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Water gushes unchecked in blighted Detroit areas, adding to financial distress

| Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, 5:42 p.m.

DETROIT — 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 insides of the 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 causing 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 east side. “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 Frederick Douglass Academy, also on the city's east side, 6 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.

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