Prohibits privatization of water system and makes incremental progress on affordability
In May 2019, newly sworn in Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot wasted no time in providing relief to people facing water shut offs for lack of funds to pay their bills.
Lightfoot, a Democrat, had previously said “when you cut somebody off from water, you’re effectively evicting them and putting them on the street. We will not do that in the city.”
On day one in office, Lightfoot directed the water commissioner to immediately end shut offs and she promised to work toward an affordability plan.
Fast forward to last week and the city council officially strengthened Lighfoot’s shut off directive by codifying it in law. Incremental progress was made on affordability but a comprehensive plan remains a work in progress.
The council also prohibited the city from allowing the system to be privatized, a slippery slope to loss of control and higher rates for something that is fundamental to human health.
Lightfoot’s drinking water action should not be minimized. She accomplished it by securing buy-in from the unwieldy 50 member city council in an era where the council is no longer subservient like it was to powerful former mayors like Richard Daley, the son, and Rahm Emanuel.
I posted Lighfoot’s no shut offs and privatization ban accomplishment on Twitter for the rest of the region to see what is possible when elected officials are willing to take a risk. I had barely hit send when I received a response from Monica Lewis-Patrick in Detroit.
“Congratulations Chicago on being the leadership we wish we had in Detroit,” said Lewis-Patrick, who leads the water-justice activist group We the People of Detroit.
You see, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan hasn't made ending shut offs a priority. Yes, there is a shut off moratorium in place in Detroit based on Covid protocols but it expires later this year.
But that’s like shooting a layup, it’s easy. And it also smacked of benign neglect as in, you have a right to water during this pandemic, but not beyond.
Detroit recently announced an affordability plan but no absolute end to shut offs.
I wanted to be optimistic that Detroit would follow Chicago’s lead without parsing the issue, but that didn’t happen. The Detroit plan reads like it was written by government bureaucrats and lawyers,
Thankfully Lightfoot, who called water shut offs “heartless,” led with doing the right thing and ended them unconditionally.
That didn’t happen in Detroit.
We justifiably fawn over Piping Plovers returning to a Great Lakes beach. But outrage when people are denied drinking water? Not so much.
In case you’ve been in a years-long deep sleep, there’s been a renaissance of interest in the Great Lakes’ signature bird, the Piping Plover.
Piping Plovers were nearly extinct and were placed on the official Endangered Species list in 1986. Once 800 nesting pairs, their numbers dipped to as low as 13 and are now estimated at 65-70 in the Great Lakes region, according to the website Great Lakes Piping Plovers.
Interest in Piping Plovers has been mostly the domain of bird-watchers and not-for-profit environmental groups who used them as an example of what happened when their Great Lakes habitat was degraded as it was for decades.
And until recently, their recovery was used to illustrate how it aligns with the nascent restoration of the Great Lakes from the depths of degradation. That is until a 2019 documentary film, Monty and Rose, chronicled the return of Piping Plovers to Chicago’s Montrose Beach, a bustling urban Lake Michigan setting.
Suddenly all eyes were on the lovebirds.
The urban beach crowd rallied around the birds to protect them from the perils of beachgoers who, to put it politely, can be oblivious to beach habitat as they pursue sun, surf and fun.
The story reached a peak this past Spring when Monty died of natural causes on the beach. A plethora of media coverage followed and a memorial service was held. Hardly standard fare for the passing of a bird on a beach but Monty was no ordinary bird.
The Monty and Rose saga was a Great Lakes feel-good story that transcended age-groups and offered a ray of hope that maybe, we could make the Great Lakes a better place after decades of degradation and neglect.
But the title of this commentary includes water shutoffs, which has no connection to lovable Piping Plovers. It’s about denying access to drinking water to people who can’t afford to pay their bills. And this is happening in the most water-wealthy area of the world.
That’s not lovable, it’s cruel. It’s the opposite of caring for cute birds making an environmental comeback on a big-city beach.
Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said when she ordered an end to shut offs that when you deny people water, you basically put them on the street.
As much as Monty and Rose deserved our adoration, should we not express equal outrage when government agencies deny basic drinking water to people?
Yes, there are grassroots groups who champion their end in places like Detroit where water shutoffs have been rampant. They also push for affordability programs that will allow access to water for all, no matter their financial status.
But water equity is not top of mind for politicians of either political party or the mainstream environmental groups.
I have heard water rights activists say the Great Lakes intelligentsia - politicians, commissions, agency-types and the NGO’s - thinks more about Invasive (Asian) Carp and bioswales than water shut offs. That was true 10 years ago when I first heard it and it remains true today.
President Joe Biden, who ran on environmental justice, did not include water affordability in his Build Back Better plan in spite of the pleadings of Detroit Democratic Rep. Rashida Tbalb and others.
In 2014, Canadian social justice advocate and international water rights icon Maude Barlow brought the United Nations to Detroit. Barlow wanted the U.N. to observe and document the pain and suffering Detroiters were incurring as a result of water shut offs.
Given the official inertia over ending shut offs and implementing affordability plans, maybe it’s time for another U.N. visit. A visit to chronicle a day, week or month in the life of a family without access to water
I suspect Monty and Rose would approve.
Chicago-based environmental journalist