Torrents of water spew from broken pipes in Detroit’s Crosman School, cascading down stairs before pooling on the warped tile of what was once a basketball court.
No one knows how long the water has flowed through the moldy bowels of the massive building a few miles north of downtown, but Crosman has been closed since 2007. It’s not the only empty structure where city water steadily fills dark basements or runs into the gutter, wasting money and creating safety hazards.
As Detroit goes through the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history, the city’s porous water system illustrates how some of its resources are still draining away even as it struggles to stabilize its finances and provide basic services.
More than 30,000 buildings stand vacant in neighborhoods hollowed out by Detroit’s long population decline, vulnerable to metal scavengers who rip out pipes, leaving the water to flow. The city’s water system has no way of tracking the leaks, and the water department doesn’t have enough workers to check every structure.
“The water was running all last winter,” said 32-year-old Delonda Kemp as she pointed to a vandalized two-story bungalow across from her home on Detroit’s eastside. “You can actually hear it running.” She says she reported the leak, but water officials say they have no record of it.
The city’s five water treatment plants pump more than 600 million gallons of drinking water across Detroit’s 139 square miles each day, billing residents for the volume used. But as more families moved away in recent years, often without notifying the utility, crews fell behind on shutting off unpaid accounts.
“Even after an initial shut-off, residents or squatters often bypass the meter and steal water,” said Bill Johnson, a water department spokesman. “In other cases, once a house is vacated, vandals and strippers may steal the piping and meter which causes the water to run undetected.”
Sometimes, the water can run for years.
In the former Douglass Academy on Detroit’s east side, six feet of water fills a basement boiler room. In an empty house on Chalmers Street, a pulse of water spews every few seconds from the end of a vandalized pipe. It’s been going for more than a year.
City officials say they have no idea how much is being lost.
It costs about $400 to produce a million gallons of drinking water and $800 for every million gallons that go through treatment facilities.
“The water is wasted on the front end, and second is we end up having to treat that water” all over again, said William Wolfson, the department’s chief operating and compliance officer.
In a city with an estimated $18 billion debt, the department has a debt of about $5.9 billion. The water department has lost more than 400 jobs in the last few years, and one study has proposed cutting half of the 1,700 positions left.
While city crews have been demolishing vacant houses in sparsely populated areas, they haven’t been able to keep up with the supply. Detroit, which once had 1.8 million people, is now down to about 700,000.
Scrappers swarm into houses shortly after the last person moves out. Wiring, copper and metal plumbing are hauled away for illegal sale to unscrupulous recyclers. Even a decorative outdoor fountain in downtown’s popular Hart Plaza was turned off earlier this year after its copper pipes were stolen.
“They’ll steal anything that’s worth stealing,” said 65-year-old Shirley Young, who lives next door to a stripped house on the east side.
Beyond the cost of the water, the flooding causes safety problems.
In the winter of 2009, the body of a homeless man was found frozen in the flooded elevator shaft of a vacant warehouse. He had apparently fallen in after a drug overdose. During the winter, water-covered streets become sheets of ice. During the hot months, the flooded basements attract vermin and breed insects.
Modern technology can help track leaks but that’s an expense that Detroit, with a network of 100-year-old cast iron pipes, can’t afford.
“The infrastructure is old. It’s extremely expensive to replace pipes and extremely disruptive,” said David Arison, vice president of Global Business Relations for Miya, an Israel-based firm that designs efficient systems for urban areas.
The easiest answer may be eliminating the abandoned buildings. Mayor-elect Mike Duggan, who takes over in January, has pledged a stepped-up demolition effort using additional federal funds.
Over the past six months, water department crews and contractors have whittled the backlog of reported leaks from about 350 to 33, said Samuel Smalley, assistant director of Detroit’s Wastewater Operations Group. But that may not be as impressive as it sounds.
“Those are the ones that we know about,” he said.