DETROIT (WXYZ) - The City of Detroit loses millions of gallons of clean drinking water every year because of leaks in its system – and you’re paying for it. The problem is getting worse because thousands of homes have been abandoned and copper thieves are stealing pipes and letting the water run.
Action News Investigator uncovered this problem when responding to a complaint from a Channel 7 viewer, who called about how water has been running from a vacant home for weeks. The call came from a resident on Hartwell Street near Fenkell.
Like a lot of streets in Detroit, this one is a mixed bag. It has nice homes with well kept yards, but also a growing number of vacant houses.
Residents say they’ve learned to live with the blight. Sometimes they pitch in and mow the vacant lots to make their street look a little better.
Residents say they called the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department about the running water, but their calls were ignored for weeks. Fed up, they called the Action News Investigators for help. “The water has been spewing since about the middle of June,” says Hartwell resident Eric Fenton.
Fenton told Action News Investigator Scott Lewis that a metal scavenger stole the copper spigot off the side of the house last June and the water has been running ever since—all day, seven days a week.
“My neighbors, they’ve been calling in, but nothing has happened,” says one Hartwell resident. Fenton said he finally went to the city water department to report it in person.
A few days later, a Detroit Water and Sewerage Department repair truck pulled up, but the problem didn’t get fixed.
“They stuck that big pole down in the ground, which is the wrench to cut that switch off, the valve off rather, and that was it,” says Hartwell resident Tyrese Anderson. “When they couldn’t cut it off, they put it back in the truck and went on.”
The Investigators did some checking and found out this is a problem across the city. There are a lot of vacant houses in Detroit with water running. It’s a combination of the real estate bust and high demand for scrap metal.
Detroit Water and Sewerage Department spokesman Rodney Jackson said that people often walk away from their homes and don’t notify the city to shut their water off. Then metal thieves move in, steal the pipes, and leave the water running.
Hartwell residents said that copper thefts from vacant homes are a big problem in their neighborhood.
“That’s almost like a way of life around here for some people,” Tyrese Anderson says. Hot water tanks, furnaces, any kitchen that’s got fairly new cabinets and stuff in it, that house will get empty, that’s gone!"
Often when copper thieves leave, the water is left running and we all pay the price. It’s called leakage. And the cost of the running water is spread out among taxpayers in the city and the suburbs.
Action News showed video of the leak on Hartwell Street to John McCulloch, the director of the Oakland County Water Resources Commission.
“That’s quite a fountain,” McCulloch quipped.
He went on to say that water loss in Detroit is a serious problem, and is significantly above the national average. He says the city reports its leakage rate at 17%, but McCulloch believes it is much higher.
“I think it’s closer to 30 percent, “says McCulloch, and of course, the challenge is the rate payers are paying for that water to be treated, and now it is not only being lost but it is now going in the sewer system and is being treated again.”
The Action News Investigators used a stop watch to see how long it would take to fill a gallon jug with the water spewing from the side of the vacant house on Hartwell.
It took only 15 seconds. That’s four gallons a minute. And four gallons a minute over two months comes to 345,600 gallons. That’s a lot of water, enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool more than half way.
McCulloch says over a period of two months that amount of water would cost between $900 and $1200. He said when you get hundreds or thousands of leaks across the city it adds up to a significant amount of money that gets passed on to rate payers.
Action News Investigator Scott Lewis Called the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to ask why the Hartwell leak had gone unrepaired for two months.
An hour and a half later, a city crew showed up, dug a hole, turned a valve off and stopped the flow of water from the vacant home. A member of the work crew told Scott Lewis the city has a long list of vacant houses with water leaking.
Action News asked the Water and Sewerage Department spokesman Rodney Johnson how many houses are on the city’s list, why it took so long to shut off the water on Hartwell Street, and why there was no follow-up after the first crew showed up and was unable to shut the water supply down.
Johnson has not gotten back to us with answers.The Action News Investigators will stay on the case.
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