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The future of southeast Michigan's drinking water (part 2)

A wastewater treatment plant.
Photo courtesy of Birmingham Public Schools
A wastewater treatment plant.

Detroit’s water department has been under federal oversight for almost 35 years. Recently, the city tried to get that oversight lifted. But the federal judge who monitors the department shot that effort down, and he ordered stakeholders to find a way to fix the system’s decades-long problems--within two months. Some people wonder about that short timeline—and whether some of the Judge’s suggestions hint at a possible takeover. 

Judge Sean Cox’s September 9th order regarding the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has raised more than a few eyebrows. It has raised some tempers as well.

“There has been no public vote to give away, transfer, or dismantle the water department. We must stand and fight and sue if necessary."

Detroit City Council member JoAnn Watson was met with wild applause last week, when she vowed to take a stand against perceived attempts to “take over” Detroit’s municipal water system.

Detroit’s water department has been a source of controversy and argument for many years. But everyone agrees on a few basic things.

The first is that the system—one of the nation’s oldest and largest—provides millions of people across southeast Michigan with safe, high-quality drinking water. But on the other end—the sewage treatment side--it doesn’t always do so well. They’ve been cited many times for releasing too much waste into the Detroit River. That’s why the department has been under a federal consent decree since 1977.

The city recently tried to get out from under that longstanding oversight—over the objections of its suburban customers. But U.S. District Judge Sean Cox denied Detroit’s effort, and ordered officials to come up with a comprehensive plan to fix the system’s problems—all within two months.

John McCulloch is the Water Resources Commissioner for Oakland County, one of the suburban counties that successfully protested Detroit’s efforts to end federal monitoring.

“Detroit’s well aware of what their problems are. So I don’t believe the 60 days is unrealistic.”

McCulloch says Judge Cox appropriately gave officials what he calls “a blank sheet of paper” to really fix them.

“And by that I mean he indicated they did not have to worry about any restrictions… city ordinances, city charter, or any contracts provided.”

But it’s that language that has raised many people’s hackles. Some Detroiters are already upset about a newly reconfigured water board that gives suburban officials some say in how the system is run. And they see this new order as a step toward even more regional control—and maybe, eventual privatization.

Lynna Kaucheck is with the group Food and Water Watch. She calls Judge Cox’s order a “heinous attack from the outside” on Detroit’s water system. Kaucheck says the order’s emphasis on ignoring city ordinances provides a back door route to private ownership.

“It’s really also the only way, at this point, that they can privatize the system… because of the current city charter, selling off an asset requires a vote by the people. That’s not gonna happen.”

But longtime department critic John McCulloch says the system belongs to Detroit. And he doesn’t necessarily favor privatization, either.

“I think privatization is always an option, but it’s not the panacea that some people make it out to be. I don’t think it’s in the best interest of Detroit and certainly of the region.”

But McCulloch says Detroit will need input from the whole region as it works to upgrade the system—both now and in the long run.

And that’s another thing everyone agrees on—there will need to be lots of upgrades. Detroit’s water infrastructure is among the nation’s oldest—in some cases, almost 200 years old. How the region chooses to deal with it may well set a precedent for other parts of the country.

Detroit’s water department is also under the spotlight for another reason.

Federal officials allege former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and others manipulated the system for profit over many years. A trial is slated for next year.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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