The Water Ain’t Safe but We Can Make it Better.

[working draft, most claims are linked to news items, references, etc.]

“The water ain’t safe. The land’s made of water. … The water ain’t safe no more.” –Aesop Rock
Wednesday while waiting for rehearsal I walked past drinking fountains that had signs declaring the water was not safe for drinking (due to the boil water advisory in Detroit) and proceeded to use the bathroom. Partly naive and part curious, I decided to try washing my hands and realized water coming from the tap smelled very similar to what waste water released into the Rouge River smells like: it’s a mildly sweet odor and it’s sickening when there’s a lot of it to smell (you learn to connect these things growing up by the river and then from working with environmental science professionals). Shortly after, I picked up my friend Bryce Detroit (who’s also the bandleader/a community entrepreneur & culture shaper) from the grocery store. With him was a large bottle of water freshly purchased which he brought into rehearsal. The ability to create and choose genuine choices over a situation is fundamental to dignity. We were lucky to know what was going on and have bottled water for the day. As a commuter to Detroit, I had the privilege of returning home to a place that still has clean and affordable water from the tap. Meanwhile the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality extended the warning which means Detroiters will need to boil their water or use bottled water for at least one more day at the time I’m writing this post. Water (and the people who depend on it) in Michigan currently faces three threats: 1) Contamination–it’s not safe to drink or at risk Flint residents still must use bottled water to drink, bathe, and brush their teeth. Many Detroiters must boil their water due to potential bacterial contamination. A cancer causing chemical leak in the ground water will likely shut down major parts of the water supply in Ann Arbor and neighboring cities over the next 8-10 years. These are all major, some of the biggest, cities in Michigan. Affecting much of the Great Lakes region, there’s a proposal to store radioactive waste near Lake Huron puts 44 million people’s drinking water downstream at risk (though you can read more about it and voice your thoughts here). Additionally There are a few gas and oil pipelines (i.e. Line 5 near Mackinac in “worst possible place”) in or slated for the Great Lakes. And toxins from algal blooms (as a result of too much fertilizer running off from agriculture and lawns into the rivers) shut down Monroe [and Toledo, Ohio’s] water supply a few years ago too also remain a threat. 2) Over-extraction Nestle seeks to increase the amount of water they can pump from a spring in Northern Michigan and would not need contribute water or financial compensation back to the community it took the water from. By exploiting a legal loophole, the permitting process sets precedent for other international companies interested in taking water from the Great Lakes region and selling it to places far away from us. 3) Physical prevention and financial exclusion In Detroit, many places are unable to access water either because the providers shut off access to it, or due to unrealistic approaches for financing water bills that are often imposed on poor people. The companies responsible for much of the water bill delinquency in Detroit are also often not held accountable. 4) Financial exploitation A business has is own priorities, and it makes sense that bottled water companies would sell water to people who need it. Yet when we look at the policy several of these water crises point to a different kind of relationship poised to happen: it paves the way for the state to put over-invest in believing privatized water utilities will solve the issues we see with public utilities and companies that sell bottled water. Wtate agencies like the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and government officials are willing to claim state-supplied bottled water are a workable solution to unsafe drinking water. Bottled water companies are primed to exploit water crises. which would operate as monopolies in their respective regions and don’t have to answer directly to the people they service. During the Flint crisis, Dennis Muchmore was linked with deep connections to the multinational beverage company, Nestle. The MDEQ already points to the state of Michigan supplying bottled water being a common first step for emergency responses. The state of Michigan recently moved to withdraw aid for bottled water to communities Flint, meaning residents whose water remains undrinkable/batheable and are still paying their water bills will need to buy more bottled water for themselves. Publicly owned utilities offer us something that most privately owned/investe businesses don’t: public accountability, and multiple legal obligations to the people they service. This doesn’t mean they’re always working or the best choice for everyone, but public services are an important and significant choice for most people.
This shouldn’t happen in Michigan or a place like Detroit if you understand where we live. In fact, we in Michigan are surrounded by about 1/5th (20%!!!) of the fresh surface water in the world. One of the things visitors tend to appreciate is that we have good water and for the lucky few who know or have the resources to access it, we can enjoy it in many ways. The land is literally covered with fresh water sources, Detroit sits next to a major river that’s managed by two highly developed countries that are “leading the free world” and people can’t trust what they can drink.
The first priority is to make sure people are getting what they rightfully need and that the services improve. That’s a mix of human rights and basic customer service that organizations like the Great Lakes Water Authority needs to answer to, and that the people of Detroit and other areas serviced by the provider speak out (see Monica Lewis Patrick’s post here on how you can take tangible actions toward doing so, or donate here). In the longer-term, we also need to start creating and supporting new choices for ourselves that allow us to we respond to crisis in our own communities. This past weekend I spoke on a panel hosted by Jackson Koeppel of Soulardarity about how legislators often don’t know about the kind of leadership that’s happening in Detroit: people are putting solar lights that are off-the-grid (not connected to DTE’s power lines–100% running on solar energy) in their neighborhoods. While they’re doing it because it needs to be done and the city didn’t invest in meeting their needs, they also happen to be doing work that well ahead of where most of the nation in emergency preparedness. Of course, this is in part because they were in the midst of a genuine emergency when DTE removed the streetlights from their neighborhoods. I mentioned security for water as part of the priority too: If the power goes out, water stops flowing through the pipes too. Detroiters know what it’s like to have no access to power and water. Many people still remember the black out of 2003, and several people have first hand experience with getting their power and water shut off even today. Meanwhile today, there are companies like Nestle which happily take advantage of the situation–so much that they’ll even take good drinking water from communities without paying anything back to the area, and sell it elsewhere. This might be normal business behavior to sell something that’s not being used, but the real issue happens when people have to rely on purchasing bottled water. The current Michigan energy laws will (in 2 years) eventually prevent small businesses and neighborhood organizations from creating renewable energy at a reasonable rate due to a lot of lobbying from companies like DTE. This prevents small businesses and neighborhood organizations to generate power independently from companies with a monopoly on energy like DTE. We need representatives to hear more of their communities. We need more communities to speak out to their representatives. We need more communities to come together to create or support their own local businesses that want to or are already developing solar energy in Detroit. What solutions might exist for these problems? 1) Know there are people working to support and establish water stations: For supporting water distribution in Detroit, you can also contribute: 2) Engage the city: the following list compiled by Monica Lewis Patrick and her peers includes many concrete actions which can be done in Detroit to request for realistic financing for water payment, hold the suppliers accountable, and support efforts to ensure safe water is available to people in the area. 3) Activate support from the international government level of policy: The International Joint Commission is working to be a resource to community leaders and helps hold the U.S. and Canadian governments accountable to maintaining water in the Great Lakes. Allison Voglesong can fill you in further about their upcoming meeting and the organization’s aims. Send comments to (this is the US Canadian group that’s responsible for making both countries make the water swimmable, fishable, and drinkable). Show up to their public meeting on March 21st in Detroit: 4) Be prepared to respond to emergencies like water and power shortages if you can. 5) For advancing longer-term proactive priorities: Educate people about community-generated power and water. Organize your community’s leaders and enthusiasts to create or work with organizations that support decentralized energy, rainwater collection, clean drinking water, and environmental quality for water and public health. Call your representatives, call representatives who are part of the energy committee, and the city. Let them know what’s happening is unacceptable and that you’re interested in having your community create electricity and collect water locally instead of relying on the energy company, instead of relying only on the city and instead of having to buy bottled water. When you’re able to generate electricity from your own community and collect and your own water from rainfall, you can purify it without always relying on the municipal grid, and skip having to purchase bottled water all the time when the city’s power and water.
6) While we’re on the long-term: run for office or support & elect (vote for, etc.) people who do care about access to water, water quality, environmental quality, and public health. Keep in touch with your representatives who are already in office and let them hear what your mind. We can, and many already do, work to restore rivers that are kept clean enough to swim, fish, and drink from. There are parts of Michigan where people don’t hesitate to swim, fish from, and don’t worry if they accidentally gulp a mouthful of raw river water. This is our place, and watershed moments require participation from people of all perspectives for positive outcomes to precipitate.
Available actions as I interpret it: “Ann Arbor resident Vince Caruso, a member of the Allen’s Creek Watershed Group and the local Coalition for Action on Remediation of Dioxane, encouraged residents to go online and sign a petition to get the EPA to do a Superfund cleanup, arguing that’s the community’s best option at this point.“ *Some people consider getting EPA Superfund site status as a last resort–the argument being that putting authority into a local judge rather than federal-level EPA gives us more control and contact with the people responsible for overseeing remediation/clean up and other work on the dioxane plume and better local awareness. This makes sense to me, that said if anyone wants to pursue the EPA Superfund site designation, there’s a petition in support for that:

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