Water Equity and Security in Detroit's Water and Sewer District

Section 4 - The Long History of Detroit's Water and Sewerage District

Section 4 - The Long History of Detroit's Water and Sewerage District

THE WATER CRISIS IN Southeast Michigan—like cities across the US—unfolds on a landscape created by over a century of the creation and development of cities and neighborhoods and regions. Decision-makers and policy that set the terms of this growth were designed according to racial prejudices and bias—and in places like Detroit, cities were even established during the period of chattel slavery, colonization of native land to expand the size of settler’s territory—not to mention more recent decades that were informed by the Jim Crow system and profound economic change. It is not at all controversial to point out ways in which current cities and regions have inherited systems and institutions with basic design flaws and that addressing these flaws is a difficult and ongoing project. In the context of the regional DWSD system racialized systems are very literally concrete and easily intelligible. Inheriting systems from the country’s racially divided history is not abstract.

Detroit’s challenges—such as deindustrialization, white flight, and stark racial divisions—are not unique to the Southeast Michigan metropolitan region. Instead, they reflect familiar consequences of unfair and inadequate public investment. In the case of drinking and waste water infrastructure, decreasing revenues and unsustainable debt burdens hinder adequate affordable pricing structures and create pockets of water poverty across the country. Meanwhile, service providers are left to manage aging infrastructure that is not suited to withstand the impending consequences of global climate change.

The distribution of resources follows infrastructure design—especially in the case of drinking and wastewater system. Decisions at the national, state, and community level combine with and influence individual decisions people make every day about where to live and work. While these decisions may not be explicitly motivated by racism and other prejudices, they result in the unequal allocation of resources and opportunities along race and class lines. Detroit’s water and sewerage infrastructure is put to the service of the universal goal and mission—to provide users with access to high quality wastewater service, safe and healthy drinking water, and do its part to ensure the quality of surface waters and its public health benefits.

There are contested narratives about the cause of Detroit’s fiscal problems—and the dominant narrative reflects the way many cities’ fiscal challenges are discussed in popular media. Struggling cities are framed as being unique or exceptional—the drivers of the problem are unique and limited to that specific location. Detroit is discussed as a “casualty” of the erosion of the US manufacturing economy and has been uniquely impacted because of the city’s dependence on that industry. Cities are also described as struggling because local leaders and politicians were incompetent or corrupt—again suggesting that a specific city is experiencing unique harms. These factors are not unrelated to the fiscal challenges of some places. However, these are not at all the systemic and structural roots of fiscal distress. Such narratives can create popular support to support policies that simply remove decision making from cities and place it in the hands of supposedly more reliable decision makers. Detroit’s emergency management and bankruptcy process offers a clear example of this suppression of local democratic control and the generation of popular support and justification provided through shallow and inaccurate analysis.

Detroiters Subsidize Regional Suburban Growth 1940s-1970s

Suburban development and urban infrastructure are closely tied. Development does not occur where water and sewerage services are unavailable, so that the ability to connect to Detroit’s existing water and sewerage plants allowed the suburbs to form. Meanwhile, suburban development sapped population and resources from the city of Detroit.

This image, a reflection of a house in the water,  is taken from the film I Do My Dying. Coutesy of Kate Levy, available online at detroitmindsdying.org.

Image from the film I Do My Dying. Coutesy of Kate Levy, available online at detroitmindsdying.org

In the 1950s, when the population began to shift from urban to suburban areas, the role of DWSD in subsidizing suburban growth was hotly contested. In 1954, L.H. Lenhardt—General Manager of the system since 1936—expressed concern about further expanding the water system and urged suburbs to develop their own infrastructure.148

His successor, Gerald J. Remus, director between 1955 and 1973, took the opposite stance and immediately reversed Lenhardt’s suggested policies. The water system underwent a rapid expansion during Remus’s directorship and took on a great amount of debt to do so.149 In 1954, the city served 44 suburban wholesale customers.

During Remus’s eighteen years as director, 51 additional suburban municipalities were added, bringing the total to 96 in 1973.150 During this period of suburban expansion, it became apparent that the regional growth of the water system was a political issue that went far beyond civil engineering and was deeply embedded in racially inequitable development agendas. Remus was appointed to manage the water and sewerage system by Mayor Albert Cobo, whose rhetoric and policies revealed an obvious preference for the interests of the wealthy and white.151 While Cobo was overseeing large-scale urban renewal initiatives, Remus was funding water infrastructure. These plans had a lasting impact on the racial landscape of today’s Detroit and continue to influence the demographics of the city and suburbs.

Cobo’s urban renewal projects were largely focused on blight removal and left Black residents in a greater housing crisis than the one the renewal ostensibly solved. This period of blight-removal-focused urban planning is often marked by the 1949 Housing Act, but even before the creation of this act, some cities, including Detroit, were already practicing “slum clearance.” One example of this practice in Detroit is the Gratiot housing project, a redevelopment project that left residents living in conditions as poor as in their previous neighborhoods. In cities across the country, far greater numbers of affordable housing units were removed than rebuilt.152

Urban renewal and blight removal policies evolved into redlined maps, investment guidelines that codified racially inequitable development on paper and in practice. Redlining—which gets its name from the color of ink used to markup maps into “good” and “hazardous” investments—refers to the practice of withholding mortgage lending from specific urban neighborhoods, and particularly from neighborhoods with high proportions of immigrants and people of color.153 Lender drew these boundaries using highly subjective and prejudiced criteria but they have made a lasting impact on the racial distribution of cities across the United States.

This image is a redlining map of Detroit.

In 1939, a redlined map of Detroit indicates that 28 percent of the city was a “hazardous” investment, while 51 percent was “definitely declining.”154 Lenders only gave mortgage loans for homebuyers seeking to live in one-fifth of the city’s neighborhoods. In other words, banks decided only one-fifth of the city’s land was worthy of investment. By this time, any new water infrastructure funded by DWSD was outside the city. The banks considered Detroit a bad investment, and the city’s water department followed suit.

By the late 1940s and with funding support from the federal government, the construction of the Davidson and Edsel Ford Expressways was underway. In Detroit, as in many other cities, expressways fragmented local neighborhoods in the city and created enclave communities where residents were separated by race. At the same time, highways enabled affluent white people to travel to their newly built homes in the suburbs. Water and sewerage systems grew to match these patterns of growth—creating systemic infrastructural barriers which underwrite the history of segregation and disparate investment in Detroit.

City planners were not necessarily motivated by personal animus toward the city’s Black residents, but their actions and policies existed within a larger system that rested on structural inequality. For example, some White business owners saw Black neighborhoods as valuable sites for future development and wanted Detroit’s Black residents to leave those areas—a goal that was actualized through coded blight removal policies that removed Black residents from these areas to the benefit of select business owners’ financial gain. These strategies were enacted by political leaders and planners operating under the pretext of a New Deal system, in which benefits ostensibly flowed to everyone, but in practice flowed towards White populations.

Jobs moved to the suburbs, along with the mobile white population. Economic barriers, along with more pointed exclusion in hiring and housing practices, prevented much of the Black population from leaving the urban center. In Detroit, population numbers plummeted, the job market shrank, and poverty and segregation grew.

Every suburban municipality in Detroit’s metropolitan region owes its existence and strength to the forward-thinking effort of the city of Detroit. Detroit used its credit and resources (both financial and human) to bet on and support the future growth of the entire region. Water and sewerage infrastructure were central to this growth. Detroit has severely neglected long-overdue upgrades to its water and sewerage system. While Detroit’s system has languished, infrastructure was improved in the suburbs. The region’s storm and sanitary system was engineered, built, and paid for by DWSD. It did so in preference to the suburbs and in recognition of the growth potential in the region—and it did so at the expense of essential upgrades to the outdated infrastructure system within the city of Detroit.

As you approach any city in the United States by air, you can tell exactly where the water and sewerage infrastructure ends. At that endpoint, suburban development ceases. As you approach a city by car, all development you see occurred only after the infrastructure development of water and sewerage. When a city creates its water system, it is sowing the seeds for all future growth. When a city allows infrastructure to crumble, communities are gutted. 

Regulatory Oversight and Outside Management of DWSD 1977-2013

Economic decline in Detroit is often portrayed as an isolated event brought on by a lack of competent local management—an assessment that ignores the structural and historical factors that pose comparable challenges to local governments across the country.

In 1977, the EPA initiated a suit against DWSD because its wastewater treatment plant’s effluent discharge exceeded the amount permitted by its National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit (NPDES).155 NPDES permitting regulations were implemented in 1972 under the Clean Water Act.156 Over the course of the 37-year EPA suit, DWSD management submitted multiple strategic plans aimed at bringing the DWSD system up to the standards of federal regulations created in the 1970s

Detroit was not alone in finding itself falling short of these federal regulations.

A consistent problem that left DWSD and other utility providers under court jurisdiction was the long-term feasibility of plans to resolve water quality issues, and in particular, the availability of sufficient financial resources to enact corrective plans. The original complaint that started the 37-year EPA suit was that DWSD’s wastewater treatment plan violated the Clean Water Act.

In the absence of resources for massive public investment in infrastructure—significantly in terms of human resources—Detroit failed to meet the EPA’s requirements, and the court’s authority was protracted. The structural flaw of beneficial environmental legislation in the 1970s, including the Clean Water Act, was inadequate federal investment to support local utilities’ efforts to meet new standards.

Ultimately, this created the need for the system to take out debt and create pricing structures predicated on cost-recovery, not affordability, models. Thus, during that period, the utility experienced increasing financial stress as risky debts were taken on in attempts to bring DWSD system up to federal standards and to make necessary updates to the system in general.

US District Court Judge John Feikens oversaw DWSD for over thirty years during the EPA trial.157 During Feikens’ oversight, he signed an agreement requiring Detroit to pay for 83 percent of combined sewerage improvements outside of Detroit, leaving the suburban wholesale customers responsible for only 17 percent of services they received.158 This 83/17 split– also known as the 1999 Rate Settlement Agreements– applied specifically to “Non-Detroit Only” and “Non-Common to All” facilities, and there is little technical data to support this disproportional agreement.159 This plan was approved and subsequently led to hugely inflated sewerage costs for Detroit customers. As described in the Section II of this report, the 83/17 split still applies to many costs today.

While overseeing the water and sewerage department, Judge Feikens also appointed Victor Mercado as director of DWSD. Mercado had formerly worked for private water companies Thames North America and United Water and was personally involved in the privatization of several municipal water systems. During Mercado’s tenure, many union jobs were outsourced to private contractors and DWSD’s maintenance and repair staff was cut by 13 percent.160 In 2014, Mercado was convicted of colluding with the mayor to fix $72 million worth of fraudulent DWSD contracts.161 The EPA case was finally closed in 2013, and DSWD would have been returned to the City had emergency manager Kevyn Orr not taken over two days prior.

This chart displays the demographic change in Detroit from 1910-2010.

Predatory Lending, The 2008 Financial Crisis, and Water Access in Detroit

During the final years of federal oversight of DWSD, substantial financial deregulation at the federal level and austerity financing in local and state governments enabled banks to aggressively market predatory lending deals—in the form of adjustable-rate subprime mortgages—to working class Detroiters. The destruction this caused in economically burdened neighborhoods is wellknown and has played out in communities across the United States. Detroit had one of the highest rates of subprime lending and foreclosures in the country: since 2005, at least 139,699 homes— or one in three homes in Detroit—have been foreclosed due to mortgage defaults or unpaid taxes.162 A 2015 Detroit News investigation revealed that 56 percent of homes foreclosed because of mortgage defaults are now “blighted.”163

The less well-known story is that municipal entities, and DWSD in particular, were subject to the same predatory lending tactics that impacted individuals. In 2005, the City of Detroit entered into a speculative $1.4 billion-dollar deal with UBS AG and Merrill Lynch Capital Services that included an interest rate swaps. 164 Interest rate swaps are structured to offset higher costs of borrowing that issuers with lower credit ratings may face with traditional bonds. These interest rates swaps are risky—and that risk was realized by many cities, including Detroit. If certain terms in the bond agreements are met, the bank can recall the bonds and cities are left to face exceptional costs. This is exactly what happened to many such issuers when the financial crisis hit and the markets crashed, DWSD was left with $537 million in fees to terminate the swaps deal.165 DWSD had to borrow in order to pay off those swap termination fees and “refinance” debts. This further raised the utility debts—borrowing that did not go to pay for its services or its infrastructure. By 2012, 40 percent DWSD’s revenue (i.e. customer’s payments) was going towards debt service.166 Detroit offers a clear example of how risk-laden products marketed by financial firms can send a city and its residents into crisis and how such crises disproportionately burden financially stressed local governments.

Meanwhile, in 2012, while DWSD was still under federal oversight, the board of water commissioners agreed to a no-bid five-year, $48 million contract with private consulting firm EMA, Inc.167 The contract, intended to improve DWSD’s compliance with federal standards and increase efficiency, would eliminate over 80 percent of DWSD jobs and cut pay for workers who continued at DWSD.168 The contract represented a clear violation of union contracts with Local 207 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employee (AFSCME). This violation was only possible because of the broad discretionary powers of emergency management.

In response, DWSD workers went on strike, violating a state law that prohibits strike by municipal employees.169 Cox issued an order prohibiting the strike, but the demonstrations continued. AFSCME Local 207 walked out of the DWSD plant: an expression that power needed to shift toward employees and away from traditional decision makers in the city government. The strike ended after five days, and thirty-five workers were fired and eventually reinstated. As a result, Cox agreed to hold a hearing to discuss the new contract, but little substantive change was realized. 

This infographic displays the race and emergency management in Michigan.

In situations of shortages of public revenue, public functions are often devolved to private agencies under the pretense of cost-saving measures. As low-income people, women, and communities of color are often more dependent on public employment, municipal resources and social services, cutting municipal services has a disproportionate impact on them, thus perpetuating inequitable outcomes.

In situations of shortages of public revenue, public functions are often devolved to private agencies under the pretense of cost-saving measures. As low-income people, women, and communities of color are often more dependent on public employment, municipal resources and social services, cutting municipal services has a disproportionate impact on them, thus perpetuating inequitable outcomes. As the Detroit’s revenue crisis deepened, water rates and shut off numbers increased. Local water activists organized and responded. The experience of these residents and organizers informed much of this report in discussion and using research they have conducted.

Municipal Bankruptcy and Emergency Management

After decades of deindustrialization, depopulation, and systemic divestment, Detroit’s annual revenue became inadequate to meet its annual expenditures. In 2013, after declaring the city in a state of “financial emergency,” Michigan’s then governor Rick Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr as Detroit’s Emergency Manager.

Orr is a lawyer who left his post at the international corporate law firm Jones Day to assume his role as the city’s emergency manager. Subsequently, Jones Day became the legal firm representing the city. 170 After Detroit, Orr went on to serve as an aid to Atlantic City’s emergency manager before returning to Jones Day.

Emergency management has roots in the 1986 appointment of a receiver for the city of Ecorse, Michigan.171 In 1988, Public Act 101 created an “emergency financial manager” for the specific case of Hamtramck.172 In 1990, Public Act 72 was passed, which enabled the appointment of an Emergency Financial Manager for any local government or governmental unit, including public schools.173 And in 2011, Public Act 4 renamed the position to Emergency Manager and expanded the authority of the appointed position.174

The concept of an appointed emergency manager or emergency financial manager was challenged in court by Sugar Law Center. Ultimately, Public Act 4 was repealed by voters in the 2012 general election. However, Michigan state government seemed insistent on the expansion of authority enabled by Public Act 4, and in 2012, the state legislature passed Public Act 436, reinstalling the ability to appoint an Emergency Manager.175

In Detroit, not only was an emergency manager appointed as per Public Act 436, but the state legislature passed a separate law that formed a financial review commission that assumes ultimate authority over the city’s finances upon exiting bankruptcy; the city is still subjected to state oversight three years after exiting bankruptcy, and after three consecutive balanced budgets, the financial review commission will vote to waive its authority.176

Financial managers, which temporarily supplant local elected officials and financial officers, have broad control over municipal operations, including the abilities to strip elected officials of their power, cut municipal workers’ pay, restructure departments, outsource service city services, and even alter collective bargaining contracts.177 Given these extensive powers, critics of these practices have complained that emergency management is at odds with local democratic representation.

Under Emergency Management in Detroit, citizens felt as though the power of elected city officials— and correspondingly, the power of Detroit citizens—was effectively disenfranchised and subjected to unelected governance. In recent years, the majority of Michigan’s Black population lived under Emergency Management. Correspondingly, critics have complained that emergency management has been used a vehicle for suppressing the democratic voices of people of color. A report produced by We the People of Detroit’s Community Research Collective described,

“Since 2009, Michigan’s Governor has appointed an emergency manager to govern nine Michigan cities (Allen Park, Benton Harbor, Escorse, Flint, Hamtramck, Lincoln Park, Pontiac, Detroit). Six of the cities account for 49.8% of the state’s African American population; in Michigan, then, emergency management has served to politically disenfranchise residents in African-American majority cities.”

– We the People of Detroit Community Research Collective, Mapping the Water Crisis

During the city’s financial emergency period, Orr was unable to reach a consensus with Detroit’s creditors, unions, and pension board, and in July, per Orr’s recommendation and Governor Snyder’s approval, the city filed for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy. In December, the US Bankruptcy Court ruled Detroit eligible. 


Global water crises have called attention to the need to affirm the human right to water. The Human Right to Water and Sanitation (HRWS) was recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in 2010.1

While foundational human rights documents do not make explicit reference to water, the right to water is implicated given water’s centrality to human existence and thriving. The 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights advocates for “the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.”2

Similarly, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights notes that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”3

The fulfillment of both of those rights requires access to clean and affordable water. 

In 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural stipulated that water accessibility has four dimensions:4 

Physical accessibility, meaning that water resources are in safe physical reach

Economic accessibility, requiring that water is affordable for all

Non-discriminatory accessibility, stipulating that water be available for the most vulnerable groups of the population

Information accessibility, noting the right to seek and receive information about water issues

In Detroit, water is not affordable, particularly for the city’s most vulnerable residents. Moreover, victims of shutoffs were often not provided with notices and information regarding their water bills and water was shutoff unexpectedly. Mass water shutoffs in Detroit offer a clear illustration of the violation of the human right to water.


  1. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 64/292, The Human Right to Water and Sanitation, A/64/L.36/ Rev.1, adopted July 28, 2010, http://www.un.org/es/comun/docs/?symbol=A/ RES/64/292&lang=E.
  2. UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 16 December 1966, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 993:3, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/ Pages/CESCR.aspx.
  3. UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), http://www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/.
  4. UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, “General Comment No. 15: The Right to Water (Arts. 11 and 12 of the Covenant), Adopted at the Twenty-Ninth Session of the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, E/C.12/2002/11, January 20, 2003, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/issues/water/docs/CESCR_GC_15.pdf.

Resolution 64/292: The Human Right to Water and Sanitation

The General Assembly

  1. Recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights;
  2. Calls upon States and international organizations to provide financial resources, capacity-building and technology transfer, through international assistance and cooperation, in particular to developing countries, in order to scale up efforts to provide safe, clean, accessible and affordable drinking water and sanitation for all;
  3. 3. Welcomes the decision by the Human Rights Council to request that the independent expert on human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation submit an annual report to the General Assembly

At the time of Orr’s appointment, he asserted that Detroit had $18 billion in debt. The figure was certainly high, but as Wallace Turbeville noted, the figure is “highly inflated and in large part, simply inaccurate.”178 For example, $6 billion in DWSD debt is included, which is not merely Detroit’s responsibility but also the responsibility of the entire region.179 DWSD’s billions of dollars of debt was used to inaccurately portray Detroit’s as a local failure marked by local incompetence and corruption.

This image, of citizens holding a sign saying “Stop the water shutoffs” is from the film I Do My Dying. Coutesy of Kate Levy, available online at detroitmindsdying.org.

One month into Orr’s tenure, in attempts to recover DWSD’s value, the city entered into a $5.6 million, two-year contract with private demolition company Homrich Wrecking Inc. to carry out 70,000 shutoffs on delinquent DWSD accounts.180 Notably, this exceeds the funds allocated for the currently-in-place Water Residential Affordability Program (WRAP).181 The summer of 2014 constituted a massive spike in shutoffs, as DWSD customer service department announced that “everybody is getting cut off who is $150 or 60 days in arrears. That is our policy, and we’re ramping up on our enforcement of that policy.”182

The attempt to remedy Detroit finances by way of maximizing the value of the city’s asset offers a clear illustration of austerity finance: a strategy where the field of solutions to fiscal stress is limited to reducing services and restoring revenue through regressive measures including increases in fees for basic utilities or increasing sales taxes. Indeed, similar measures were implemented in other areas. For example, the “Plan of Adjustment” proposals to put the district under private management. In 2013, the city ultimately opted to regionalize DWSD through the creation of a new regional water authority: the Great Lakes Water Authority, or GLWA. As the following section discusses, the GLWA arrangement continues the historical inequities governing the distribution of water in Detroit.


An examination of the history of Detroit’s water and sewerage system reveals two major themes that are prevalent in similar systems across the United Sates.

First, the water and sewerage system played an integral role in suburban and regional economic growth, determining areas of residential segregation and regional fragmentation. As urban water and sewer systems developed and evolved during periods of extreme racial inequality, the location and expansion of areas served by the infrastructure were, and continue to be, deeply divided by class and race. This is in part because utility systems developed in response to growing populations, and these population dynamics were deeply informed by race and ethnicity—for example, periods of immigration from European countries, the migration of Black people from the South to the North’s industrial centers, and White flight from central urban areas. 

The development of urban and suburban regions was deeply informed by an interest in segregating races and resources. Physical infrastructure bears the traces of this legacy and has played a significant role in perpetuating it. Infrastructure dictated where people lived and worked, where businesses could open, and where industry could grow. Thus, the footprint of utility services follows the historic patterns of regional and municipal segregation along race and class lines. Similarly, the water system’s management practices and system operations reflect dominant and shifting stories of need, priorities, and management policy. In this way, Detroit’s water and sewerage system is not a technical feature of the city that standards apart from its social history. Instead, the water and sewerage system is a central component of structures that determine the inequitable distribution of resources within the region.

Secondly, for almost four decades leading up to, during, and following the bankruptcy, Detroit’s water and sewerage department fell under multiple management structures that each implemented different policies in an attempt to ensure regional water quality. This included a long process to create a feasible and durable compliance schedule with the EPA to ensure the system would meet environmental quality standards. DWSD operated under court supervision from 1977 until 2013. Upon conclusion of the court process Kevyn Orr was appointed as emergency manager. However, while the duration of outside system management in Detroit is exceptional, the extent to which the water utility has struggled to meet federal regulations is unexceptional. Current environmental regulatory standards and practices date back to President Nixon’s administration in the 1970s, and water utilities were pushed to implement changes to meet them.183 The pressure to meet these standards presented challenges for many water systems, and particularly for those with limited financial resources. These challenges— and the fines that accompany them—continue to affect water utilities across the country.


There is a litany of well-established links between individual health outcomes and reliable access to clean water and adequate sanitation. There are similarly established links between water and sanitation access and public health outcomes. Situating Detroit within this long-standing line of research, it is wise to study public and individual heath has been effected by the number of water shutoffs in the city of Detroit.

TK: Bits about Community Research Collective, mapping the water crisis

Understanding the specific effects in Detroit will enable the best targeted strategies to address effects that exist in Detroit. The spirit of such a study is not to simply reveal problematic outcomes, but far more importantly to direct attention to systemic problems that need attention.

This is another opportunity for Detroit to be a national leader in extending study of water access in the domestic context. Many studies have been done internationally, but more research needs to develop unique problems that are presented within the domestic context.

As a matter of public circulation and understanding of this type of study it is important to understand standards of epidemiological investigation.

The utility of this type of study is any expectation to prove causation. Causation in epidemiological studies is not obvious. Probabilistic standards of causation are appropriate for epidemiological studies, not necessity-sufficiency standards. "...Epidemiological studies can never prove causation; that is, it cannot prove that a specific risk factor actually causes the disease being studied. Epidemiological evidence can only show that this risk factor is associated (correlated) with a higher incidence of disease in the population exposed to that risk factor. The higher the correlation the more certain the association, but it cannot prove the causation. ..."

Studies revealing association, or correlation, are meaningful and reveal new important insights.

Spatial analysis presents an important component of research in general, including the field of epidemiology. There are also limitations inherent in epidemiological study due to privacy standards of personal medical records. Studies that use individual patient data are routinely, and necessarily, aggregated to census tract level or zip code.


The history of the water system in Detroit echoes the significance of the relationships between public infrastructure, the equitable distribution of vital resources, urban development, and structural racism. Power comes from democratic voice and resources, and in the case of Detroit, both were denied. Suburban growth was enabled by Detroit’s support, and that of the water system in particular. While blame for the current situation cannot and should not be placed on one event or a single individual, it is clear that the problem would not have developed to this extent if the community had more of a voice in the workings of this department that shapes their lives in so many ways. All discussion of the current water crisis must always fall in the context of the social and financial circumstances that created it.