Water Rights By Shea Howell
Thinking for ourselves
Week twenty-seven of the occupation
October 8, 2013
While Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr announced speedy plans to create a regional authority to take over the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, global leaders were meeting in Budapest at the World Water Summit. The Summit has been called because of international concerns about the use of water as an instrument of power. These concerns have been framed by such far thinking theorist as Vanda Shiva, whose 2002 book Water Wars outlined the development of a global corporate culture that is attacking the historic protection of water as a communal human right. In vivid detail, Dr. Shiva documents how the privatization of water threatens community cultures and life itself.
In a logic that defies reason, common sense, and history, EM Orr is rushing to carry out the right wing republican agenda to get control of Detroit’s water supply. This, like the seizure of Belle Isle, has been a long-standing goal of republican suburban interests that resent Detroit control over water.
The importance of water as a publicly held trust, protected from profit, cannot be overstated. Professor Brahma Chellaney at the Centre for Policy Research wrote this week:
“Bottled water at the grocery store is already more expensive than crude oil on the international spot market. More people in the world today own or use a mobile phone than have access to water sanitation services. Unclean water is the greatest killer on the globe, yet a fifth of humankind still lacks easy access to potable water. More than half of the global population currently lives under water stress—a figure projected to increase to two-thirds during the next decade.”
The Orr-Snyder plan is using the cover of bankruptcy to do what no Mayor or City Council could be coerced into doing—putting control of Detroit municipal water in the hands of a suburban entity with ill defined powers and protections for the people.
The water department is currently considered the city’s most stable source of revenue. State law prohibits making a profit by charging more for water and sewerage over the cost of production. Part of the point of a new regional authority is to bypass this restriction by substituting lease agreements for water sales.
Along with the lack of justification for the creation of a regional authority beyond the desires of the suburban interests, we in Detroit know that regional decisions rarely benefit the people of our city.
Just last April, in a move that stunned even Mayor Dave Bing, Detroit lost $7 million in federal transit funding to the suburbs. At the very moment when the city was slashing services, laying off employees, and struggling to avoid bankruptcy, the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) announced a new formula for distributing federal transit funds. Governor Snyder gave SEMCOG temporary guardianship of federal dollars while he was creating a Regional Transit Authority. Its first act was to change the 65%-35% funding formula that had favored Detroit since the 1970’s. The reason Detroit was favored in this formula is because Detroit has the highest bus ridership.
Our history of regional relationships is steeped in bitter experience. Water is becoming a new weapon in the effort to seize control of land. First in Highland Park, and now in Detroit, we are seeing water bills, often outrageous and incorrect, attached to property taxes, easing the ability of the city to seize property for unpaid bills. It is not hard to predict where a regional authority would take such powers, or for whose benefit they would be invoked.
Water is a human right. The city of Detroit has been custodian of public waters for nearly 300 years. History, common sense, and our responsibilities for a sustainable future demand we continue to hold this water in our trust.