an ethnographic encounter with Detroit, its people, and their water

Matthew Garvin

(This article was originally written for a final project in 2012 — I am republishing with only minor edits and no updating for context sake. Flint still had water.)

Earth’s surface is comprised of about 70% water, the same percentage that makes up the human brain. It’s true that we are carbon based life forms, but we also know that water is the most essential of our basic needs. Considering these facts, it should come as no surprise that more than 80% of the world’s population lives near, if not right next to, water. In this, Detroit is not unique; in fact, it should be known that the city is named after the river, not the other way around. Bearing this in mind, I will attempt to shed light on the business and the politicization of American water usage from a local standpoint, connecting this to the fate of the global environment. But first, a little history is in order.

It was the French who sailed up the river from Lake Eerie, noting that the north bank of the river would be an ideal location for a settlement. In 1701, this settlement was established by French officer, Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac. Accompanying Cadillac to the original settlement was a mere 51 French-Canadians. France began offering free land to families to attract them to the area. It grew to 800 people by 1755; thus becoming the biggest city from Montreal to New Orleans. Within five years it would be taken, seized by the British, and fought over for the next 53 years before being recognized as a city of the United States.

Situated as a stronghold with dominion over approximately one fifth of the world’s freshwater, it follows that Detroit will certainly play a crucial role in protecting this resource. At the 2012 World Water Forum, it was revealed that if significant precautions are not adopted, the world will in fact, face a water crisis as early as 2050. In a recent U.N. report, the dreary summary declared that the most significant problem we face is the impact of the emerging markets around the world. Such markets as Brazil, China, India, Russia, Ireland and South Africa have all seen relatively tremendous growth in the last decade. With this growth comes the empowerment of middle class consumerism. Changes in behavior are associated with the middle class, including increased demand for meat. And this is just one example of the added burden. As Royte says, only 1–2% of the water that comes into our homes is used for cooking. The rest is laundry, showering, toilet flushing, lawn watering and car washing. These emerging economies are expected to want many of the modern day conveniences that we have come to take for granted, all of which consume water in production. Some of these stats are astounding. Take for example an average of 53 gallons of water for every latte purchased in an insulated paper cup with a plastic lid, shipped from one location to another; 1,300 gallons in a single pair of blue jeans. There’s an estimated 40,000 gallons of water used to produce a single car — and of course, Detroit is the king of cars.

Since Ford incorporated in 1903 it has become the third largest automobile manufacturer in the world, a veritable household name, and is now leading the way towards reducing the amount of water auto manufacturers use to produce their vehicles. Up until recently, many of the manufacturing techniques required large amounts to provide lubrication, to cool hot metal, and to flush debris.

In 2000, Ford pledged to reduce its water usage by 62%, or 10.5 billion gallons. One of the techniques being employed in Detroit and throughout the world at Ford plants is called Minimum Quantity Lubrication, or dry machining. This new manufacturing strategy makes use of a strategically placed oil lubricant resulting in a gross savings of hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and oil a year. The process is used at plants in Livonia, Romeo, and the Van Dyke Transmission plant, as well as plants in Europe. And of course those Michigan plants listed above are fed water from the DWSD system, with the exception of the Romeo Engine plant.

The DWSD system is peculiar of course, in that it doesn’t make use of elevated storage tanks, which rely on gravity to pump water into the homes and businesses below. Instead, all the water is pumped from the moment it is gulped up through one of three intakes in the river and Lake Huron, until it comes out of the tap. This requires a serious amount of energy, a model noted for its impracticality among those who work at water utilities around the country. So why doesn’t Detroit take advantage of gravity to sustain water pressure and lower their DTE bill? I suspect the same reason DTE lets steam billow out of the manholes. To answer this, I turned to an expert.

My initial quest for information led me to an article on Crain’s Detroit Business website. The article, “Software Targets Water System Energy Use,” highlights a Wayne State led coalition to develop software that improves energy efficiency for our water system. Dr. Carol Miller, Professor and Dept. Chair for the Civil and Environmental Engineering program here at WSU is leading the charge. I contacted her for an interview, and after a few days playing email tag; she invited me to the Office of Campus Sustainability’s Film Series presentation of: “FLOW: for love of water”. The event also featured an introduction by Miller herself, and a discussion immediately following the film with members of Flow-for-Water (Eric Johnson), a Traverse City based NGO, and the Great Lakes Alliance (Sam Lowell). I sat down with the professor briefly before she went up to speak. In preparation, I had listened to a radio interview where she had explained that because of Detroit’s “topography”, building a water system that relied on elevated water tanks was impractical. Thus, my first question, “why?”

To put it simply, Detroit is flat. In order for storage tanks to feasibly rely on gravity to achieve an optimal pressure, the city would have to have hills in the proper locations at a minimum height or more. After saying this however, she revealed that this is not her own conclusion, but rather the reasons that she was given from the city and the water utility. Obviously this doesn’t add up because in almost every other city in America you will find a water system utilizing an elevated storage tank. Even in extremely crowded metropolitan areas like NYC, the water utility makes use of the rooftops.

At this point my instincts kick in and tell me something is amiss. After all, wasn’t Monica Conyers indicted in 2009 for bribery over her vote on the $1.2 billion Synagro sewage sludge hauling contract directly related to the DWSD? In the 80’s it was the same thing, Darralyn Bowers (close friend of Mayor Coleman Young) was convicted for paying bribes to city officials for the multi-million dollar Vista sludge contract. Young was named an unindicted co-conspirator, and it doesn’t end there. The list goes on and on — implicating judges like the Honorable and recently laid to rest John Feikens, who was known as the “Sludge Judge”. It was he who oversaw the DWSD for 33 years and ordered the appointment of Victor Mercado to the city’s highest-paid job. Under Mercado’s reign as the department director for the DWSD, it’s alleged that contractor Bobby Ferguson (a close friend of Kwame Kilpatrick) is tied to about $58.5 million worth of crooked contracts with the department. (Baldas)

The web of corruption erupts into a veritable quagmire of scandal, as more and more details come to light. However, from the smidgen of those I have listed above, a pattern starts to form: Those who are appointed to positions of power in Detroit tend to use that power to acquire more, at the expense of the citizens, whom they were elected to represent. So what is the source of Detroit’s power? Well, it’s the water of course. The only two industries bigger than water on a global level are oil and electricity. And while it’s the third largest water utility in the country, it is in fact the largest, single-site, waste water treatment plant in the United States. (Water-Tech.net)


The department serves a 1,079 sq. mile area which includes the city itself as well as 126 additional communities. From Monroe to [Flint], the DWSD provides water for communities in: Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, St. Clair, Lapeer, Genesee, Washtenaw and Monroe counties. Wastewater service is extended beyond Detroit, encompassing 76 additional communities. All of this equates to 40% of the entire population of Michigan!

…to tap

So there is a lot of money to be made in upkeep and repair of the system. But as we see, while on the surface that is where the money appears to be going, it is in fact lining the pockets of those involved. To borrow a line from Bill Johnson, “TheDWSD’s reputation as a dumping ground for patronage jobs, contract padding and sleaze is legendary.”

Unfortunately the maintenance and repairs on order are sorely needed. Detroit has seen its population decrease significantly over the last few decades, with many neighborhoods looking like ghost towns, and yet water is still pumping into these areas at full pressure. Many of the pipes are leaking if not outright gushing water. Yet they are going unmonitored and unrepaired, even though we are still footing the bill. It brings to mind something Royte mentions, “Unless cities invest more to repair and replace their water and sewer systems, the EPA warns, nearly half of them will, by 2020, be in poor, very poor, or “life elapsed” status. The bill to take care of the drinking-water part, to hell with the sewers, will run $390 billion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.” (Do we really want to return to the days of the pollution strewn river, choked with contaminants like in the 40’s?

It’s not as though the federal government will be so quick to invest in Detroit infrastructure as they were the first few times major investments were required. When Detroit was considered the ‘Paris of the West’ and the government was building the nation. The city is on the decline now for federal funding, and the fed just bailed out the auto companies, so we’re on our own. The administrators are going to continue to tie our money up in bureaucracy. That much is clear. So how about we take another look at Prof. Miller’s software? It sports a snazzy GUI — or graphical user-interface, to provide utility workers with information and options as to how best reroute the water through the existing system. She has studied the network, and says that there are an “infinite” amount of routes for these workers to choose from. Obviously infinity is a bit brazen, but the point is clear; we can do better with what we’ve got. And in point of fact, we have to.

Doing research from a holistic perspective, I’m keen to point out that the problem and the solution are rooted in our culture. Entire generations of American youth are being indoctrinated with the more “traditional” American values like rugged-individualism, while at the same time being coerced through marketing practices to instantly gratify one’s desires and urges. Some obviously, are more susceptible than others. The real problem is that the people behind the scenes, pulling the strings, know how to make people more susceptible. They know the secrets of creating culture. The worst part of my discipline is observing any given person’s behavior (including my own), and how it is dictated by choices that were made for them. Even worse is knowing who made them, and why.

That’s to be expected in a highly stratified society such as ours. People specialize. Prof. Miller looks to engineering, I to culture. So while I can appreciate the steps she has taken to improve pumping efficiency by approx. 15% (which is huge by the way), it is essentially a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound with the lens I am looking through. Our city was handed over to us by the culture that built our infrastructure, ours is a culture now only lost in dreams of nostalgia. I agree there is no such thing as the good ole days. I too, believe as Dr. King did in that, “an injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.” Aside from all the social ills of times passed, the Detroiters of yesteryear built our infrastructure. They did so under the assumption that future generations would be civic minded, with sense enough to maintain what had been so painstakingly constructed. Consider the civil engineering feats of the past century at the very least, as revealing a society that intended to last. Now, a sweeping generalization yields a fear based agenda, which is either soaked up by ideologues, or completely ignored by the apathetic. Resulting in a lack of community engagement or the blank stare and mindless rhetoric one commonly finds on FOX News. Obviously there is a lot of gray room to move about, but for those too young to know what life was like before extreme convenience, it’s easy for them to take it for granted. They were enculturated to do so from birth.

Back to the movie presentation for FLOW, I noticed the faculty coordinator, was sporting an ever fashionable Starbucks Latte. Likely, he is unaware of the hydrological impact of that simple choice. Miller’s daughter was in attendance as well, Tim Horton’s cup in hand. A member of the Student Environmental Action Leaders was in attendance, sipping on a bottle of Ice Mountain. I must admit I couldn’t withhold a quick smirk when Mr. Olson from the Flow for Water organization mentioned that his brother (who was quoted a few times in the documentary) had worked as an activist against Ice Mountain in the past. And as Royte notes, “Manufacturing and filling plastic water bottles consumes twice as much water as the bottle will ultimately contain.” (Royte 139)

I raised my hand with the intention of pointing out those numbers running through my head, but I thought better of it. The young man with the bottle pictured on the left asked about specific manufacturing techniques being applied to reduce water consumption. Mr. Lovall spoke about the green strides Ford has taken with renovations at the Rouge plant, pretty standard knowledge. I would have felt like a know-it-all, explaining to these student leaders, engineers and state water activists the adaption of dry manufacturing at the Ford plants. If they attain the goal they reestablished in 2009, Ford will have reduced water usage from 9.5 to 3.5 cubic meters per unit. Each cubic meter is roughly 250 gallons, equating to a rather big achievement.

These patterns I observed are a clear example of the hyper-individualistic, the market of convenience, and path of least resistance in a reality where every move we make needs to be scrutinized to achieve a more sustainable society. We need to change our thinking; i.e. think more. The American West has a few decades of water left and then where are they going to look? Probably towards the blue goldmine that is the Great Lakes Basin. A pipeline has already been proposed to AZ. But as an aside, Miller mentions an economist friend of hers who wondered why it didn’t make more sense to them to just move here where the water is? I suspect it’s the same reason that bottled water costs more than gasoline on a per liter basis and yet gas prices are all over the news. A dangerous side effect of our brand of consumer capitalism is the privilege it instills, sacrifice is more of a rhetorical device. Even more dangerous still is the vast poverty, and the real sacrifice that comes with it as witnessed throughout Detroit. In light of current economic troubles, it’s estimated there are some 90,000 people who do not have running water in and around the city. However, I spoke to a source on the DDOT 53 North, who operates as something of an activist out of Highland Park. She says the number is much higher, according to her, “many families have gotten their water shut off and don’t tell nobody because they’ll lose their kids.” Unfortunately, she declined to be photographed and wished to remain anonymous, but she led my research to take on a whole new dimension. She said water is a public trust, and should be treated as such.

This was again mentioned at the movie and discussion I attended. Listen to the power of these words from Wikipedia:

“The concept of the public trust relates back to the origins of democratic government and its seminal idea that within the public lies the true power and future of a society; therefore, whatever trust the public places in its officials must be respected.”

This is supposed to be a part of what we are, that defines us as Americans and justifies our “spread” of democracy throughout the world. Within the public lies the true power and future of a society. Interesting to ponder the future impact the recent announcement concerning Coke’s strategic partnering with the Pure Michigan travel campaign. Pure Michigan brought to you by Coke. Drink Dasani. Drink Dasani. Drink Dasani. How about we just tell Gov. Snyder to install Coke as Emergency Financial Manager? (Egan and Bell) I bet they would build light rail all the way to AZ and CA, but it would be a freight rail. I can see it now, people irrigating their vineyards with individual bottles. Drink Dasani. Drink Dasani. Drink Dasani. Brought to you by Governor Coke — until all of it turns to mud.

Even then, we know Coke would carry on, because they can use that mud to make Dasani. Drink Dasani. Drink Dasani. Drink Dasani. Water Games seems, to me at least, a more pressing matter than Hunger Games. And yet this is what we are faced with: A population caught up in one way or another in Baudrillard’s, ‘simulacra’ — and literally harvested in terms of Foucault’s, ‘biopower’. And lastly, like Boas wondered, “How can we recognize the shackles that tradition has laid upon us?”

However, Detroiters also have a tradition of urban agriculture. “In the 1890’s, poor Detroiters were encouraged to grow food on vacant land by the mayor, Hazen S. Pingree.” (McMillan) In her new book, Tracie McMillan explores Detroit’s agricultural heritage and what we are doing to protect and promote public gardening. This is definitely something that should be expanded on and might be a crucial turning point for the city. If we could take control of the water system and use it to irrigate vacant parcels of for public gardens, we can reduce some of the poverty stricken conditions while empowering many to earn some money. McMillan tells of the group — Grown in Detroit — which grossed $60,000 in 2010 selling off their extra produce to local restaurants and at farmers markets. A quick google search proves the net is littered with organizations around the world discussing the upward surge toward urban farming, and Detroit is something of an American figurehead in that respect. If Detroit proved that a city could feed itself, well it’s an opportunity for Detroit to once again lead the way into a new era and unprecedented realization of the ‘American Dream’. All we have to do is tap into it, before it’s tapped out.


Baldas, Tresa. “Kwame Kilpatrick’s friend tied to $58.5 million in corrupt contracts, affidavit shows.” 10 03 2012. Detroit Free Press. 31 03 2012.

Egan and Bell. “Detroit financial crisis: City comes down to the wire on consent deal with state.” 02 04 2012. The Detroit Free Press. 02 04 2012.

GLIN. Lake Michigan Facts and Figures. 1995. http://www.great-lakes.net/lakes/ref/michfact.html. 30 03 2012.

Johnson, Bill. “Corruption and the DWSD.” 27 12 2010. billjohnsondetroit.com. 31 03 2012.

McMillan, Tracie. “Plot by Plot.” Times, Metro. The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm fields and the dinner table. Detroit: Metro Times, 2012. 18.

Michael Daisy. “Complete History of the DWSD.” n.d. dwsd.org. 31 03 2012.

Royte, Elizabeth. Bottlemania. 2008.

Water-Tech.net. “Detroit Wastwater Treatment Plant, United States of America.” 2011. water-technology.net. 31 03 2012.

Woodford, Arthur M. This is Detroit: 1701–2001. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001.

information systems design research | msi @ u-m