Detroit water wars emphasize passion over resources

July 14, 2011

By Natalie Moore

Download Story
(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
A detroit water treatment facility
(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
Gwendolyn Gaines, a Detroiter who thinks the water department should have more transparency.

In the Great Lakes region, it’s easy to take abundant, fresh water for granted.

But in the Detroit metropolitan area, near Lake Huron, water has been at the heart of a decades-long battle pitting city against suburbs.  

ambi: water rushing; you can smell it

That’s the smell of water.

I’m standing above 20 feet of settling liquid inside an enclosed treatment plant -- 1 million gallons in a space longer than an airplane. As I try not to get my high heel shoes caught in the walkway, I look below and watch a complicated chemical process rid the water of dirt particles.

Detroit Chief Operating Officer Chris Brown gives a quick primer.

BROWN: You’re making sure getting a good mixture like in your mixing bowl.

This is one of five Detroit water department treatment facilities. This site cleans 240 million gallons a day. The total system treats more than 1 billion gallons a day.

ambi: water rushing continues

The city built this amazing system and thus became the regional provider. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department goes back to the early 1800s. The public utility grew as the region grew. Today the service area is more than 1,000 miles and 100 communities…more than 4 million customers.

But like many cities in the industrial Midwest, Detroit shrunk and turned black and the suburbs flourished and housed white flight.

Tension over water bubbled.

ambi: water fades

D’ANIERI: The problem in Metro Detroit is the race- and class-based political tension between city and suburb has been so great and going on so many years that suburban residents and suburban political leaders find it very easy to pick fights with Detroit over the water service.

Phil D'Anieri is an urban planner at the University of Michigan.  He says the passion over water is palpable.

D’ANIERI: Water is so powerful because of its role in our daily lives. We need to it survive. We want what comes out of our tap to be clean and cool and to not have a bad taste. And if you are mistrustful of the person who’s ultimately in charge of that, that’s going to raise a lot of concerns.

There have been concerns. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency slapped a lawsuit against Detroit in the late 1970s for violating clean water standards by dumping sewerage in the Detroit River.  The case morphed into surrounding counties wanting more control over the water system. Recent political indictments over water contracts fueled suburbanite arguments that the department was corrupt. On top of that, many suburbs felt the city gouged them in prices.

Robert Ficano is the executive of Wayne County, home to dozens of suburbs. He says there has been an us vs. them mentality between the city and suburbs.

FICANO: In a way it was a perfect foil for a number of suburban mayors to say ‘oh, this is just a cost, boy if we controlled the system maybe we could be more efficient and bring it down.’

Detroit maintains water rates aren’t inflated and that water bills are among the lowest in the country. There’s been no proof of Detroit gouging the system.

Detroit COO Chris Brown is acting water department director and says there are a lot of misunderstandings.

BROWN: There’s no large financial return to the city. The city manages on behalf of not only the residents of city of the Detroit but also the residents of the region for now value. So we get nothing to the general fund.

In fact, the department has run at a deficit.

The conflict led to mountains of legal motions, threats and two judges overseeing the water department. At one point, two of the counties even researched building their own system. But the price tag totaled $1 billion dollars and there was no pot of federal gold to help with funding. The intricacy of building of a new water network is akin to remaking an interstate highway system from scratch.

Crowd chanting: Hands off our water

More recently, last winter, there was a bill in the state legislature that would have allowed the state to take control of the water department.   Detroiters were none too pleased.

Chants fade under Gaines

GAINES: My name is Gwendolyn Gaines and I’m a member and commissioner on the Detroit’s People Water Board.

Gaines has been a part of myriad protests with this ad hoc committee. She’s passionate about water …

GAINES: Because it’s the new gold of our society.

She wants transparency on contracts.

GAINES:  We want all water board meetings televised. We don’t know what goes on in those meetings unless we go. I’ll wait a few months and if we don’t have no answers by then, I’ll get my crew of senior citizens and we gonna go right back in front of the water department and act a fool again.

The bill that sparked that protest never passed because a compromise was struck. A new mayor and new judge helped inspire a new climate.

The changes give suburbs more say. The water board still has seven members but the three suburban ones are appointed by the counties – not Detroit. And a super majority of votes is needed on some big-ticket approvals.

John McCulloch is the elected drain commissioner of Oakland County.  A longtime critic of Detroit water, he’s now the one who appoints a suburban rep to the water board.  McCulloch says there’s now transparency – even if it’s not the message constituents want to hear.

MCCULLOCH: I still tell people that, when asked, will we see some relief in these increases and rates. I indicate no. There’s a lot of reasons why they continue to go up.

The new water board hasn’t been in effect long and experts are waiting – and hoping – to see if this compromise will quell the simmering battle. Meanwhile, officials are turning their attention to why there was a lawsuit in the first place: clean water violations. They are working toward an August deadline to appease the feds and move on from judicial oversight.

Urban planner Phil D’Anieri says the balkanization of Metro Detroit has defined the area for the past 50 years. Water has been a landmark. But it’s not unique to other metro areas.

D’ANIERI: People like to look to Metropolitan Detroit as an example of how wrong things ago. And that’s fair enough. The risk that people face though is in thinking that what Detroit faces is unique to Detroit. In many ways the severity of what Detroit faces is unique. It’s way up there on the scale – no doubt about it. But the underlying problems of how to organize the region of race- and class-based political conflict, of sprawl that is leaving some areas very well off and some areas very poorly off – everybody is dealing with that.

Detroit’s water war brought out deep-rooted issues of race, political power and class.   Issues familiar to most major American cities.  And Detroit’s water solutions may offer a window into managing a precious resource.