One day in October, I woke up to learn that much of Oakland County, including a large part of Bloomfield Township (where we live), was under a boil water advisory due to the bursting of a water main the prior evening.
I went into my kitchen to find the largest pot we own and filled it with water. I realized I couldn’t brush my teeth until the pot had boiled and wondered whether brushing my teeth the night before (before knowing about the advisory) harmed me in any way. As I emptied the hot coffee pot to remake it with boiled water, I worried about the cup of coffee my husband had taken from the pot earlier that morning. I wasn’t sure what to do with the dishes in the dishwasher or whether I could safely take a shower or even wash my hands.
After texting my husband (already at work) to make sure he knew about all of this, he let me know that we were actually outside the boundaries of the affected area. The relief I felt was palpable, as was the sense of gratitude for having been spared! I hopped into my car, arriving at work significantly later than expected.
The irony of this story is that at the time of the water main break, I was attending an event hosted by Detroit Jews for Justice and Temple Kol Ami called, “The Public Health Impact of the Regional Water Crisis.”
The intersectionality between the more than 80,000 Detroit households whose water has been shut off since 2014 and suburban residents of Oakland County could not have been more dramatically revealed. (Notice I haven’t even mentioned the on-going travesty in Flint, where so many citizens have yet to feel anything near the sense of relief I felt knowing that neither our pipes nor our bodies had been tainted by toxic water.)
Aging infrastructure has advanced from a looming to a present problem. The findings of a 2016 task force appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder include:
- 5.7 billion gallons, on average, of untreated raw sewage that flows into Michigan waterways annually;
- 64 rivers that drain the vast majority of land in the Lower Peninsula (84 percent) tested positive for human sewage;
- 1 in 10 of the state’s 1.3 million septic tanks are experiencing operational problems.
The task force estimates the cost of upgrades at $60 billion and rising. The city of Detroit Water and Sewerage Department owns and provides water and sewage services to Detroit and 126 municipalities in seven counties, including Oakland. Since 2016, the Great Lakes Water Authority has been leasing and operating that water system. DWSD remains responsible for repairs to that same system. Funding of those repairs is dependent on a viable DWSD; however, with insufficient revenues due to decreased water consumption and continued delinquent accounts due to lack of a systemic affordable water plan, neither DWSD nor GLWA are positioned to deal with the infrastructure crisis.
Last year, I had the privilege of assisting Detroit clients who were experiencing water shutoffs. These were women who paid their water bills as best they could, but given the myriad of circumstances they faced — including bills based on huge errors regarding arrearages, ridiculously large balances on account of broken and unrepaired pipes, and that Detroiters bear an unconscionable burden of the cost of the regional water system — these women and their families faced long bouts of periods without water.
One woman shared with me how her water had been shut off just before her daughter was to celebrate her 13th birthday with a sleepover for three friends. With no water, the mom had to cancel her daughter’s birthday party at the last minute — one of the lowest points she had felt as a mother. (Far more heartbreaking are stories of parents reluctant to negotiate payment plans, knowing that by law, a child can be removed from a home that goes without water for more than 72 hours.)
As a white, college-educated (without debt), employed Bloomfield Township resident, I enjoy hosting sleepovers for my daughters and their friends knowing that even if we lose power or water, the municipality will make the necessary repairs. I don’t have to choose between paying the water bill or the electric bill this month, and I know if I inadvertently skip a bill, I can call the utility company and ask to have any penalty waived; and even if they don’t, I know I have the means to pay it. I know that arriving late at work (as I did in October) won’t jeopardize my job. What to me seemed like a temporary inconvenience averted is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to so many families in Detroit (and Flint) having to figure out how to make it through the day without the certainty of accessible and affordable water.
From my volunteer work with Detroit Jews for Justice, I have learned a Hebrew proverb: Bli mayim ein chayim — without water, there is no life. I hope the jolt more than 300,000 Oakland County residents received in October on account of the watermain break is the impetus for a true, fair and equitable regional solution to what is a regional water crisis.
One place to start: Call your state legislator and ask him/her to support HB 4393, 4389 and 4390, three bills introduced by Reps. Stephanie Chang and LaTanya Garrett designed to offer basic protections for those experiencing water shutoffs. For more information on what you can do, go to detroitjewsforjustice.org/water.
Lori Lutz is a resident of Bloomfield Township. She has been a core leader of Detroit Jews for Justice for two years.