While Congress and the White House toss around the fate of thousands of auto workers, and discuss the creation of a “Car Czar,” we thought we’d mention another local czar in the news, Judge John Feikens.
Thirty-seven years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sued the Detroit Sewerage and Water Dept (DWSD) and the city to stop polluting the Detroit River. Judge Feikens was charged with overseeing local efforts–as the de facto water czar–and requiring local governments to respond to the lawsuit. Snow, rain, and widespread development created massive storm drain run-offs that contributed to water contamination in rivers and the area’s watershed.
Many local groups have applauded Judge Feikens’ heavy-handed efforts to comply with this Clean Water Act ruling, and there are noticeable improvements in the areas rivers, lakes, and beaches. In fact, his Detroit efforts have caused some to believe that this could be a national model for other cities.
But during this time, residents of two local water depts–the DWSD and Highland Park Water Dept–had another set of crises that the water czar did not include in his regional remedy plan. Since 2002 in Detroit, thousands of low-income residents had their water shut-off for lack of payment. In Highland Park, nearly half of the city’s 16,000 residents had their water shut-off by cash-strapped local officials.
For several years, MWRO has worked in concert with local residents and grassroots leaders to have the water departments address this wide-scale public health and human rights problem. On several occasions, Judge Feikens’ name came up by local water and city council officials as we pressed for relief or a moratorium on shut-offs.
Waterless residents were told that before any public policy changes could be made to help vulnerable populations restore their water service or establish affordable payments options, the water czar would first require payment and compliance with his legal orders by the water depts. In Highland Park, this made matters worse. Residents were receiving bills in the thousands of dollars (see film, The Water Front), and the city was nearly under receivership by the Governor because it could not pay its own bills.
For the past six years, MWRO members and local residents have sought a Water Affordability Program that would prevent shut-offs and allow low-income households to make modest monthly payments. We reached out to Judge Feikens for assistance and guidance and not once did we receive a response. If the Detroit water czar is truly interested in improving the area’s quality of life through clean water then, we believe, part of that entails ensuring that the poorest members of the community are included and safeguarded against the harm of water shut-offs.
Lastly, a local study found that the cost of modernizing the Detroit region’s sewage treatment plants and system pipes could be over $50 billion in the next 25 years. This could also double the cost of water bills within 15 years, which are already rising twice as fast as inflation. Low-income residents cannot manage this increase. What will the water czar do to avert this crisis?