Going Local: A Resilient Approach to Wastewater

A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future.​ This Article Was Originally Published July 25, 2018 in Earth Island Journal.

In the late spring of 2014, Charity Hicks awoke to find workmen turning off water to her home. Her fierce protests drove them away, but only as far as her neighbor’s house, where the water shutoffs continued. Her efforts to warn others led to a physical confrontation with the workmen in which Hicks was injured, and police were called. Astonishingly, they arrested Hicks and held her overnight for protesting the loss of her community’s water services. She was never charged. 

The shutoffs were part of a larger effort by Detroit’s water and sewer utility (DWSD) to solve its financial problems by squeezing the city’s poorest citizens. In 2014 alone, water shutoffs left 30,000 homes without drinking water or sanitation. Many more homes have faced shutoffs since, creating a fast-moving catastrophe that threatens health, welfare, and quality of life, and can quickly lead to children being removed by social services due to the “child abuse” of not having running water. 

To many Detroiters, Charity Hicks is the “Rosa Parks” of Detroit’s water shutoff struggle. Although Charity was killed in a hit-and-run accident in New York City just weeks after the incident, others in her community were inspired to step up, including Monica Lewis-Patrick, co-founder of a local citizen empowerment organization, We the People of Detroit (WPD). Lewis-Patrick, who was shaken to the core by Hicks’s experience, says, “I didn’t find water. Water found me.”

For Lewis-Patrick, water shutoffs amount to the “weaponization” of water. To survive, her community needs secure water services at affordable rates. So she is exploring a small-scale, neighborhood-based wastewater resource recovery system that, through the sale of recycled resources, brings down the costs of wastewater treatment, thus reducing household water bills.

Lewis-Patrick arrived in Detroit in 2008 from Tennessee. Her previous work in education and mental health, and her experience in organizing and running a crisis center and hotline service, were a good fit with the needs of her neighbors. Responding quickly to the city’s aggressive water shutoff schedule, WPD conducted a door-to-door survey and mobilized a hotline for water access. Water stations were set up across the city and a volunteer corps of “Water Droppers” delivered water to those in need but lacking transportation. 

In the four years since the city’s water shutoff campaign began, Lewis-Patrick has seen her neighbors lose water service, and then their health, jobs, homes, and children. She is determined to defend the human right to water and sanitation, believing that “the simple act of drinking a glass of water symbolizes our shared humanity.” Furthermore, Lewis-Patrick and her allies suspect that shutting off water to whole blocks is less about collecting on past-due accounts and more about clearing out poor neighborhoods to make room for Detroit’s much-touted urban renaissance. As the Guardian reported in 2015, Detroit is “a city both collapsing and gentrifying at the same time.”

A chance encounter with Bob Zimmerman, executive director of the Charles River Watershed Association (CRWA) in Boston, suggested a potential solution to Lewis-Patrick’s quest for affordable and secure water services. Zimmerman’s organization has developed and modeled a neighborhood-scale wastewater treatment plant, known as a CWERC (community water and energy resource center), that recycles wastewater to produce energy, reclaimed water, and fertilizers. Selling these valuable products is profitable, generating income to defray the plant’s operating costs. This means that wastewater fees, often the most expensive part of a household’s water bill, can be substantially reduced, making water services more affordable for low-income families. Net income can be used to fund emergency water bill assistance to families in crisis, improving water security. 

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Urban Resilience