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Detroit unveils water restart plan because of coronavirus threat

hands under pouring water
mrjn Photography

The City of Detroit has announced what it's calling a Coronavirus Water Restart Plan to try to ensure that people have access to water during the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Michigan does not yet have a confirmed case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

The program comes after pressure from community activists, following Detroit's decision to pursue aggressive water shutoffs in 2014. More than 30,000 households experienced a water shutoff that year. 

The city often demanded large lump sum payments from people to re-connect them.

Community leaders protested. The ACLU sued, lost and sued again.  

But despite the city rolling out a payment assistance plan in 2016, water shutoffs surged again, last year.

Nearly 24,000 customers had their water shut off at least for a time in 2019. 

All the while, Detroit's water department denied there is a link between disease outbreaks and water shutoffs. 

Until Monday, March 9th.

At a press conference, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan described meeting with Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to discuss the issue.

"Given the importance of hand washing in preventing the spread of this virus, what happens with water shutoffs?" he said.

The solution Duggan and Whitmer came up with: a $25 a month water bill, while the coronavirus outbreak is a threat. 

It will be offered to the 3,000 households who are without water now, or who are facing shutoff in ten days. 

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is the Flint doctor who was one of the early whistleblowers in the Flint water crisis. 

She says, of course, clean, accessible water is a public health necessity. 

"We've known that at least since the cholera outbreaks in London in 1854," she says. "We need water to keep our hands and bodies clean, to prevent the spread of infectious diseases."

Mark Fancher is an attorney with the ACLU of Michigan.

He says he's glad Detroit is doing something, but it should have been done sooner. Being able to wash your hands is the first line of defense for other illnesses, too, he says.

"If there is concern about the spread of that virus, and there should be, there should be concern as well about the spread of the flu, which quantitatively claims more lives than the coronavirus has claimed," Fancher says.

Fancher says what's really needed, in the long term, is making water affordable, so people don't get cut off in the first place.

"What is needed is a water affordability plan which is indexed to the incomes of those customers who are receiving the service."

Nicole Hill agrees the problem is that water is simply unaffordable in the city.

She's a volunteer with Michigan Welfare Rights. She had her water shut off twice. 

The second time was after she enrolled in the city's water assistance plan. That plan tacks on an extra payment, in addition to the current monthly amount, to catch people up on past due bills.  

Hill had to pay an extra $175 a month, in addition to her regular $350 a month water bill. It was too much. She now lives in housing where the landlord pays the water bill. 

Hill says there are many people on the water assistance plan she was on, struggling with crazy-high bills.

They are not eligible for the new $25 a month respite plan.

And what happens to those who are eligible after the city says the danger is over?

"What happens after we get through this outbreak?" she asks. "Are you going to go back out and shut these people off? Are you going to give them an incredible hike to their bill?"

The answer to that appears to be yes. 

The city says this program will only defer what people owe. Customers will have to pay for the water they used once the $25 dollar program ends.  

So Detroit could just be kicking the can down the road, setting the stage for another round of water shutoffs later.

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Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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