Water gushes in thousands of vacant buildings as Detroit shuts off occupied homes

Ice at Detroit City HS
Ice accumulated at Detroit City High School during the winter after the city failed to turn off running water.

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 12 years ago, water sprouts from a hole in the pavement like a fountain. And in numerous abandoned schools, water flows freely from broken pipes and floods classrooms and hallways.

Over the past year, 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.

Water leaks at the vacant Belle Isle Nature Zoo, which closed 12 years ago.

As water gushes endlessly from thousands of abandoned buildings and houses, the city has shut off water to more than 15,000 delinquent homeowners and landlords under the order of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. The running water drives up water bills in a city where 38% of the population lives in poverty.

And although the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is already unable to keep pace with shutoffs at abandoned buildings, Orr plans to drastically reduce the department’s staff while paying up to $6 million to turn off water to delinquent customers.

RELATED: Protests over water shutoffs increase, drawing about 1,000 to downtown Detroit

Mayor Mike Duggan, who has no authority over the shutoffs, doesn’t like how the process went down.

“He is profoundly frustrated that he doesn’t have the authority over the water department and he hopes that will change soon,” mayoral spokesman John Roach said.

Vacant school, by Dan Sommers III
Vacant school, by Dan Sommers III

Today, DWSD plans to announce an initiative, called Detroit Delivers, that will enable smart phone users to notify the city of running water in vacant buildings. The goal is to shut off the water within 48 hours, said Bill Johnson, spokesman for the DWSD.

“We understand there is running water out there, but we don’t always know where it is,” Johnson said. “So we are asking the public to use this technology to help us identify properties where water is running.”

Johnson said the department also is instructing crews to check abandoned buildings for water. It’s no easy task. The city has more than 80,000 abandoned structures.

Not everyone buys into the plan.

Dan Sommers III has alerted the department to flooding at several schools but the city failed to act until the media got involved.

“It is insulting at how they ignore those of us who call in to try to save them some money but are so persistent with the water shutoffs,” Sommers said. “It’s sickening.”

Here is one of Sommers’ videos:


Here is another video of running water at an abandoned school  by Jason Feeny.


Duggan’s spokesman John Roach said the mayor was unhappy with the handling of the shutoffs.

“He has said that while he understands the need for people to pay for their water, the whole shut off process was poorly handled,” Roach said. “His feeling is that all of the payment assistance programs needed should have been in place and promoted well ahead of time and that there should have been a much more thorough public education effort made prior to shutting off people’s water.”

This was an update of our original story on running water in December.

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.

  • Angela Karamian

    What a waste!!! Here in California we are in desperate need of water. Precious resources just going down the drain. Shameful.

  • Mariano_H

    thats wet bandits, W E T bandits. Christ this is out of a movie.

  • Theevil Oddone

    80,000 abandoned structures? Doesn’t Detroit also have a major homelessness problem? Why, in a city with 80,000 structures that NOBODY IS USING, doesn’t the city convert those into housing for those in need? I’ll tell you why. It’s for the exact same reason they’re so viciously shutting people off: greed. They don’t care about their citizens. They care only about money and the well off. If you’re a poor person in Detroit, your city government does not care about you, doesn’t want you. You’re not on their list of priorities. In fact, you’re an enemy, someone who needs to be cut off from necessary services. Sadly, it’s not just Detroit. It’s the entire country. America has no soul. Just read some of these comments if you need further proof.

    At least the mayor has expressed concern, but just like every scumbag politician he has probably only done so because of the media outcry.

    • Ed Manley

      Get a job. Move if you have to. Pay your bills like the rest of us. Quit whining.

  • MusicMusic MusicMusic

    If you are not paying your bills, you should not receive services. After spending a lot of time in Detroit, most of the poor people have zero desire to better their own lives or even pick the trash up in their front yard.

    • jknaggs

      Yes, billionaire Mike Ilitch is the perfect example of this. He owes the city over $115 million in unpaid water bills. I wish he would pull himself up by the bootstraps and give a shit about the city for once.

      • Mariano_H

        proof? My understanding from the head of the water department was the joe had an outstanding balance of 1 weeks use.

        Same with comerica. The bill may look large, but its just once months or one quarters bill. They did not get ten years of free water or whatever you are trying to suggest. You are a liar.

    • Kyara Peacock

      I guess it never occurred to you that when someone is kicked so many times eventually they just don’t have the heart to continue on.. Must be nice being able to be so perfect that you can pass judgement like that.

      • Mariano_H

        Must be nice to have such a great life you can spend your free time laboring for approval from people you do not know, and that feeds you empty soul. You live on compliments.

        How about human nature, you fight back against nature, etc. Thats how civilizations were built. Not by a giant mass of sad people all sitting around begging each other for stuff.

        No one is lamenting they are not all phds, or millionaires or billionaires. They are lamenting total apathy. They cannot do ANYTHING with out a half dozen agencies hold their hands and fixing EVERYTHING for them.

  • Travis Thompson

    Why should the public help yall find the water, when yall cutting the public water off. Help us then well help yall.

    • Mariano_H

      to reduce costs. When you save up 250 or whatever it costs to get your water turned back on, then you can in the future expect lower rates.

      If everyone paid their bills, and there were zero scrappers, water bills could be cut in half or something close to it, and the water dept could be profitable for the city.

  • Paul Hartzer

    Can you please fix the caption under the zoo picture? The article states that that’s the Belle Isle Zoo, but the caption calls it the Detroit Zoo, which is in Royal Oak and is not closed at all.

  • zurielseven

    The caption on the second image should read “Water leaks at the vacant Belle Isle Nature Zoo, which closed 12 years ago.” The Detroit Zoo is still open and is often enjoyed by people from all around the metropolitan area. Thx.

  • BigDD

    It should be noted that only about 32% of a water bill is for water. The rest is for sewer.. So while water running freely is a big waste,… it’s less than 1/3 of the waste that the numbers indicate (as the wasted water isn’t going back into the sewer system for processing in most cases).

    Food for thought.

    • Local Dawg

      Wrong ! ! BigDD. I have at least 4 houses around me with running water going down the drain

  • ME

    Some investigating… This has been going on for decades.

  • bebow

    DWSD hasn’t been taking care of business for years. DTE is another failed utility. The solution might be to prevent them from passing on the cost of their gross incompetence to paying customers. If that happened, they would get motivated to take care of business overnight.

  • OneCanOnlyHope

    Special Notice that your water is getting shut off; stop it already. These folks haven’t been paying their bills for a very long time so advance notice of a pending shut-off is BS!!! The entitlement mentality in this city is running wild; get it through your heads the freebies are nearly over. Pay your stinking bills or you get your water shut-off. I’m tired of my bills going up to cover these idiots inability to be responsible. Take your sorry a…es to Belle Isle and jump into the Detroit River with a bar of soap. Get a job you lazy bunch of losers!!!

    • ME

      “Don’t read the comments”

    • muckraker_steve

      Thanks for commenting but please do not refer to people as a “lazy bunch of losers.” We don’t tolerate name-calling on the site.

      • OneCanOnlyHope

        I’m excerising my right to free speech; again that’s exactly what they are a ‘lazy bunch of losers’.

        • Elliott Collins

          The moderator is compelling you to do anything or infringing on your rights; he’s just asking you not to be rude. Whatever your feelings on the issue, unconstructive language like that isn’t helpful.

      • Mariano_H

        Muck, that was not a specific person, and I have noticed you can slam suburbanites, rich people, white people, republicans etc and lump them all in a group here and no one objects.

        Should I call attention to it next time I see it, which will not be more then a few days at most ?

    • Karen F. Davis

      I happen to know three people whose water was shut off for “owing” a bill under $150 not even a month overdue yet. Don’t generalize if you do not know all the details.

  • Dust Buster

    how about a reward system let citizens narc out places that have illegal hook up or dont want to pay. you would give yourself a anonymous 10 digit number when you file the complaint the city would mail you a gift card with say $100 on it. a win win

    • sa ho

      yeah, snitching and informing is what the city needs to improve community cohesion. good one!

      • Dust Buster

        thats right because the 40 some year policy of “snitches get stitches” has done such a fabulous job at fixing things. keepin it real no matter how shitty it gets…….nice

      • Mariano_H

        detroit is so messed up, with so many leeches, I cannot tell peoples responses to a good idea if they are being serious, or objecting as a joke, or really sincerely objecting.

        This might be the root problem. Actually solutions are mocked.

  • Billy Blake

    In my neighborhood I watched a pickup truck with two guys in it. One guy would jump out and take a picture of the front of a house and then walk around to the back and take another picture. These houses that they were taking pictures of were houses that recently had their water turned off. The pickup truck had no signs on it just a plain grey dodge pickup. Does anyone know what this is all about.

    • My guess is that they’re REO property inspectors. Recent foreclosures?

    • A. Mccormick

      Definitely property inspectors, although they are usually hired to do it solo, with the driver also being the cameraman, taking drive-by pics out of his car window.

  • jesssoul

    Curious how much the city is paying to create a new app when one already exists that could be used just as easily, or are they simply using it and calling the initiative something else? See Click Fix looks good enough to me: http://en.seeclickfix.com/detroit

  • Shatner

    Now if there was just a way to get the water the city doesnt care to shut off to those who the city is trying to shut off.

    • Mariano_H

      Thats not the way it works. Everyone pays, and payers pay for waste, theft, lawsuits etc.

      You do not get to go to the grocery store look in the dumpster and say you throw away X amount of food, just call me next week and put me on the list for the free food you will inevitably throw away.