Findings: 1 of 5 vacant buildings gushes with running water in Detroit

Water leak1

Water leaking

A long-abandoned factory floor on Detroit’s west side is 4 inches deep in gushing water. At the Belle Isle Nature Zoo, which closed 11 years ago, water still sprouts from a hole in the pavement like a fountain. And in the basement of a small abandoned church, water flowed so furiously from broken pipes that neighbors could hear what sounded like a raging river.

It’s a common problem throughout a city with more than 85,000 vacant buildings and not enough employees to handle the fallout of chronic abandonment.

Over the past six months, we inspected more than 100 vacant homes, schools, libraries churches, hospitals, factories and government buildings and found that roughly 20% still had running, leaking water. Even two vacant fire stations were flooded with water after thieves stole copper pipes.

Who pays for the running water? You do.

Detroit’s budget cuts have made it impossible for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to keep pace with water shutoffs for inactive or unpaid accounts. In just the past year, the department has shed more than 300 jobs. And more layoffs are anticipated in the near future.

No one knows for sure how many buildings are leaking water or how much it is costing customers. But one thing is certain: The city is woefully behind in shutting off water in thousands of vacant buildings.

Water leak2

The city continues to drain its population, leaving homes vacant for thieves and arsonists. Scrappers waste no time stealing metal pipes, causing gushing leaks that can go unaddressed for a decade.

We also found that homes destroyed in fires often spew out water for months before the utility is shut off.

Over the past two years, Stan Brown said he’s heard gushing water from the basement of his neighbor’s abandoned house on Garland Street and took us down the wobbly wooden stairs to show a knee-high pool of water that streamed from somewhere in the dark basement.

“Pretty disgusting, isn’t it?” Brown asked. “It’s no wonder people are leaving Detroit.”


Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.

  • dwight mannsburden

    isn’t there a team currently evaluating all structures in Detroit for whether they are hopeless or salvageable? Perhaps they could include a check for running water as they go

  • Tom

    It is easy to shut it off at the street, I used to have to do it if we were working on a house that needed the water off to replace the main valve inside the house.
    How To Make a Street Key:
    10′ 1/2″ Gas Pipe (black pipe)
    2′ of angle iron or another piece of 1/2″ pipe for the handle
    1/2″ coupling
    Thread the coupling onto one end of the pipe tight cut a straight notch into the end of the coupling about 1/2″ wide 1″ deep

    Take it to a welder have the handle welded to the top like a T handle, weld the coupling to the end so it cannot loosen during use.

    Find the service access there will be a (usually brass) plug threaded in at the top that uses a special socket, with a hammer and cold chisel you notch the edge of the plug hammering counter clockwise once it loosens you can thread it out with a pair of channel lock pliers or large enough vice grips

    Insert the street key down the center of the access feel around the notch will slip onto the valve 1/2 turn either way will shut off the water

    This is probably against the rules but seriously who would have a problem with somebody doing it?

  • Neil Copeland

    This blows my mind. I currently live in Indian Village and I had my water turned off about a week ago for just under 1 day because my landlord forgot to pay 2 months worth of water bill on an autopayment mishap.
    There should be a crew that just checks neighborhoods to insure houses do not have water running. Are the systems they uses so outdated (maybe even still paper) that they can not determine areas that are leaking water?

  • Tommy

    This is not a new problem Steve, when the DWSD ran a bloated payroll and all those laid off people still had their jobs; the water still ran unchecked and unbilled. As far back as the 1980’s we had vacant structures with water spewing out of them, and the factories and the zoo and everything else you surveyed. This is not because they finally started to tighten up ship at DWSD and laid off workers, this is the product of years of dysfunction, greed and incompetence at DWSD. If they had been competent, the problem would have magically appeared after the layoffs. Why didn’t you write about this in 2000? or 2004? or 2010? Why is now that workers get axed and pensions are being eyed for cuts, that all of a sudden we ‘notice’ the flowing water? On Rosemary street, there is a house with a flooded basement. Flooded when abandoned in 1989, burned in 1995 and again in 1999. Water still not shut off. Old news bro, old news.

    • bebow

      Well, Tommy, they say it’s a new day in Detroit. I can’t think of a better way to interfere with the criminal menace, without DPD involvement, than to cut off all illegal utility connections (DTE and DWSD), and make it impossible to restore service without payment. Saving some dollars by stopping the free flow of water down every other drain in the city would be nice, too.

  • Gary

    “Detroit’s budget cuts have made it impossible for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to keep pace with water shutoffs for inactive or unpaid accounts. In just the past year, the department has shed more than 300 jobs.” Don’t forget that the DWD work ethic is terrible. On any given day you can find half of them sleeping in a van somewhere around town.

  • Robert Lawson

    I was disgusted to learn that I pay monthly what a friend pays quarterly. I live in Detroit, she is in Harper Woods. To me, many of the city’s problems are being “chased” meaning we’re taking a “fifo” approach to our problems. Under normal circumstances I suppose that would be ok, but with the gluttony of abandoned homes and as-yet-incomplete utility shutoffs it simply does not work. Fire damaged homes should be demolished immediately instead of being allowed to linger for years as they wait on the infamous “list.” We still go after those properties on the list but not exclusively.

    Same goes for water, DTE and DWSD need to compare their lists of account activity. If DTE is registering power recently being shutoff, DWSD needs to be out there to shut off water, may not be a “next day” type of thing but a 30 day around is better than a 3 year turnaround.

    The best thing i can liken this to is surgery. Suppose you’re a doctor with a patient on the operating table. You’re trying to stop the bleeding but new holes are opening up faster than you can close them. If you strictly go in the order of where the bleeding occurs, the patient might bleed out before you close the last hole. But if you work from both ends, getting the newest and oldest holes first, the patient might stand a chance.

    That said, how can DWSD get water cutoff w/o spending more money? How can we tie together neighbors and communities? Lets take a look at a thought experiment:

    The flowing water costs DWSD customers “x” dollars / year. What if we took out new bond financing wherein the interest payments are covered by the expected savings from tactical wster shutoffs (my term). The capital raised from that bond issue could be used to train independent contractors in shutoffs and safety, then you repurpose DWSD staff to be more of a supervisory role checking the performance of these contractors. Probably a few hundred jobs created right there…

    Or, that money from.the bond issue can go to training neighbors in shutoffs and safety. Each house in their community that gets shutoff by this neighborhood association will earn “y” amount in dollars for that organization to invest in the welfare of the community. That could be parks, cleaning up, fill in houses, or home beautification… heck, even funding a private neighboorhood watch, whatever the community decides. This method might not create jobs but it will help in neighborhood stabilization.

    Steve, we’re friends on fb, Robert Lawson

  • Dust Buster

    its all good. just raise the rates so the managers of the water department can keep stealing and the water can make some nice ice sculptures since the heidelberg art is burnin lets make ice art

  • bebow

    My monthly DWSD bill is approximately equal to what the quarterly bill was 10 years ago. In addition to the above noted issues, many individuals are using DWSD keys to restore water service illegally after it has been shut off. Further, there is a provision in DWSD policy allowing slumlords to evade payment for service to their rental shacks by transferring responsibility for payment to new tenants, even as outstanding balances remain unpaid. DTE is also failing to handle its business and passing ever-increasing costs onto paying customers. Performance failure by DWSD and DTE is contributing to the destruction of the neighborhoods. The utility providers might get motivated and busy if they were prevented from passing on the cost of their shortcomings to decent customers. The problematic utility connections must be effectively disabled.