Erma Leaphart-Gooch, Sierra Club Michigan

Introduction

Interviewer: Erma, thank you so much for joining us. 

Erma Leaphart-Gooch: It’s my pleasure. 

Interviewer: Could you begin by telling us a little bit about who you are? 

Erma: Okay. My name’s Erma Leaphart-Gooch. I was born and raised in Detroit and I love my home. I love being here. I think it’s an exciting time. I am currently working for the Sierra Club, Michigan chapter in our Great Lakes program. The work that I do essentially is organizing around Great Lakes issues. So, stormwater runoff, combined sewer overflows, that kind of thing, using green infrastructure as a method to address those to try to prevent stormwater runoff and sewage overflows. I attended high school at Cass Tech, proud technician. Yes. 

Undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland where I majored in chemistry and communications, became a VISTA volunteer and then I went to University of Missouri Kansas City to get a Master’s in Public Administration around health care and specializing in environmental issues. I’m a mom. I have two children. I have a grandson. Very proud of them all and now the joy of my life and all that. I have become– I also worked with the state of Michigan where I did primarily Human Resources work. I worked in the Department of Health and Human Services, Community Health, and then the Department of Labor and Economic Growth. 

I will say that working for a state government was a very deliberate choice. My intent was to be a public servant to work in a capacity to make a difference in people’s lives. Following retirement, I was looking for something fun to do and that’s when I began to volunteer with the Sierra Club, which brought me to the work around the Great Lakes. Understanding the threats to the Great Lake, the Great Lakes, the importance of water, water quality, water accessibility, and that’s what brings me here today. 

Poverty Impact on Water Insecurity  

Interviewer: Thank you. Today, we’re going to be primarily talking about issues related to water, especially from a security lens to understand the notion of water insecurity. What do you associate with issues of water insecurity? 

Erma: What I know is that worldwide, that there are a number of places that are currently experiencing water insecurity. That’s mostly due to drought conditions often related to Climate change and that there are people who are suffering tremendously because they do not have access, either access to water at all or access to clean water. We think often when we talk about that, that we’re referencing developing countries. Countries that have limited resources. In many cases, that’s true but there are also countries and places that are developed that are– examples, London is an example of a place that’s experiencing water issues. Cape Town, South Africa, water issues. Places in India. 

It’s a worldwide issue with water and in people’s relationship to lack of access to it. It’s concerning. I feel very fortunate being here in the Great Lakes region that we have access to a sizable amount, one-fifth of the world’s fresh surface water. Yet, the water insecurity issue is here too because there’s a cost to taking care of this water, to getting access to it. Water is free itself, but it isn’t free when it comes to your home. There’s a cost to bring it to your home. To your business. That cost can be and in many cases is expensive. 

Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about how you see this in the context of Detroit and Southeast Michigan. 

Erma: I think, again, we’re very fortunate because we’re in the Great Lakes region. We have one-fifth, 20% of the world’s fresh surface water. Then when you also consider that we have groundwater as well, we don’t think about it because we don’t need to. I think there are people here who have wells. There are people in Michigan, not Southeast Michigan but in Michigan who access groundwater for their drinking water. In Southeast Michigan, we’re pretty much all accessing surface water. We’re pumping it from the Detroit River or Lake Huron or one of the water bodies. Because we have that volume of really good clean water, for the most part, you would think that we don’t have accessibility or security issues. 

Again, in order to, well, in the 70s, after the Cuyahoga River caught fire for maybe the third time or so, the federal government passed the Clean Water Act. This is unacceptable. We are polluting our waterways to the point where they’re catching fire. The Clean Water Act then required its municipal water systems to stop dumping sewage, combined sewer overflows into the water. I didn’t realize until recently that New York City did not have a water treatment plant until I don’t know, maybe 60 years ago, fairly recent. All of their sewage, flush, wash clothes, all of that was going into the Hudson River. That’s just how much we disrespected our water. 

With the Clean Water Act, then came rules that said, this cannot be. You must treat the water. You must treat your sewage before you discharge it into your water bodies. Detroit has the largest wastewater treatment plant or one of the largest. I think it is the largest in the country, possibly one of the largest in the world. That’s wonderful for us because we are, again, we’re not putting the sewage, we’re cleaning up the discharge but there is a cost to that infrastructure. Then after 20,25 years, you’re now replacing and repairing and there’s a cost to that. 

The water itself is free but the cost of the infrastructure, the pipes and the pumps and the plants and the system itself, there is a cost. You want that. I mean, you want to protect water quality. We want and need the infrastructure. Again, there’s a cost. Southeast Michigan, Detroit particularly, we unfortunately because of disinvestment, the auto industry, at least two of our big three auto industries that have filed bankruptcy in the last several years and all the cycles with the auto industry, we have a sizable number of people who once would have been employed at an auto plant receiving middle class income and those jobs are gone. Those jobs are gone through automation, change in market demand. 

So, I think to some extent maybe we didn’t prepare as well as we could or should have for that downfall in our industry. Then population shifts occurred. We have a sizable population in Detroit, maybe 30%, who are experiencing poverty. There’s a lack of skill. We have an educational system that to some extent has failed people. We’ve had drug issues. An influx of cocaine, crack cocaine. We’ve had issues that are driven. Then we have a racial context with whether you’re White, light, Black, middle-class left. Disinvestment, lack of population movement. There are many people who cannot afford to pay for the water. 

My understanding from reading recent news articles is whereas the number was huge, I don’t know, was it 30,000 or so? 25? I don’t remember the exact number. Let’s say 20,000. A couple of years ago during bankruptcy, there was a push to balance the books. People were told you have to pay your water bill or we’re going to shut it off. There were a large number of shut off notices that were sent out. My understanding, as of today, the current report is, that number is down to about 5000. I don’t have a report on it. I don’t know. We don’t know, what does that mean? 

Is it that there are people who no longer have water service? These 5000 who were recently shut off? Whether we have another 5000 perhaps that don’t have water. I’m not sure. I don’t know. I think that there are groups looking at that and trying to answer that question, but it appears to be some improvement in that condition that we have fewer people who are experiencing water shutoffs. My understanding is that the unemployment rate is a little better. Again, so people are working more likely to be able toward working at a higher-skilled position, higher-paid position, then perhaps better able to pay their utility bills, including water. 

It’s a complicated– it’s very complicated, I think for me, you have to look at poverty as a big, huge problem because if I’m at a poverty income level, I’m struggling with my water bill, my heat bill, my rent, I probably don’t have a car. I have a car, I’m not paying– I’m struggling paying car insurance, if I have any kind of medical condition, I’m struggling with my medications, potentially. Everything’s a struggle. I want to see personally as a solution that poverty be the thing to be addressed to elevate all of those to try to address all of those issues, including water insecurity. That to me would be the golden, the pearl, the thing to really seek and try to achieve. 

Leadership’s Role for Change 

Interviewer: [coughs] Excuse me. I like how you obviously showed how this is a complex really interconnected problem, which it is. It is of course connected to income. It is connected to poverty. I also find, however, that often the notion of poverty is treated as this big-picture problem and so a lot of the administrators often say, “This is a poverty problem, and we are a water department, we can’t fix poverty. We empathize but too bad. We’re still going to keep on shutting water.” I wonder how you think about it. 

What are, I guess, our responsibilities or the responsibilities of the administrators, the politicians, the policymakers and also the community organizers in terms of understanding that yes, of course, there is this broader part of the issue but at the same time, to what extent should it dictate accessibility and affordability of a natural resource which is so vital to human life? 

Erma: I think we have an obligation because certainly we don’t– I mean if you don’t have water for a day, you’re highly disturbed by it if I could imagine not having water for a week or a month. It certainly is something that should be addressed, it definitely should be. I think it should be addressed via water rates that there should be a rate structure that helps to support the idea of everyone having access to water. 

Something that was an idea that I heard, that was floated, I heard at a meeting was the possibility, let me just throw this out as something to ponder, that every water department customer would receive a thousand gallons, and I’m throwing out a number but say a thousand gallons of water, every month free of charge, every customer, residential, business, industrial, everybody, some amount, say a thousand. I throw that out knowing that like in a family of two, my usage is probably around 2000 or more than 2000 gallons. We’re two people. Let’s start with a thousand and then your next thousand you pay at a fairly low rate. 

I don’t know how they calculate it so I’m going to throw another hypothetical, probably doesn’t make any sense but let’s say 10 cent [sic] a gallon, two cent a gallon, something, for that second 2000 gallons and then maybe three cent per gallon for the next. The higher you go, the more you use, that cost per gallon increases and so the big users, the higher users who I’m sure would say, “Wait a minute, I use a lot of water and I’m paying–” You’re using the system and remember we’re saying water’s free but it’s the cost of the infrastructure so if you are taxing using the infrastructure more because you’re a big user, more water coming through the pipes, you’re using the pipes more, sending more back, then that makes a bit of sense to me that if we’re saying the cost is the cost of infrastructure and again, you’re utilizing it more, then you will pay a higher rate. 

The payments at the higher rate basically would help to make–the people at the top are paying more for the system than the people at the bottom but you have then a rate structure that’s fair to everybody, it’s not based on income because we know that the administrators have said it is illegal to create a water structure based on income. Many say it’s not true, so there’s a lot of argument going on, the argument’s been occurring for 10 years plus and so I’m saying maybe we can do something in the meantime while they fight it out. How do we help people today and maybe that thing is this other thing that was suggested? Again, everyone’s treated the same, no one’s treated different. Everybody gets that first thousand free and then a cheap 2000, check the lower rate for two. Do you see what I’m saying? 

Interviewer: Yes. 

Erma: Yes, I think there are options, I think there are things we can do. If we could manage to get people in the room to really talk about it and talk with an open mind. I think now we have people in camps, this camp or that camp and we come to the table but it’s not really a discussion. It’s more of I’m here to fight for what I want. I respect that, convictions but I don’t see it solving the problem. For me, again, problem orient. What can we do to make a difference? What can we do to have an impact? I do believe the water assistance programs; I think they have a role. I think they probably help some people. It appears that way. 

I’m not in the department. I’m not an administrator so I don’t know for a fact, but it does appear that way. It seems logical to me that people have been helped. If I have a $200 a month water bill and it’s just me, I’m pretty sure there’s a leak in the house unless I’m just like opening the faucets and let it run. There’s a leak somewhere, that’s an excess usage for a single person or even two people for $200 water bill. We know the average is 75 to a hundred, probably depends on how you conserve. 

A water assistance program says, “We will come and do a water audit to identify a leak and if you have a leak, repair that leak.” That’s going to help somebody, that $200 a month water bill is going to drop to 70 or 75 or something. It is going to be less. That helps people, period, there’s no argument. That is an assistance program and it’s making a difference; it can make a difference and it is. So, I just wish we can be a little more creative and think outside the box, just be creative and break down the barriers of this is what I want, and this is– just like a big brainstorming session. 

Just be creative. Bring in the creative types. I don’t know, something, right? People with fresh ideas that are not totally committed to a thought, to a process. That would be my suggestion. 

Water Issues Across the Region  

Interviewer: Just recently actually, Roger Colton submitted a second report. Have you seen that one? 

Erma: I have not. 

Interviewer: I think he was asked to write it on behalf of the MOC Foundation and it was looking at, again, basically giving recommendations, not just in Detroit, but really Southeast Michigan. Part of the reasoning was because the debate tends to get very racialized and the affordability. The issue is not only in the city but really in a lot of the suburbs as well. Although it often gets hidden away or not really talked about. 

Erma: Can I just get you to clap in front of your face? 

[clap] 

Thanks. 

Interviewer: As you know, a lot of the conversation around water affordability and shut-offs, especially in Southeast Michigan, tends to become very racialized, has become very localized. It’s often about those people in Detroit versus everybody else. There’s a history of that. There’s a long history of urban-suburban tensions, which unfortunately has been perpetuated, although there are some really amazing people doing some great work across the lines as well. 

How are you seeing, I guess I’m asking for some perspective from you in terms of how you’re seeing, therefore this issue of water affordability or contamination or health risks, really not just within the city, but really across the Tri-County or seven County region if you want to go that big area. 

Erma: I should clear upfront about this. I was invited by Gary Brown to participate in the creation of the Water Residential Assistance Program, the WRAP program as part of the original design team for that program. The reason why I talk about water audits and the repair program is because it was something I personally advocated for because understanding you have a leak; you’re going to pay a lot and how important repairing that leak could be. In the room, it was at the time of the bifurcation of the creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority. 

In the room were representatives from Oakland County and Macomb County, Wayne County as well as Detroit, trying to come up with an assistance program that can help people, all Great Lakes Water Authority customers. All of the seven, however many counties that are part of GLWA, every customer is eligible to apply for WRAP Assistance through the WRAP Program. 

I think there was some thinking then that probably Detroit residents would request and receive a majority of that, but it was available to all of the counties because as you’ve said, the difference, the reason why it’s front-page news here is because we’re the largest city in the state. We have a lot of people, unfortunately, many of those are living in poverty, struggling, but they don’t shut off necessarily people’s water. In other communities, they put a lien on your house. You can’t put the lien where actually I am a landlord and there is a lien on my house because I have a tenant who didn’t pay. I have a lien but for the most part, I think because we have a large rental renter, it’s a little trickier to do that. We need to really have the rent and the water and the renters in so a homeowner who’s not there and not using the water does it. 

At any rate in suburban communities, perhaps more homeownership, they attached the lien to the house. You keep your water but now you’ve got to lien on your house. Your water’s not shut off. That’s probably why we don’t hear about it doesn’t appear to be seen to be a problem in various communities. I think because of that but yes, it is a problem there too. Yes, people are eligible to request assistance and how many do, I don’t know. I do believe just a sense of it that the vast majority of the assistance applicants are Detroiters, but I’m sure there are other communities that are also, because people are struggling also. 

It would be interesting to know the numbers. I’ve never really asked, and I haven’t seen it, but I think to your point that others struggle too is valid. It’s just their process of what does that look like and how many people is just a little less obvious because of how they view what they do. When we were designing the program, we did look at numbers, but too many years ago. Honestly, I don’t remember, but we did look at numbers of how many people in each– We have a huge list of communities of municipalities asking what was their process for what happens when people don’t pay? 

Do you have assistance program? Do you shut off? What do you do? That’s why my recollection was that a lot of it was liens placed on the house. The thing that worries me most about– So, Great Lakes Water Authority, these are people, Southeast Michigan, other parts of Michigan who are a part of a system that Detroit built. They’ve got pipes, there’s pumps, there’s facilities to pump water to these municipalities and pull waste out. Some of them have their own waste treatment plants. I believe. I don’t know how many, but some of that comes down here. 

Places that are on septic systems, that’s something we don’t really talk about much because it’s not relevant here. It’s a big nightmare. It’s a nightmare there. Michigan has quite a few failing septic systems. When you have a failing septic system, it now affects your groundwater. Those people who are not on the system, their water is, well water. They’re getting their water through groundwater. Your septic systems leaking so it’s leaching into the drinking water wells. That’s a huge problem from my understanding. 

I’m not working in those communities, so I don’t know for a fact that if you read the state of Michigan’s State of the Great Lakes, I think as the report, they talk about and maybe apply numbers to the failing septic systems, it is a thing that worries me. A lot of people are– You can’t drink poisoned well water, or E. coli, if you have coli in your well water you’ve got to be a problem. Water issues, contamination issues, PFOS, we now know we don’t have or don’t appear to have that problem here. 11 other communities or places around Michigan, so everybody’s got issues. We have this beautiful water system, Great Lakes waters, beautiful, but many, there are threats and there are threats in terms of not just wildlife, it’s impacting us as well. They are the things that I’m concerned about. I do like that you asked about that because I think often the issue of water insecurity does center around shutoffs. 

There’s water insecurity for other reasons throughout the state. We all have reason to be activists and to care and to want to see solutions to these problems wherever you are. It’s not just Detroit suffering. 

Erma Leaphart-Gooch

Green Stormwater Infrastructure

Interviewer: Well, another large component of the issue would also show you how these issues are also in the connected is infrastructure. Especially with combined sewer situations and hydrated charges, that’s a huge part of the affordability issue crisis as well. So that I guess brings me to ask you about the Green Stormwater Infrastructure because that’s a lot of the work that you were involved in. Particularly, tell us a little bit about how you are working with GSI issues with community members and partners, for instance, because there also tends to be a lot of hesitance and reluctance and maybe lack of understanding about what GSIs really are and how they can actually be relevant to local communities as opposed to being something in postop town. Maybe you could tell me a little bit about how you understand GSIs in general and then go over maybe a couple of examples of how you are working with community members or partners to implement this and make this successful. 

Erma: To start, it’s back to the original infrastructure question. We have this vast system. This largest wastewater system plant which is a combined sewer system meaning both stormwater and sewage are in the same pipe, sewage flowing from our homes and businesses and stormwater running off the streets into the drains and running from our roof and our driveways into the storm into the drain system and combining with sewage to the wastewater treatment plan. Because of climate change, we have this massive, we’re having these huge storms, these 100-year storms that are now happening every other day. Much more regularly than what we would expect but due to warming climate, that’s what’s happening. 

We’re getting more intense rains which means more volume in that system. As large as that wastewater treatment plant is and its seven retention basins, probably seven plus, it still overwhelms the system. When that system was put in, the federal government was paying 60% of the cost of that infrastructure. It’s Clean Water Act, federal government puts the money to help municipalities with their systems. This is now 30 or 40 years later, the federal government now contributes 9% of the cost of infrastructure, grey infrastructure but the demands are still there. We’ve got all this rain, these big rain events, what are we going to do? 

Sewage is still flowing into our water bodies. The EPA and others said, “Well, we need to manage stormwater because, on a dry day, the system works beautifully. If it’s a light rainfall, no problem but it’s these heavy rains. How do we manage the stormwater?” The answer has become green infrastructure is a solution that’s less expensive and has other benefits. By keeping the stormwater out, having it infiltrated to the ground, it helps to feed groundwater, which is good. We want groundwater. 

It also improves water quality because it’s slowing down or holding back that stormwater out of the system so now you have less sewage overflows or maybe the overflows or maybe fewer of them or the volume is less because you have more water infiltrating it to the ground and to the green infrastructure. Green infrastructure, basically, are nature-based solutions that infiltrate that stormwater rather than it flowing into the drain system. The other benefits are, because green infrastructure includes things like trees and native plants, you now have this beautification quality. 

Trees, of course, bring oxygen and they’re absorbing carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses. You have the potential then for improved air quality. Green infrastructure has these benefits and in just the beautification. If you have a vacant lot next to a home, you can redirect the stormwater that comes off of that home’s roof into a rain garden that you put on the vacant lot and now there’s less volume flowing into the system, but you’ve got a beautiful garden beside your home where the butterflies come because one of the native plants is swamp milkweed which is the host plant for the monarch butterfly. 

You have other native plants and so the bees come, and other beneficial wildlife or other wildlife would benefit in it. It’s a close-to-nature experience. It’s a nearby nature experience. The examples of some of the programs and projects, one is a project that was funded by the Erb Family Foundation. Friends of the Rouge is the lead organization along with Sierra Club and that program is now in its fourth year, I believe, could be fifth, where we are helping residents who are interested in rain gardens attend a series of workshops to learn these things that I’m talking about. That there’s a reason and there are benefits. 

They also learn how to design a rain garden. They’d learn a bit about native plants, and they receive a rain garden. One of our first recipients who’s just a wonderful spokesperson often has said, “Yes, I know this is managing stormwater. I know all that.” She says, “But for me, it’s quality of life.” If you hear her talking, I get chills every time I think about when she says that. She said, “I look out my front window and what I see are butterflies, bees, insects.” She said, “I used to be terrified at bees but now I look at my window, I’m in my garden and I might be doing a little weeding or something,” she says, “They don’t bother me, and I don’t bother them. We both belong.” 

We have another person who has a rain garden and it’s a beautiful garden. She put a little free library in front of it because she says, “My neighbors are now stopping and talking and asking questions about this garden and they drop off a book and take a book.” It’s become a community, about community and residents and black clubs. They’re now meeting and talking and getting to know one another. You have this community benefit of getting to know each other which is the best safety precaution you can have is I live in the place, so I know all my neighbors. 

One day, there was a car parked in front of the house across the street from me and one of my neighbors is just, “Whose car is that? They’ve been sitting out there for a while.” I’m like, “I don’t know.” I’m looking out the window and I’m trying to see who’s in the car. Finally, I went to see what was going– It was our neighbor’s son. He had forgotten his key. He’d come to visit, and he didn’t have a key. They hadn’t arrived home yet but that’s what you want. People who care, who know who you are, who care about what’s going on when you’re there and not home. 

That is the potential when you have with the rain garden program. Green stormwater infrastructure, it’s less costly infrastructure. It’s managing stormwater, preventing sewage overflows and it’s a quality-of-life benefit to the people who receive it. 

Interviewer: What are some of the neighborhoods or the areas that you guys have been active in and maybe who are some of your partners in this process? We did attend on your Green Your Neighborhood events. I remember that at a table, which was fantastic. Maybe you could tell us a little bit about the geography and the network of partners that you’re building. 

Erma: We started first year, it’s city-wide, first of all. The first year, we started with Detroit City Council Districts 1, 2, and 7. Westside, Northwest Detroit. The second year, it was City Council Districts 3 and 4, and then the third year of that particular grant, it was Detroit City Council Districts 5 and 6. There are participants in these rain gardens to the rescue program throughout the city. I’m trying to think. Last year, it was the fourth year, so it repeated. City Council Districts, 7, 1, 2 and this year, they’re planting in Districts 3 and 4 and next year will be 5 and 6. It’s two cycles. 

The first three years, Friends of the Rouge, Sierra Club, and the other major partner was Keep Growing Detroit. What we found was the people who are part of the Keep Growing Detroit program, the urban gardeners, love working with soil. They like being outside. They understand the value of the outdoor experience and so many of them were also rain garden recipients. They responded to the application that was put out right there. They applied. 

We look for people, applicants who were leaders in their community because the idea of the program is you receive a rain garden, you maintain it, commit to maintaining it up to five years, because we know after five years, it’s pretty much established, and if you have neighbors or friends who stop by and see it and they’re interested in it as well, then you have the skill because you’ve attended these workshops, you’ve planted your own rain garden and you’ve helped two other members of your class to plant theirs. At least two. We have one person who attended all the installations, so she’s installed 10 of them along with us side by side but you’re now in a position to help you, neighbors. 

Actually, the second round this grant, there is funding there too for the previous people who have rain gardens who received, to lead an installation, to help find someone interested and we will help, and they get a small stipend to lead an installation. The idea is to create a movement, literally, of people, a cohort of people. Now, if we find that, I think, as part of that program, approximately 60 rain gardens. Say, 60 people who have attended workshops helped install rain gardens, that potentially could help others do it as well. 

You need native plants, so you have to have– One of your purpose has to be a native plant supplier. Right now, Keep Growing Detroit has started to the last several years and this year. They are now growing native plants that we purchase, that are purchased for that program. That’s pretty incredible. 

The compost is another cost, and then mulch or wood chips. I don’t know who the suppliers are. Friends of The Rouge orders that and the suppliers have changed. I don’t recall. 

Interviewer: I guess, the question would be will this be private land? Would this be their whole property that they’re filling these plants on? Would these be individual property owners, or would they be small business leaders? Do you also work with churches, for instance, because we’re seeing a lot of that happening right now in terms of the drainage issues? 

Erma: Most are residential, but we have installed, at least one church– I’m sorry. Last year, we did three churches. There are four churches that I can remember off the top of my head, that have the rain gardens. 

Right now, the way the system is set up with DWSD in terms of getting credit off your drainage for having the rain gardens, residents are not eligible, because, it makes sense, they receive an automatic 25% off the top credit, off the drainage fee, on the assumption that their downspouts are disconnected. It’s a way to reward those who have it, but also to encourage those who haven’t to disconnect the downspout, so that rainwater coming off your roof, at least, rolls over some grass and is absorbed into the grass, into the tree that might be planted nearby, and not going into the storm drain. We need to get downspouts disconnected citywide. 

That needs to happen especially at a residential level, because most residents have a lot. You don’t disconnect it if it’s on the driveway side, because you don’t want– Like in my house, water that comes off into the driveway that turns into a little ice-skating rink in winter. But if it’s flowing onto a lawn, please disconnect it. We’ll be able to do that. Again, they’re receiving a 25% off the top credit. 

Our rain gardens are small, because most homes are fairly small. They’re in the front lawn, usually. It probably wouldn’t, we haven’t tested it, but it more than likely would not offer more than that 25% credit. You would either get credit 25% off the top or you would get credit for your rain garden. If your rain garden is giving you a 15% credit, stick with 25. Just disconnect your downspout. They’re beautiful, they offer that nearby nature quality-of-life benefit and people still want them for that reason. The gardens, they like flowers, and they want wildlife. 

Some of our churches are some of the churches that have been participants in the program, are working with the water department to determine how much, if whatever the credit, they will be able to receive credit. That’s in process. I can’t say right now that it’s a success, that they’re receiving it. The one we put in last year was our largest rain garden ever. It’s taking storm water off of four buildings. I think there are four downspouts at this particular church campus. I would expect that they would be getting some credit, because I know they’re managing. 

We know from their stories, from their description of what happens when it rains, that a lot of water goes in and a lot of water infiltrates. I would imagine that there’s some type of credit. 

We haven’t worked much with small businesses, because we’ve had some apply, want to participate, but often, their downspouts are internal. We can’t get to them. It’s a little more complicated. There may not be a space to put a rain garden. We’ve not done too much. 

Interviewer: Do people ask you, “Is this going to prevent flooding in my basement?” for instance, because it probably wouldn’t, right? 

Erma: We have some anecdotal. There’s a woman, one of our homeowners. At that time, we were we put her rain garden in the backyard. We prefer not to have them in the back. We want him in the front, so they’re visible, so people can learn because part of this is share with your neighbors, let it be a community, building community gathering, so you could talk about it and others will do it as well. 

She said after the rain, she had flooding all the time in her basement, but after the rain garden was installed, flooding stopped. That’s what she said. That was her experience. I think, yes, it’s possible that that will help with that, but I’m not an engineer. I can’t say absolutely. It’s not a question we pose to others, we’ve not done a study or a survey of it. 

Interviewer: Would it help if it takes the flooding, even if it’s in the front? 

Erma: Not sure. 

Interviewer: Not sure. Okay. 

Healing Our Waters Coalition  

Interviewer: No worries. I know you also were working with the Healing Our Waters Coalition. I think you’re working there with the Environmental Justice Task Force? 

Erma: Yes. 

Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about your work with that coalition. Tell us a little bit about that. 

Erma: I am working with Ducks Unlimited as the Michigan co-leads for the Healing Our Waters-Great Lakes Coalition. This is a coalition of 150, probably 150 plus, organizations who do work around restoring and protecting the Great Lakes or businesses whose business involves a healthy Great Lakes. Like boaters, not just boaters like a personal boat, like a charter boat, for example, company. Those are kinds of companies that might be members of the coalition. 

The Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition, I sit on the governance board and also on the Equity Advisory and Action Coalition. Equity advisory and Action Committee. It’s an extraordinary organization. 

What our focus is, we have five priorities and those are to maintain funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. This is funding that’s used to do restoration projects throughout the Great Lakes basin. There are eight great lakes states that are within the basin, a part of the Great Lakes region. These funds go for projects throughout the region of all the states. 

They’ve been vital to turning around some waterfront properties. Say, for example, our waterfront here in Detroit was once industrial. The backyard of our industry is now this beautiful space accessible for all people to come and enjoy our water. Those are the kinds of things that these GLRI funds are paying for, that are making a difference throughout this state, again, throughout the Great Lakes region. We’re continually advocating for maintaining that funding or increasing that funding. 

Our other priorities are to keep the Asian carp out of the Great Lakes. The Asian carp are an invasive species that have been in the Mississippi River heading North towards the Great Lakes, too close for comfort. We really need some type of barrier, permanent barrier ideally to keep the Asian carp out. Wherever the Asian carp go, they destroy the ecosystem to the extent that they’re eating food of other species. They’ve become the dominant species. There’s no known predator for the Asian carps. It’s critical to keep them out. 

We have a fishing, hunting industry in Michigan. A boating industry, people go out on the boats who want to go fishing. That brings millions of dollars into the region and to Michigan as well, of course. It’s important that we keep out the invasive species. Asian carp is the primary one, but others as well. We need strong phallus laws to prevent the introduction of any additional invasive species. 

We also are fighting and advocating for more funding for infrastructure. Water, drinking water, storing water, and wastewater infrastructure. The Army Corps of Engineer, I believe a few years ago, put out a report saying there needs to be huge investment in infrastructure including water infrastructure. We’re saying, “Let’s do it. Let’s make this happen.” Working with congressional members and the federal government to try to make sure that there’s more of an investment in infrastructure, more funds available for these infrastructure improvements. 

We’re also looking at the Clean Water Act, because there are, in the last couple of years, there have been a need for clarity in terms of what bodies of water are covered under the Clean Water Act. There’s been some debate about it. We have something called the Waters of the US to clarify what it means; what waters are covered under the Clean Water Act. We don’t want to see any rollbacks. We don’t want to see streams within the watershed feed the larger bodies. 

If those streams are not covered under the Clean Water Act and people pollute or dump things into the stream, because it’s not a violation of the Act, eventually it flows into the larger water bodies. We’re cleaning up here, but we’re allowing pollution here that ultimately will come here. It doesn’t make any sense. We don’t want to see any rollbacks in Clean Water Act. 

We’ve made great strides. We’re trying to eliminate areas of concern to bring back beneficial uses of swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters. It’s key to restore the damage, prevent future damage. We’re advocating for that as well as our priorities. 

It’s a bipartisan coalition. We have in congress of bipartisan cooperation around the great lakes. It doesn’t matter Democrat or Republican. If you are part of a Great Lake steak, even some that are not that understand the value of this water system. Again, 20% of the world’s fresh surface water with 90% of the fresh surface water in the United States, most states, most municipalities in this country use groundwater as their drinking water source. 

The underground aquifers. You’ve heard about the Ogallala aquifer that’s been running out of water. This is a vital national resource, quite honestly, that we need to protect. There’s been very extraordinary bipartisan agreement around it for the most part and we are working to maintain that and hoping not just current congressional members, those into the future, current, future presidents, et cetera, will all support these priorities and understand the value that exists here in the Great Lakes. 

Water Affordability

Interviewer: The recent Healing Our Waters Coalition Conference, Michigan, Detroit and Flint, and Toledo also, they all really play really huge parts in, I think issues related to affordability and health in particular. I think you’ve had tons of panels on that. Is that an area that you are seeing the coalition move more towards, really looking at? Can you maybe talk a little bit about that? 

Erma: Yes and thank you. I know you asked that originally. Yes, we are looking at the environmental justice aspects of water as well, because we’ve got these great bodies of water, let’s say they’re clean, pristine, but there are people who don’t have access. There are examples. There’s one city, not Detroit, who has said that their residents, Black residents, African American residents, even though they’re a bus ride away from Lake Michigan, don’t feel like it’s really a place for them, the beaches along Lake Michigan. They don’t feel that it’s really– “Those aren’t for us. Those are for the other people.” 

It’s an unbelievable thing. It’s like I heard it and I’m not following. There’s a conditioning. Let’s say, you take the bus or drive to the beach on Lake Michigan, but you’re harassed or in some way made to feel unwelcomed and that becomes the conditioned, that you’re now conditioned to not go there. You want to go to have a good time to enjoy this water, this beach, this beautiful scenery, but you’ve not been welcome. There are issues around how do we change that. 

We’re spending this money; we’re asking for this money to restore and protect a resource that some of our residents don’t feel comfortable accessing or don’t have the ability to access. It’s not right. We are working on that and looking at that issue and ways to change how do we address it. What are some things that can be done? What kind of messaging? What kind of relationships coalition-building can we do to change that type of thing? 

We have Flint, which really, it might be a serious crime scene and there are people who are going to jail and have gone to jail because of it. This was something that should never have been. The linkage to me is couple of things. The Flint River, although it’s in better condition perhaps then when the industry was again dumping into the waterways, is still an unhealthy body of water. If that is then your source water, that’s what happens, right? Flint changed to a different source water, instead of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department providing them with water that comes from the Detroit river here, to cleaner bodies of water, you’re now using your old system. 

Flint’s switched to their water treatment plant using Flint River as their water source and contaminated the body of water. They did not use the proper processing of that. The cleansing process, the treatment process. It was flawed because they were trying to save money and didn’t add a chemical or two. We know the outcome of that is now we have a city with the leeching of lead and the need to replace all the lead service lines and also the damage to the health of the children and the people in the city. It should never have happened. 

That’s an environmental justice issue, because it’s a city that mostly are poor. I don’t know, honestly, I don’t know the statistics of Flint, but I know there are a fair size of African American, possibly people living in poverty, again, because of disinvestment in auto industry living and that kind of thing. Then you had the state government coming in and taking over with this emergency manager. 

This is a pattern when democracy is denied and you have people coming in in a dictatorship-type of rule to say, “You will do as I say and it doesn’t matter what your elected officials say. I’m here to manage in this emergency.” Bad things happen and we’ve seen examples of that here in Detroit. The environmental justice piece of that, the racist part of that is that these things are only happening in communities where there’s sizable black population. Would not likely to happen in places other than that or it hasn’t happened. I’ll put it that way. Maybe it would, but it hasn’t, that’s not what experience has shown us. 

Those are environmental justice or injustice issues that have created further issues. You say you’re coming in, because it’s an emergency, finances are bad, can’t balance the budget. I’m going to come in, but now you’ve created something that’s a total nightmare. 

There are things happening to try and help their fundraising to build a water testing facility for the neighborhoods, for the community who still have a level of mistrust, understandably, of the system. When their water is tested, someone tells them, “It’s clean, you can drink it.” They’re not quite so sure. They’re going to have their own testing facility, which is perfect to try to build trust in the water, in their system. 

Healing Our Waters Coalition is providing assistance. Some of our member organizations like Freshwater Future is very involved, they’re a member coalition, so we’re supporting their effort, we’re listening, we’re learning. What can we do, how can contribute? Making sure that that’s also part of the discussion when we meet with congressional members and presidential candidates and asking, “What’s your position on these issues and so forth to us here in Michigan, here in the Great Lakes region. We don’t want to see this happen again. Will there be funding to support efforts to prevent this from happening again or assisting people who have been harmed?” 

Interviewer: Where do you see the movement for affordable clean water in Detroit, and maybe, it’s Southeast. Michigan in the general, moving? 

Erma: I’m looking forward to discussions around water rates. That’s my hope really. I think that thinking outside the box that’s how do we solve this problem? What are we going to do that’s creative, that’s new, that’s innovative, that everyone can shake hands on that helps people today to be able to have access to this water? I want to see that. I think we’re moving in that direction; I think. A lot of eyes are there, a lot of thinkers, there’s lots of committees, there’s specialists, so, maybe not the description I gave when we first started talking about $1,000 worth of free water. Maybe it’s not that, but something. 

Let’s, I don’t want to say set a deadline, but maybe by the end of the year, let’s say by 2020 we can have this resolved. It’s been a long time, long conversations. My book says too long. One way to maybe, even change the dynamic is look at what your strengths are. Let’s look at what’s working, let’s look at other places that have systems that are working. Maybe, we don’t need to recreate a wheel. Maybe, we can look on a national level and come up with some things and brainstorm or borrow some ideas. I want to see that happen. I would love to see that happen. I think that there’s potential for that. 

Interviewer: Philadelphia adopted the income-based water affordability rate program, but as far as I know, a lot of the administrators in the city especially have generally tended to argue against a similar income-based program. Is that an issue that you see, perhaps, some traction that may be at the state level or maybe even federal level, or is that something that the heal Our Waters Coalition is trying to examine? 

Erma: We have members of the coalition who are very deeply involved in that. It hasn’t been brought to us like. “Support this bill,” or “Support this initiative,” that I can think of, but it’s a member of our coalition and so where we can, I think we will provide support. Again, I don’t know support in what way. I’m not sure. I don’t know. I’ve participated in conversations, I’d like to help facilitate conversations, I would be willing to do that if asked to do that, to try to mediate conversation, brainstorm ideas. I would love to be a part of that, but there are really probably greater thinkers, better thinkers on that than me, but if asked, I would definitely weigh in, throw it out and see what we can come up with. See what we can find that works. 

I think parts of the Philadelphia plan, if I’m not mistaken, include rates for people who have disabilities, I think, or elderly population, maybe families and I think there’s some elements of that. Maybe, that $1,000 maybe it’s– I don’t know. Some kind of rate structure specifically with them based on– I’m not sure, maybe income. 

I guess I shy away, personally, from thinking about the income-base, because if you have a water department, they’re saying absolutely not, because we have this law of Bolt versus Lancy, that clearly in their mind says, “We cannot do this.” 

I don’t want to argue, I am tired of arguing about it, personally. Let the courts decide. Put a bill in, do something and let the court decide. Let there be a definitive not, I said, this is what I think, this is what I believe and you’re doing this. Let there be a decision. Somebody make a decision, maybe a neutral, the court. Somebody needs to end that argument because it’s either yes we can or no we can’t, we need to know. Honestly, that’s my thinking on that. How long can you argue a point? There needs to be a decision because people still need help. 

Closing Remarks

Interviewer: Right. To close I guess, is there any particular person or a story or an event that resonates with you emotionally, either in a positive way or maybe in a negative sad way? 

Erma: Around water insecurity? 

Interviewer: Yes. 

Erma: I think what resonates with me the most, that really drives me is knowing what’s happening worldwide. I feel like we have issues, we just need to fix. You know what I’m saying? It’s not insurmountable. We have differences of opinions, but at the end of the day, we’ve got water. We have all this water, groundwater, surface water, water surrounds us. Figure it out. Let’s get together. 

There are places in the world that don’t have water. They don’t have access. It’s dry. There have been drought conditions, there simply is no water. People are living on one or two gallons of water a day, a week or whatever. They can’t grow food, because they don’t have water. Now you’ve got, first, no water, no food. They’re dying. I can’t say that that’s not also happening here, period. Even if you don’t have water coming out of your tap, you can buy a bottle of water for 50 cents, you buy a big thing, right? 

There’s the bottled water. I hate the idea of bottled water. There is a lot of plastic in our oceans, we need to deal with that. That’s an issue, but you can do something. There are some options. They’re difficult, but there are some options. 

People shouldn’t have to go buy bottled water. I’m not saying that. “Oh, it’s easy, go–” I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that is available. There are places in the world it’s not available, it’s not there. It’s not possible. They don’t have it. That is what drives me, really, is to say we are so fortunate, we are so blessed. Let’s protect it. Let’s make sure that we’re not contaminating it with chemicals. 

I think fracking is a nightmare thing. Why would you do that, extract all this water for a bunch of chemicals, you don’t know what they are and push it back into the ground to impact our groundwater? I simply don’t see very much good with that. Especially, we have alternatives to energy, you don’t need gas. You have wind turbines and solar panels. There are countries that are doing this, that are moving towards 100% clean energy. We don’t have to destroy our water with this, we don’t have to have pipelines that can burst buried in our water. I think we need to protect this and understand this value because we could be somewhere else, there is no water at all. 

Interviewer: Right. 

Erma: Let’s not be careless with the resource. Again, reading about drought and water insecurity in other places, makes me work harder here to say we’re lucky, but we can ruin this. Let’s not do it, let’s be smart. 

Interviewer: Thank you so much. 

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