Detroit YCL fights for water rights

BY: Emma DeLuca| June 6, 2023
Detroit YCL fights for water rights


As the summer heat sets in, so too does the importance of clean and affordable water. But residents of Highland Park, MI are finding it more and more difficult to keep up with the rising costs of their water bills.

On Friday, June 2nd, members of the Detroit Young Communist League attended a protest organized by the newly formed Highland Park Water Advocates. Additionally supported by members of the General Baker Institute, the HPWA is setting in motion a collective effort to resist the city’s unfair treatment by the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA).

Highland Park was once a city of wealthy scions, which began as a large plot of land purchased by Henry Ford. The enclave’s status as a separate village prevented the city of Detroit, which developed around it, from taxing Highland Park’s wealthier inhabitants, or the large Ford factory that once operated inside its borders. But, along with deindustrialization, poverty set in, and the auto plant shut down in the 1990s.

Highland Park is now a small, overwhelmingly African-American and low-income city within Detroit, and many of the resources afforded by the larger city’s funding are cut off at its borders. Since Highland Park and Detroit are part of a unified water system, agreements regarding sewage must be reached. Historically, Highland Park has maintained a federally negotiated contract with the Detroit Water and Sewage Department (DWSD), which limits water costs within the city.

In 2009, Emergency Manager Robert Mason unilaterally signed a document breaking this agreement, ushering in an era of unprecedented rate increases. In the wake of Mason’s mere five months in the position, the water and sewage rates charged to Highland Park increased six-fold.

Following years of the city’s litigation efforts to fight the increase, the Michigan Supreme Court recently declined to hear the case, thus leaving in place a lower court’s affirmation of the debt. The city, with a total yearly operating budget of roughly $12 million, now officially faces a debt of $24 million to the GLWA. The GLWA has consistently shot down the city’s attempts at formulating a long-term payment plan, most recently evidenced by their failure to reach a plan by the court-ordered date of May 31st, 2023.

Given the fact that emergency managers like Mason are appointed directly by the governor, coupled with the state’s consistent refusal to grant Highland Park access to available federal funds, which would have saved the city’s locally operated water facility from shutting down in 2012, the HPWA argue that the blame for this debt crisis lands squarely on the governor’s office. As such, the HPWA (and city officials) argue the state is responsible for alleviating the $24M debt.

The “emergency rate” Highland Park has been forced to pay for its water is much higher than the standard rate it would have paid if its own water facility had received suitable funding to remain open. The city has now been offered a singular option for decreasing costs — give up on the plan of reopening its local water facility, and instead sign a 30-year contract with the GLWA. Adding confusion is the fact that the GLWA doesn’t even meter the sewage that flows through Highland Park, making it unclear how they determine the rates the city is charged for this service. The GLWA attributes nearly three-quarters of the owed amount to Highland Park’s “leaky pipes” — but the pipes that service the city also run as far north as Flint, MI. The need to update and repair water infrastructure is a regional concern, and should not be unjustly taxed on the 9,000 low-income residents of Highland Park alone.

During the Friday protest, residents testified to how the water crisis has impacted their lives. One woman explained that she has to travel outside the city to buy drinkable water, as Highland Park’s pipes have been left in gross neglect by the State of Michigan. Many pipes contain lead, or are even made of wood, dating to their original construction in the early 1900s. Another protester explained that he was placed on 30 days’ unpaid leave from his job with the city of Detroit, following his outspoken support for Highland Park and refusal to transfer to a new position which would have involved demolishing parts of its water infrastructure. Chants of “We pay our water bills!” and “State control put us deeper in the hole!” filled the air on Woodward Ave, with drivers in passing cars responding with raised fists and honks of support.

The struggle for affordable and clean water exists not just in Highland Park, but everywhere. Responsible management of Michigan’s precious Great Lakes will only become more urgent if corporate greed and climate change are allowed to continue running rampant.

What would justice look like for Highland Park? As the HPWA puts it, a good start would be redirecting payment of the $24M debt onto the state authorities who are responsible for it, the reopening of the Highland Park water facility, and crafting a plan to restore the water infrastructure of the city to a safe, affordable, and fully functional state. Until that point, the struggle continues.


    Emma DeLuca is a community organizer based in Detroit, MI. She brings to the party her experience as a youth educator, a queer woman, and an artist.

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