Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

The people of Detroit have pledged to risk arrest "in order to protect and uphold the human right to water in Detroit." (Photo: Detroit Water Brigade)

Detroiters Vow Resistance After Judge Rules There is No Human Right to Water

Bankruptcy judge declines moratorium allowing water shutoffs to continue

Lauren McCauley

The people of Detroit are vowing resistance after a federal bankruptcy judge on Monday ruled that the city can continue shutting off water to its poorest residents if their bills cannot be paid.

Judge Steven W. Rhodes at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan declared that citizens have no implicit right to water, that he lacked the authority to issue a restraining order to stop the shutoffs and that doing so would be a financial hit to the city already in the throes of bankruptcy. "There is no such right or law," Rhodes said.

Advocacy groups had filed for a temporary restraining order against the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to stem the shutoffs until a plan is put into place to ensure that Detroiters can afford access to clean water.

The plaintiffs—which include the National Action Network, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Moratorium Now and the Peoples Water Board—argued that the city implemented shutoffs unfairly, without adequate notice and with little financial assistance for poor people who lack the means to pay.

The Detroit Water Brigade, which has spearheaded relief efforts for households where the water has been shut off, issued a statement following the ruling saying they "strongly condemn" the decision.

"Each day, hundreds of our neighbors and friends are losing access to life’s most essential ingredient for the simple fact that they are unable to pay," the statement reads.

"This affront to dignity and human rights will not continue on our watch: today we pledge our voices and our bodies to protect each other when the legal system will not," it continues.  The volunteer group has vowed to undertake a "sustained and escalating campaign of nonviolent direct action" and risk arrest in order to "protect and uphold the human right to water in Detroit."

"This affront to dignity and human rights will not continue on our watch: today we pledge our voices and our bodies to protect each other when the legal system will not." 
—Detroit Water Brigade

Plaintiff Attorney Alice Jennings said Monday that the group will look to appeal the decision. "We have demonstrated, and the judge agreed, that a family without water faces risk of irreparable harm," Jennings said.  "We believe there is a right to water and there is a right to affordable water."

During the two days of hearings last week, Detroit residents and experts took the stand to testify about the hardships that stemmed from a lack of access to clean water.

Speaking before the courtroom, one witness reportedly "became teary" after describing how she had to buy bottles of water from the dollar store to bathe herself. "It doesn't make me feel good," she said, according to an account by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Social worker and city resident Maureen Taylor, who also chairs the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, described her visits to hundreds of homes deprived of running water. "It’s beyond sad," Taylor said, adding that there are often empty bottles of water all over the place. "People are scared. It’s a horrible thing to see."

During her testimony, DWSD head Sue McCormick said that she has no clue how many of the over 19,000 homes where water was shut off this year were occupied or home to kids or disabled residents. Further, McCormick admitted that, despite being DWSD policy, utilities representatives were not knocking on doors to see if a bill was in dispute before shutting off the water supply.

"Thousands of people in Detroit remain without water service, including the elderly, the disabled, and families with small children," said Kary Moss, ACLU of Michigan executive director, in a statement following a ruling. "Without a clear plan for helping people afford their bills or appeal incorrect bills, the water department shouldn’t be in the business of turning off anyone else's water."

During his ruling, Rhodes touted a new city plan to create an independent regional body, the Great Lakes Water Authority, that will lease the city's water pipelines to suburban towns in order to recoup funds for DWSD. However, opponents have criticized the plan saying it's a clear step towards water privatization.

On September 19, the Detroit City Council voted 7-2 in favor of the plan and the surrounding municipalities are currently in the approval process.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'Incredible': Omar and Khanna Staffers Join Levin's Office in Unionizing

"It is long past time the United States Congress became a unionized workplace, and that includes my own staff," said Rep. Ilhan Omar. "I am proud of all the people on my team who have played a leading role in the staff unionization effort. Solidarity forever."

Jessica Corbett ·


Destructive Hurricanes Fuel Calls for Biden to Declare Climate Emergency

"Mother Nature is not waiting for the president or Congress to declare a climate emergency. She's showing us in real-time here in the United States—with wildfires, floods, heatwaves, hurricanes, and drought."

Jessica Corbett ·


Spain Approves 'Solidarity' Tax to Make Nation's Top 0.1% Pay a Fairer Share

The country's finance minister said that looming changes are bound to make the tax code "more progressive, efficient, fair, and also enough to guarantee social justice and economic efficiency."

Kenny Stancil ·


'Time to Take to the Streets': Working Class Hold 'Enough Is Enough' Rallies Across UK

"Does a CEO need an extra zero at the end of their salary—or should nurses, posties, and teachers be able to heat their homes?" said one supporter ahead of the #EnoughIsEnough National Day of Action.

Julia Conley ·


Ukraine Responds to Putin Annexations With Fast-Track NATO Application

Lamenting the lack of any progress toward a diplomatic settlement, one anti-war campaigner asked: "Will the world stand idly by as we careen towards nuclear apocalypse?"

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo