Sustainability Summit Detroit 2015 September 10-13th 2015 At Marygrove A Weekend of VISIONARY ORGANIZING


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These comments have been submitted to the State of Michigan as it develops a Water Quality Strategy. Public comments are accepted through August 28 at Mi-waterstrategy@michigan. gov“… access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights.”
–Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ (P. 23 ¶ 30)

The State of Michigan’s attempt to formulate a water strategy suitable for the times we live in – and the context of water riches that define our state – must reckon with some brutal realities.  Broadly, these include the following conditions and obstacles to water justice:

  1. Exploding economic inequality
  1. Innovative policies undermining democracy – especially in Michigan’s urban communities – like Governor Snyder’s “emergency management” statutes
  1. Our evil heritage of racism, as well as other forms of unjust domination
  1. Our planetary climate emergency, and our related contemporary energy crisis
  1. Powerful governments and corporate special interests exploiting wars as means of increasing their power and wealth

The existing draft strategy’s minimalist treatment – or rather avoidance – of such realities leads it to pin hopes for reasonable access to affordable water on a “communication strategy”.  This undermines any confidence that might otherwise be placed in this draft policy document.  We need strategies that face the real world, not disengaged rhetorical guides to management best practices.

As noted above, the document begins with the words: “Water defines Michigan.”  Tragically what currently defines water issues in southeastern Michigan’s predominantly People of Color cities is lack of reasonable access to safe and affordable water.  No state water strategy worthy of its stated intent to “support a healthy environment, healthy citizens, vibrant communities and sustainable economies” can ignore either this unjust situation, or its deep systemic roots in the brutal realities of our times and leading institutions.

The draft document aspires to “leveraging the power and presence of” water. (P. 1) Its crucial test will be reconciling that intent with “providing water to financially distressed customers to ensure all citizens have affordable access to water for drinking and sanitation.” (P. 44) To date the state has failed this test.

In Detroit tens of thousands of poor families have been cut off from water, regardless of their inability to pay constantly rising rates.  In Flint, people have been forced to drink and bathe with polluted water from the Flint River because the Governor’s appointee doesn’t want to buy clean water from Detroit.  In Highland Park, the city’s very existence is threatened because of water bills that are far too high.  One would think this crisis, calls for new thinking and new policies.  The draft document’s communication, pricing, funding and evaluation placeholders for real strategies fall far short of the mark.

Speaking in Detroit on May 22, 2014, leading global water rights activist Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians said “If we pay attention to what’s really happening with our water, and deal with it appropriately, it will show us how to solve all our other problems.”  In that spirit, these comments focus on the investment chapter of the draft document, toward a more realistic, up-to-date and comprehensive integration of the social, ecological, cultural, economic and even spiritual aspects of Michigan’s water, as well as its profound impacts on our lives.

“Communication Strategy”

Since the beginning of Governor Snyder’s  first term in early 2011, Michigan’s cities with majority African-American populations have been subjected to a sophisticated, neoliberal and white-supremacist communication strategy that elevates business-as-usual in favor of special corporate interests over the fundamental human rights of the working poor.

Under Snyder’s unprecedented “emergency management” powers, the accountability of local government to those most affected by its policies and decisions has been destroyed, in favor of the very kinds of management- best-practices fake “solutions” lurking behind the new state water strategy.  The ability of corporate media apologists to use communications strategies and layer lipstick on the pig of racist social austerity, bankster bailouts and insider-rigged public policy scams will not protect our water or equitable access to it.  A high-sounding “strategic, collaborative ecosystem-based plan” (P. 1) is no substitute for meaningful action!

In this connection, the complete absence of even one representative or contribution of either the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) or the nascent Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), at the July 8 Detroit public meeting on the state’s draft water strategy, spoke volumes.  While the Office of the Great Lakes offers comforting but ultimately meaningless discussion forums, and publishes written propaganda proclaiming holistic and integrated social/ecological visions, the real powers determining the condition of our water and infrastructure are busy monetizing it for their own benefit, without even pretending to care about the state’s pious strategic proclamations.  This glaring disconnect occurred in the midst of a mass shut off campaign against our most vulnerable People that has drawn the attention and ire of much of the world!  We are neither amused nor fooled.

“Pricing and Funding Strategies”

For over ten years advocates of water justice in Detroit have been promoting a Water Affordability Plan (WAP) designed to make water and sewer services reasonably available to all People in southeastern Michigan, by tying rates for those living in poverty to a small percentage of their income.  To say that these well-conceived efforts have met with rejection by officials in charge of our water system would be to grossly understate the mendacity, condescension and rudeness displayed by officials of the city, DWSD   (and now GLWA) toward those seeking to protect the public trust in water in and around Detroit.

We know the reasons for this obtuse refusal to grasp the depth and seriousness of our current water crisis: The same hidden realities omitted from the current draft, like: economic inequality; undermining democracy; racism and other forms of domination; the climate emergency linked to energy crisis; and our country’s embroilment in the ultimate “pricing and funding strategies” for distribution of resources and power: a seemingly endless series of pointless, unwinnable foreign wars of aggression.  These systemic realities ultimately connect in decisive ways to the potential implementation of a successful water strategy in Michigan.
Pope Francis summarizes our current crossroads: “A certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry, to the serious detriment of the world around us. Should we not pause and consider this?” (P. 75 ¶ 101)  The draft document, by omission, answers “no”.  Depending on how one evaluates its real intent, that is either a grave error or an attempted evasion.  Either way, the need to go well beyond “pricing and funding strategies” in order to even begin to formulate an adequate state water strategy is clear.

“Ensuring Affordable Water for All”

The primary obstacle to a state water strategy that could serve communities’ health, sustainability and quality of life is an entrenched and dominant, Wall Street-driven politics of austerity that on principle negates the public trust, the commons and the fundamental human right to water, in favor of wars of aggression, racist austerity and other products of corporate corruption and domination.  The current draft document’s total silence regarding this 21st century elephant in the Great Lakes – a system run amok – is absolutely unacceptable.

In her path breaking book on the pernicious policy results of four decades of modern environmental statutory law and regulation, “Nature’s Trust”, Professor Mary Christina Wood observes that “…[E]nvironmental law has failed in its basic purpose to safeguard natural resources.  The situation has worsened dramatically over the last two decades. … The agencies implementing the environmental laws have become perpetrators of legalized destruction, using permit provisions contained in nearly every [environmental] statute to subvert the purposes Congress and state legislatures intended.” (Preface, P. xvi)  The draft document’s willful ignorance of this catastrophic reality and its deep systemic roots is a fatal flaw that, if not corrected, will doom it to – at best – irrelevance.

The social, legal and political economic significance of our world’s contemporary water crises go far beyond the issue of affordability.  Professor Wood in “Nature’s Trist” says “Recognizing its role of vindicating basic human rights, Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke urge a new global water “ethic” premised on trust principles: Water must be declared and understood for all time to be the common property of all.” (P. 267)

One can hope that the “water ethic” (Pp. 1, 4) referenced briefly in the draft document could become a step toward this necessary transformation.  But that is only a hope at this time.  As the disruptive impacts of global climate change manifest everywhere via our relationships to water – its unavailability, its pollution and its potentially immense destructive power – the feeble miscommunication, market pricing and evaluation “strategies” proposed in the current draft document should be seen for what they are: yet another attempt by the powerful forces behind Snyder and his ilk at “leveraging power”, or rather usurping the resources and human rights necessary for the rest of us to thrive, or even survive, in our imperiled state.

The draft document’s repeated references to “free” water (P. 42) are not only contradictory, in the context of Detroit’s mass water shut offs they are disturbingly bizarre.  The draft seems to want to have it both ways: mangling the concept of water as “a free, shared resource” available only to those who can pay the substantial costs of the infrastructure necessary to make it available and keep it clean.  In this upside-down paradigm, the higher relative cost of water for poor People subsidizes the wealthy, large-volume consumers who “pay less as volumes rise”! (P. 42)  If there has ever been a public policy framework in need of radical rethinking, this is it!

The intention to develop and “optimize” (P. 44) a state water strategy should offer a tremendous opportunity for beneficial change in the ways we see our relationships to ecology and each other.  One of Pope Francis’ deepest insights applies: A “true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (P. 35 ¶ 49)  If the implications of that powerful statement for water affordability and justice in Michigan cities are not clear to the reader of these comments, then they have been wasted.  The state water strategy would benefit enormously from a return to the drawing board, and reboot from this profound and timely premise: social and ecological approaches are not only both necessary, they are in fact the same.

In conclusion, we demand as an absolute minimum first step that the state’s water strategy must include an adequate, mandatory water affordability plan, which provides reasonable access to all People based on their income and ability to pay for it.

“In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters. … We need only look around us to see that, today, this option is in fact an ethical imperative essential for effectively attaining the common good.”
–Pope Francis, Laudato Si’ (P. 117 ¶ 158)

Tom Stephens