and fix it. Why would she need to shut off the water first? I asked her to get on the phone with her boss and manage it. I let her know I was NOT going to let her shut off the water. 

After a very long stressful 10 minutes on the phone with whoever, she agreed to leave the water on and went in the house to look at the meter in question.  The problem turned out to be a loose wire— a loose wire causing so much stress, something we all got enough of these days.”

The actions described above are indications that the city is still using water shutoffs as leverage and as a form of intimidation, at the very least. Others have testified that folks in Brightmoor, for example, are still being shut off if they are behind on payments. Reverend Roslyn Bouier of the Brightmoor Connections food pantry reports that clients have arrived to pick up supplies of water while rushing to beat the water department back home.

“You took a public resource and you privatized it,” Bouier told Riverwise. “So now, we’ve got people whose water is off, and it’s still being turned off as we speak. Evidently, a whole new wave of shutoffs just rolled out because yesterday, I had about five people come to me saying, they’re about to turn my water off. Can I get some water so I can have it in the house? They were in tears. They’re turning water off.”  (see upcoming blog for full interview with Reverend Roslyn Bouier)

But activists in Detroit and across the state continue the fight for systemic change. People are organizing to encourage the Governor to continue the moratorium on shutoffs and to use this opportunity to develop a state-wide water affordability program. Recent response from local governments is disheartening— Mayor Duggan has indicated that shutoffs will resume when the coronavirus passes and Governor Whitmer, despite the executive order, has continued to say that access to water and public health are not linked.

Such short-sighted thinking is what contributed to the conditions that made Detroiters susceptible to this new disease, and keeps us more susceptible to disease in general. It is time to recognize the critical role we play in protecting each other because, as the pandemic continues to remind us, we are all in this together.

Please visit the resources page at riverwisedetroit.org for a growing list of organizations and mutual aid occurring in and around the city of Detroit.