Thinking for ourselves

River of opportunity

By Shea Howell

January 25, 2015

shea25Governor Snyder’s State of the State may be more remembered for his imagery than his policy pronouncements. Snyder called for “revolutionizing how government operates” to move all Michiganders into the “river of opportunity.”

For Snyder, and those who support him, this may not be a metaphor. The Detroit River is the opportunity he is interested in exploiting.

It should be obvious to everyone that access to clean, safe, affordable water for all is not a concern of government officials. In Detroit officials justify shutting off water to thousands of citizens who cannot afford to pay ever-higher bills. In Flint, they justify delivering dirty water to people who do pay bills. Affordable, safe, clean, and clear water is no longer a dependable part of daily life in Michigan.

Last summer Flint stopped getting water from Detroit. Thanks to republican legislation, Flint and Genesee County are constructing a new water pipeline, on top of existing pipes, to take water from Lake Huron. The $300 million project wont be completed until 2016. In the meantime, people are getting water from the Flint River. This water turns out to be brown. It smells. It is making people sick. Residents are storming public meetings demanding solutions.

The answers they are getting are not comforting. Public officials celebrate the fact that they detected harmful bacteria in the Flint water. They imply it is unavoidable to have high levels of other toxins, as they are needed to treat this bacteria. They say smell and color don’t necessarily mean water is “unsafe.” In a statement that captures the attitude in the legislature, Michael Prysby, a district engineer in the state Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance said, “We don’t want to make a blanket statement to say water is safe or unsafe. It’s misleading both ways.”

Flint was the second largest customer of the Detroit water system. Their state backed decision to leave the system removes $12 million from Detroit.  The loss of this revenue contributes to the current efforts of Oakland and Macomb County Executives to get out of the newly forming Great Lakes Water Authority. The result of closed-door negotiations under the cover of bankruptcy, the GLWA is supposed to provide a public authority with shared regional responsibility for clean, safe, affordable water.

But Oakland and Macomb are already trying to renegotiate their responsibilities. At the beginning of last week, L. Brooks Patterson of Oakland County and Mark Hackel of Macomb both signaled they are looking for a way out of the pledged $50 million a year to Detroit. They say they are worried about whether or not Detroit is able to meet its part of the financial obligations. Specifically the execs are looking for a way to blame Detroit for the reality that they may be facing politically toxic rate increases in their suburban districts.

A key element to setting up the GLWA was a projection that water rates would not increase more than 4% a year. Now, with the loss of Flint and dramatic drops in consumption due to weather and shut offs, officials are talking about double digit increases.

The state has evaded fundamental responsibilities. It has turned water into a commodity that encourages waste and consumption. Conservation is punished with higher rates as the majority of the costs of the system are fixed. It has evaded adopting a true water affordability plan that would protect access for all citizens, thus denying the basic right to water to an ever-larger number of people as rates escalate. It treats water as a product, not a public trust.

Governor Snyder and his cronies know water is the next oil. They regard it as a commodity to buy and sell for the benefit of corporate share holders, not the benefit of all people today and for future generations. Those of us who understand that water is a human right need to demand a real revolution in the protection of our rivers. That is the real opportunity.




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