Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management (D-REM) Statement on the proposed Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA)

The future of Great Lakes water was decided behind closed doors. The bankruptcy court ordered mediation among local political leaders. They developed a new regional Great Lakes Water Authority.  This new organization, delivering water and sewer service to more than 4 million people, does not protect the human right to water, nor does it embody what it means to hold the Great Lakes, as a public trust.

Detroit’s water and human rights crisis of broken pipes in the winter, mass shut offs in the spring and summer, contamination of Lake Erie water downstream in July, and catastrophic flooding in August, illustrates the high stakes involved.

These crises are the result of years of federal oversight with no commitment to human rights, ecological principles or justice. As recently as 2011 Judge Sean Cox ordered a partial regionalization. It is clearly not working well.

This recent history raises difficult questions: why should we believe that the current GLWA regionalization proposal pushed by the same leaders, as a result of a similar secret backroom process, will now succeed where they have so obviously failed so far?  Why would this new deal under the same guidance fix deep-seated and longstanding institutionalized problems?  The answer is that without genuine, broad policy changes in favor of human rights and social justice, reinforced by direct democratic control of this commons resource, it will not.

The challenges facing our region can only be confronted and resolved by ensuring economic and social justice through equitable public funding for the regional water and sewer system and its vital services, as well as sound environmental management.  This is in keeping with the public trust doctrine and the human right to water.  These core public interest values and policy objectives must guide the process and the GLWA going forward.

The Mayor has repeatedly evaded a commitment to human rights and to the doctrine of public trust. He is more concerned with creating an illusion of control. He says we have two systems – one regional in the suburbs and one local in the city. The truth is that we have one regional system of which the local infrastructure is an integral part.  This misrepresentation does not inspire confidence; the “two systems” are more accurately described as 1) fresh water; and 2) waste water.

For years Detroiters have borne a larger share of the burden for a regional system. Unless this fundamental, underlying dynamic changes dramatically, the GLWA mediated by Judge Cox will fail like, the 2011 partial regionalization ordered by the same Judge did before it.

The Mayor has told the public that our water and sewer system is crumbling for one reason: We haven’t been spending the money to fix it.  He hasn’t explained why.

There are several reasons, including withdrawal of necessary financial support for Detroit by regional, state and federal officials, as well as a highly politicized and racist obsession with preventing suburban ratepayers from having to pay their fair share for the maintenance of the whole system.  As Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson told the New Yorker in unguarded remarks regarding the regional water system, “They’re not gonna talk me into being the good guy.  ‘Pick up your share?’ Ha, ha.” Rather than address such deep seated attitudes, the new GLWA will borrow more money, while promising to hold rate increases to no more than 4% annually.  This has long been widely believed to be inadequate funding for the system’s critical needs.

If these underlying, unjust priorities don’t change, the new GLWA will not be able to end the recent nightmare of mass water shut offs.  There are many critical, unanswered questions about the roles of Veolia, EMA and a possible Public/Private Partnership (P3), in the face of potential threatened privatization.  In this connection, we are concerned that the Mayor’s stated objection to privatization is substantially undercut by his admission that certain “pieces” of the system may be privatized.  What is he really saying, and even more important, doing?  The lack of transparency, or even coherence, in the publicly stated vision regarding such important issues is deeply disturbing.

The Mayor has further stated that there have been no recent combined sewage overflows or water pollution permit violations.  In fact, there have been both – including over 19 billion gallons of partially treated sewage and over 2 billion gallons of raw sewage.  Success of the GLWA proposal requires more than happy talk.  It requires facing facts.  In the future, we hope that local, regional, state and other officials responsible for the regional system and its services will do this. Unfortunately they have not to date.

On June 25, three UN experts on the human rights to drinking water and sanitation, on adequate housing and on extreme poverty expressed concerns regarding water shut-offs in Detroit.  They stated “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.”  DWSD’s recent brutal policy of shutting off residents’ access to drinking water rightly drew the attention and the ire of the world to Detroit’s unjust emergency management regime and its abuse of Detroiters, in disregard of law.

The GLWA water affordability program initially funded by $4.5 million, with .5% of budgeted revenue annually dedicated to its maintenance, is a welcome change.  Make no mistake. This is only because of the activism of Detroiters who demanded it.  Going forward we will be watching very closely to ensure that these promises are kept.

Similarly, the regional system’s current sewage costs are subject to an inequitable cost split: 83% to the city, but only 17% of the costs paid by the suburbs.  This requires extremely important and expensive, environmental regulation-mandated Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) improvements.  Failure to redress this unfair cost burden under the GLWA would perpetuate an injustice that impairs the regional sewer system’s ability to protect the Great Lakes, and may threaten the fiscal stability of the GLWA.

Mass water service shutoff policies implemented by DWSD in Detroit recently created emotional and physical hardship for families—including the children, elders and people with disabilities— forced out of their homes to live with neighbors and family.  The human and social cost of this aggressive, uncivil process — in the face of overwhelming unemployment and abject poverty — created the potential for disease and medical injury that still exists.  It puts everyone — the whole community — at risk.

The GLWA has its work cut out for it in dealing with these risks.  Transparency, accountability and dedication to just and equitable governance and provision of services will be absolutely required to meet these challenges.  Their blatant absence in the emergency managed bankruptcy and restructuring process that produced the GLWA is extremely disturbing.

The leadership of DWSD— the Governor, the Emergency Manager and their law firm— recently failed to display sound stewardship.  Mass residential water shutoffs to thousands of Detroiters reinforced a narrow commercial and corporate agenda, and violated the human right to water and sanitation.  DWSD attempted to justify this blatant violation by describing it as a commercial success.  That insensitive and blind position was discredited around the world, in the bankruptcy court and in our local community.

The Mayor’s statements that GLWA will remedy those violations with a funded water affordability program must be backed up by action, or the whole restructuring and emergence from municipal bankruptcy will be threatened.  Indeed, the recent public claims that the GLWA was driven by water main breaks, affordability concerns and the opportunity to create jobs repairing the infrastructure, when it is crystal clear that in reality it was forced by the court in order to salvage the bankruptcy restructuring, insults our intelligence.  We call for honesty as well as competent public service and protection of the commons going forward.

We demand that GLWA address the water crisis in Detroit through:

  1. Recognition of the human right to water and the public trust in the water of Detroit.
  2. Immediate cessation of the shutoffs and restoration of household water connections;
  3. Implementation of the city’s water affordability plan as originally proposed in 2005, beyond the limited version passed in modified form by City Council and implemented by DWSD in 2006;
  4. Providing the public with full, timely and adequate information and accountable oversight regarding the conversations taking place about the future of DWSD/GLWA; and

Authorities with responsibility for GLWA’s future, and for our communities’ public health, human rights, and public trust rights must step up to their responsibilities.  All people in metro Detroit are entitled to equitable access to affordable water, sanitation and sewer services.

Download a pdf version of this statement here