River Of Opportunity

The year was 2011. Rick Snyder was elected Governor of Michigan. In December 2012 he signed into law a new and revised Emergency Management Bill. The law has a long history, now changed with the Snyder Administration.

Since the change in the law, the Governor declared financial emergencies in seven cities and school districts. He appointed Emergency Managers for each. Over the years, Administrators oversaw the daily functions of municipalities and districts — effectively seizing legal authority from elected officials. In America we call this legal disenfranchisement 'democracy.'

Flint was one of the cities ostensibly 'rescued.' It was 'protected.' In truth, it was negatively affected.

Flint, Michigan is a majority Black population city. 40 percent of the families live in poverty. Perhaps, that explains why for years, the majority of people in the State stayed silent. Few in 2013 spoke of or protested the veracity of further disinvestment in a poor city. Little concern was expressed when State and local officials spoke of a desire to save money by changing the water system.

A report commissioned by Flint in 2011 evaluating the plan to switch from Lake water to Flint River as a long-term source of drinking water, was ignored. It included a list of chemicals required to make river water safe to drink. Without regard for the need, the next year, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved the plan. No chemicals were added to the system. Lives were placed in irreversible danger. Now, and for the past two years the damage is done. Why? For the Governor it was seen as a
River Of Opportunity…

By Shea Howell | Originally Published at The Boggs Blog, a project of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership. January 25, 2015 | Photographic Credit; Ariana Hawk, 25, is the single mother of three children under the age of 10 living in Flint, Mich., with her mother. She bathes her middle child, Sincere Smith, 2, in bottled water after he suffered serious rashes from bathing in Flint's contaminated tap water. (Regina H. Boone / Detroit Free Press)

Governor Snyder’s State of the State may be more remembered for his imagery than his policy pronouncements. Snyder called for “revolutionizing how government operates” to move all Michiganders into the “river of opportunity.”

For Snyder, and those who support him, this may not be a metaphor. The Detroit River is the opportunity he is interested in exploiting.

It should be obvious to everyone that access to clean, safe, affordable water for all is not a concern of government officials. In Detroit officials justify shutting off water to thousands of citizens who cannot afford to pay ever-higher bills. In Flint, they justify delivering dirty water to people who do pay bills. Affordable, safe, clean, and clear water is no longer a dependable part of daily life in Michigan.

Last summer Flint stopped getting water from Detroit. Thanks to republican legislation, Flint and Genesee County are constructing a new water pipeline, on top of existing pipes, to take water from Lake Huron. The $300 million project wont be completed until 2016. In the meantime, people are getting water from the Flint River. This water turns out to be brown. It smells. It is making people sick. Residents are storming public meetings demanding solutions.

The answers they are getting are not comforting. Public officials celebrate the fact that they detected harmful bacteria in the Flint water. They imply it is unavoidable to have high levels of other toxins, as they are needed to treat this bacteria. They say smell and color don’t necessarily mean water is “unsafe.” In a statement that captures the attitude in the legislature, Michael Prysby, a district engineer in the state Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance said, “We don’t want to make a blanket statement to say water is safe or unsafe. It’s misleading both ways.”

Flint was the second largest customer of the Detroit water system. Their state backed decision to leave the system removes $12 million from Detroit. The loss of this revenue contributes to the current efforts of Oakland and Macomb County Executives to get out of the newly forming Great Lakes Water Authority. The result of closed-door negotiations under the cover of bankruptcy, the GLWA is supposed to provide a public authority with shared regional responsibility for clean, safe, affordable water.

But Oakland and Macomb are already trying to renegotiate their responsibilities. At the beginning of last week, L. Brooks Patterson of Oakland County and Mark Hackel of Macomb both signaled they are looking for a way out of the pledged $50 million a year to Detroit. They say they are worried about whether or not Detroit is able to meet its part of the financial obligations. Specifically the execs are looking for a way to blame Detroit for the reality that they may be facing politically toxic rate increases in their suburban districts.

A key element to setting up the GLWA was a projection that water rates would not increase more than 4% a year. Now, with the loss of Flint and dramatic drops in consumption due to weather and shut offs, officials are talking about double digit increases.

The state has evaded fundamental responsibilities. It has turned water into a commodity that encourages waste and consumption. Conservation is punished with higher rates as the majority of the costs of the system are fixed. It has evaded adopting a true water affordability plan that would protect access for all citizens, thus denying the basic right to water to an ever-larger number of people as rates escalate. It treats water as a product, not a public trust.

Governor Snyder and his cronies know water is the next oil. They regard it as a commodity to buy and sell for the benefit of corporate share holders, not the benefit of all people today and for future generations. Those of us who understand that water is a human right need to demand a real revolution in the protection of our rivers. That is the real opportunity.

Shea Howell is a founding member and board member of the Boggs Center, a space to nurture the development of visionary organizing rooted in place and history. To read more about the work of the Boggs Center, travel to the Urban Innovative Exchange profile.

This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank the Author, Shea Howell, for her kindness, awareness, and for inviting us to look at the ways in which we ignore what does not touch us personally. We wait and wait while families are poisoned and the children experience irreversible damage.


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