Commentary: Water shutoffs do no one any good

By Laura Sullivan

In 2015, Dr. Sullivan, a Kettering University professor of mechanical engineering, worked with other activists as part of the Coalition for Clean Water to return the city of Flint to Detroit for its water supply. Since then, she has helped to coordinate positive interactions between residents, local physicians, researchers, journalists, the City of Flint, and the EPA. Dr. Sullivan is a member of the Flint Water Interagency Coordinating Committee, the Flint Area Community Health and Environment Partnership (FACHEP), and the Technical Advisory Committee for Flint’s Public Health Director.  She recently posted the concise commentary below on Facebook, and EVM asked to reprint it.  

No one can envy a city employee whose job it is to cut off the water supply to families. I’d prefer it if members of the city council were present for each shut off. Maybe this would motivate a more serious discussion about alternatives.

You might think that anyone who doesn’t pay their water bill deserves to have their water supply cut off. But the people who live here aren’t the only ones who suffer consequences of the shut off. When the water is shut off to one house, the quality of the water going to all neighboring houses likely declines. This is the reason that progressive cities identify ways to keep water moving, rather than hoping to motivate better water rate collection by threatening shut offs.

Water protest at City Hall in 2016 (Photo by Jan Worth-Nelson)

You might think that a resident who doesn’t pay for water deserves to become ill from diseases that occur when hygiene and sanitation end. But bacteria don’t  remain at home, and the diseases that can result from a lack of running water can make everyone in a city sick. That’s the reason why progressive cities focus on making sure that water continues to flow. Because public health can suffer for the whole public when a city shuts off water to residents.

The problem is that this city is operating on the premise that it is acceptable to shut off water to residents, even when this has a negative impact on water quality and public health. Municipal water distribution systems are designed to deliver water – they are not designed to send water to some homes and not others. Public health is built upon the assumption that every resident has access to water for, at a minimum, hygiene and sanitation. It is not possible to maintain public health when members of a community lack this access. Progressive cities have found solutions.

Shutting off water doesn’t improve revenue, and it has the potential of degrading water quality increasing the spread of disease. So why would the city’s CFO announce the need to “increase the capacity to shut off water”?

Laura Sullivan at Pine Ridge last summer

Dr. Sullivan is a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Kettering University, where she’s been a faculty member since 1992. She teaches courses in engineering mechanics and materials engineering and has advised Kettering’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-USA) and Student Association for Global Engineering (SAGE) since 2005. This group of students has assisted  communities in Mexico and South Africa with water collection and filtration projects, and currently works on water and solar energy projects in the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Since founding EWB at Kettering, Dr. Sullivan and her students have constructed over 20 wheelchair ramps for families in and around Flint. 

Author: East Village Magazine

A Non-profit, Community News Magazine Since 1976

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