Water organizers rush to deliver bottled water to Detroit residents as COVID-19 spreads

March 22, 2019 | Brian Allnutt

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Water activists Debra Taylor and Monica Lewis-Patrick instruct volunteers on water delivery protocols on March 21, 2020, at St. Peter’s Episcopal church in Corktown. Photo by Brian Allnutt.

On Saturday morning on March 21, around a dozen volunteers wearing gloves and masks were helping unload an Absopure water truck at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Corktown.  When they got too close together, Debra Taylor, Co-founder of We the People of Detroit (WTPD), was like a nun at a middle school mixer, showing people how far apart they needed to be with her hands.  

Taylor had several pages of a protocol on hand, which her organization had made up the night before with some assistance from a Wayne County flier. At the top of the first page, it read: “READ ALL OF THIS NOTICE BEFORE DOING ANYTHING ELSE!!!!!” 

“This is like building a bike and riding it at the same time,” Taylor told me.

While the delivery truck had been directed to the church at the behest of Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy Director Liesl Clark, these volunteers were operating without assistance or guidance from the state or city, trying to get much-needed water to the several distributions spots and into the hands of citizens who still did not have access to running water. 

Although hand-washing has been recommended as the best and easiest way to prevent spreading the Covid-19 virus, this is difficult for the roughly 10,000 households in Detroit who don’t have access to running water. The inability to flush toilets could make this even worse. And, of course, these households still need water for drinking, cooking and mixing infant formula. 

Right now, bottled water may not even be available in many stores. WTPD President and CEO, Monica Lewis-Patrick told me they’ve been trying to get water for two weeks. 

“People are stockpiling,” she said, “and it's also creating a bottleneck on the distribution chain.” 

Water stocks in St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Corktown. Photo by Brian Allnutt.

Places like Costco, where water activists normally buy cases of water, are not able to get it to them. Much of it is bought up by panicked shoppers who likely have running water at home

Although the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) has been working to reconnect households--following a decision to suspend shutoffs and restore service in response to the coronavirus--progress has been slow. The coronavirus is growing at an alarming rate and by Wednesday, March 18th the city had only reconnected serve to 430 users

“According to our estimates, it's going be six to seven months before they turn everybody on,” Lewis-Patrick says. 

When asked if the city was planning to distribute bottled water to residents, DWSD spokesman Bryan Peckinpaugh told Planet Detroit, “Our focus is on restoring water services” and that, “More than 1,000 households have had their water restored, are in the queue for a turn-on over the next few days, or avoided a pending service interruption for nonpayment.”

In Detroit, where many residents have had their water shut-off for over a year, restoring service is complicated. 

“These homes have considerable lead service line and residential plumbing problems,” the Peoples Water Board (PWB) wrote in a letter addressed to Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Monday the March 16, “characterized by corroded and burst pipes; water heaters lined with dangerous deposits; water-borne microbial contamination in the lines from stagnant water and raw sewage; and lead contamination in plumbing and fixtures.” And even after these obstacles are overcome, the lines need to be flushed to make sure the water is safe to drink.

In this same letter, PWB asked the governor to set up “water stations” in Detroit, Flint, Benton Harbor and other places with large numbers of shutoffs or where people may feel the water is not safe to drink, such as areas with documented  PFAS contamination. They also ask the state to provide sanitary supplies like bleach and paper towels at these stations.

So far, PWB has not received a reply from the governor.  

“That's been one of the most frustrating aspects of this, they're not even telling us that they're looking into a plan to try to establish water stations,” Sylvia Orduño of the Michigan Welfare Rights organization said during a press call on Friday, March 20. She worries that in the absence of water “there is no capability to control this virus from spreading in really dangerous ways.”

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EGLE has told PWB that they “are reviewing legal questions relating to see how or if they can help the city of Detroit.” Part of the holdup could be jurisdictional issues between the city and the state. Orduño recounted a “frank discussion” with an unnamed Michigan member of congress who said the state “cannot come into the city of Detroit and start setting up water stations, they have to basically be invited or be requested from the mayor.”

However, the governor declared a state of emergency on March 11, giving her broad power that could include things like setting up water stations, meaning this may be more an issue of political will than “legal questions”. 

While these issues play themselves out, water activists were asking for donations of bottled water and other supplies, while guarding a single, large bottle of hand-sanitizer for everyone to use. Taylor says some have answered her call for help. 

“I want to give a shout-out to Family Fair Marketplace on Chene,” she says.  “Nick and his crew have worked like dogs to help us find this water.”

If you would like to support the water distribution efforts in Detroit contact: The People's Water Board (info@peopleswaterboard.org; @PeoplesWaterDet on Twitter, People's Water Board Coalition on Facebook.