Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Regionalizing the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, the Effects of Privatization on Metro Detroit Residents and the Importance of Community Control

Academic journal article The Journal of Law in Society

Regionalizing the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, the Effects of Privatization on Metro Detroit Residents and the Importance of Community Control

Article excerpt


The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is currently the third largest supplier of drinking water in the United States. (1) The City has had a history of both public and private drinking water systems. (2) Today, nearly one million city residents and three million metro Detroit residents are served by the DWSD. (3) The department is governed by the Board of Water Commissioners (BOWC) which is composed of seven members. (4) The mayor of Detroit appoints all seven Water Commissioners; four commissioners represent city residents while the remaining three represent the neighboring metro Detroit counties that are "suburban wholesale customers" of the DWSD. (5)

Today, the City of Detroit faces the largest municipal bankruptcy ever filed in the history of the United States. (6) The bankruptcy plan is overseen by the City's emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr, who has the power to "assure the fiscal accountability of the local government and the local government's capacity to provide... governmental services essential to the public health, safety, and welfare." (7) Under the emergency manager law, City Council and the mayor's powers are delegated to Orr. (8) As part of his plan to fix the City's debt crisis, Orr has considered changing the way drinking water from Detroit is managed and has proposed the creation of "an independent new Metropolitan Area Water and Sewer Authority" that would be composed of representatives from both the City and metro Detroit. (9) Under this plan, the City of Detroit would continue to own the infrastructure that provides drinking water to residents of the City and other metropolitan communities, while the regional board would manage the drinking water system independent from the City. (10)

Detroit's current financial crisis and governance under an Emergency Financial Manager has made the idea of transforming the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department into an independent regional water board a possibility. This Note will address the potential consequences of privatizing Detroit's drinking water system-a possible outcome once a regional board was created to replace the DWSD. This Note will first explore the drinking water systems that have been implemented throughout Detroit's history. Next, this Note will assess how Detroit is moving closer to an independent regional water authority and how regionalization and privatization could be instituted. Finally, this Note will consider how either an independent regionalized water authority or a privatized drinking water distribution system could impact residents of both the City and the metro Detroit communities who receive their water from DWSD by examining their effects on community control.


A. A Brief History of Water Distribution in Detroit

The City of Detroit has utilized both private and public water systems in its past. (11) Prior to the development of any water distribution system, people living in the City simply retrieved water from the Detroit River using buckets. (12) The creation of an integrated water system began after the Great Fire of 1805, when the City constructed several public wells for residents to utilize in order to prevent another major fire. (13) The wells proved unsuccessful and many residents continued to draw their water from the river. (14) Officials recognized that Detroit needed a more organized water distribution system and in 1824, the Legislative Council of the Michigan territory passed a bill, signed by Governor Lewis Cass, which established a privately owned water distribution system. (15) The act allowed Peter Berthelet to build and operate a wharf with a water pump on the Detroit River for 99 years. (16) Detroit residents were to pay a tax of one dollar a year "to take and draw water for their use and convenience." (17) Residents retrieved water from the pump by wheeling carts down the wharf and filling them with water. (18) According to DWSD, this system "was the beginning of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, a sprawling enterprise covering more than 1,000 square miles, servicing more than 40 percent of the state's population, and employing over 3,000 people. …

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