News Feature | July 30, 2018

Detroit Investigates Alleged Water Theft Operation

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Detroit water officials are investigating a potential large-scale water theft at a marijuana operation.

“A grow house on Seven Mile on the city's east side has more than just marijuana that is illegal there. The suspects were stealing electricity and water — and authorities estimate they're costing Detroiters big money,” WJBK reported.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Director Gary Brown said the city is cracking down on illegal water withdrawals.

“Brown says investigators have the technology and manpower and they will prosecute people who are stealing water. Since August, Detroit Water and Sewerage have conducted more than 400 investigations, and more than $4 million has been identified in unpaid or illegal usage. Most of these are legal businesses,” the report continued.

Brown framed water theft in light of social justice issues.

"When you steal that water you're essentially asking poor people to pay your bill," Brown stated, per the report.

“There will always be an underground economy going on. But when that underground economy starts affecting an 82-year-old grandmother that's struggling to pay her bills — well we're going to get involved at that point," Brown added.

Fighting water theft is one way to keep rates down, according to Detroit officials.

“Brown has hired a team of six investigators, former police officers who hit the streets each day and recently a tip led them to what appeared to be an abandoned building. Once inside it was anything but empty,” WJBK reported.

“A green garden hose led all the way to a pump station. Not just marijuana but authorities say the building was committing large scale utilities theft,” the report stated.

Brown said the operation may have stolen upward of hundreds of thousands of dollars in water and electricity.

A man was charged with “delivery and manufacturing of marijuana, malicious destruction of property, tampering with meters and public utility fraud. These are charges that could land him behind bars for several years if he's found guilty,” the report stated.

Fifty percent of the utility’s customers in Detroit fall below the poverty line, the report stated. The city came under fire in previous years for shutting off water service to customers who had not paid their bills, which the United Nations called a human rights violation.

Detroit continues to use water shutoffs to compel customers to pay. It temporarily suspended the policy over Fourth of July holiday, but commenced shutoffs again on July 9, The Detroit Free Press reported.

“It’s unclear how many Detroit customers currently face possible water service cuts. In April, DWSD pegged that number at a little over 17,000 households. Peckinpaugh says an updated number should be available next week, and that almost 1,000 customers received door hanger warnings about impending shutoffs this past weekend,” Michigan Radio reported.