Water Warriors

06:17 min
Director: Liz Miller
Producer: Liz Miller

Winner of the Environment Award


More About Water Warriors from Director and Producer Liz Miller

Water is quickly becoming the liquid gold of the 21st century. While corporations urge local governments to privatize municipal water systems, communities around the world are organizing to ensure affordable access to this life sustaining resource. Water Warriors is the story of one community’s determination to fight the seemingly inevitable path of water privatization. This six-minute video, is a shorter version of an hour-long piece that will premier in the fall of 2006.

Most of us take water for granted. My objective in making Water Warriors was to encourage more people to think about where the water you drink comes from, who is in charge of making decisions about this shared resource, and how to ensure everyone has access to water. Today public water utilities serve 81% of the American public, but corporations and private investors understand that aging public infrastructures present new investment opportunities. With the diminishing involvement of the state and federal government in supporting water systems, local officials are faced with difficult decisions.

I wanted to frame this issue as it plays out in city councils across the United States. How do local leaders determine what is best for their community? What does private investment in a water system really mean for residents, for water plant workers, for a community? Is water privatization a sustainable solution? What are the alternatives? To tell this story I traveled to many cities around the world at various stages of privatization before I chose Highland Park, a city on the verge of turning its system over to private management. Highland Park, Michigan, is a small African American city with a soulful past. The city is 3 miles long, surrounded by Detroit, and known by many as the birthplace of Henry Ford’s assembly line and the music of Motown. It was once a haven for working class families as well as a site for radical labor organizing and inspired the classic film, Finally Got the News.

I first visited Highland Park in January of 2004 because I had heard that residents were receiving water bills as high as $10,000 and that half of the city had their water shut off. The irony is that unlike any other city or suburb in the Detroit area, Highland Park has its own water intake to the Great Lakes basin, which Henry Ford secured in 1917 to support his auto industry. So here was a city located next to the largest fresh water supply in the world, and residents were deprived of access to water.

During my first visit to Highland Park, I met a group of inspiring women addressing the water crisis. These women have been organizing for a long time: They were involved with the civil rights movement; At the peak of the car industry they were community and labor organizers; When the industry left they became welfare organizers. Today these women declare access to water as the civil rights issue of our times. Not only are they providing direct support to residents facing water shut offs but they have a critical analysis about why this is happening. These women “Fight Poverty, Not the Poor” and they consider access to water a human right, and they are searching for alternatives to privatization.

I then learned more about what was going on and why the bills were so high. Highland Park, like four other cities in Michigan with economic troubles, is under a “state take-over.” To fix the financial crisis, an Emergency Financial Manager (EMF), has been appointed by the state. I was eager to meet the EMF, the woman who would be determining the future of the city and the water plant. The EMF, a strong leader in her own right, agreed to share her perspective on the situation and introduced me to the rest of her corporate team. The EMF had turned to the water plant to generate revenue for the city. To balance the books she had cut back on water support staff while simultaneously got tough on collecting current and past bills. Getting a water department “in order” is often the first step to privatization, but in this case the situation had translated to “disorder.”

I then met Gloria Pogue, another impressive leader in her workplace and her community. Gloria is the guiding spirit of the water plant and the reservoir, which is fondly called, “Gloria’s Lake.” When I met Gloria she had been working 350 days in a row as a “part timer” and was managing this plant with determination and dignity. After I met these strong women, I knew that Highland Park was the place to tell an American story about water, democracy, and difficult decisions.

While many cities do not face the same financial challenges of a post-industrial city, Highland Park acutely foreshadows the challenges that many cities around the world will face; aging water infrastructures, a lack of resources to update old systems, and a need to address management issues. And as you will see in the longer version of the film, Water Warriors is not just about water, but touches on the very essence of our democratic system. Water Warriors presents a community in crisis but it also presents the powerful enactment of local participation in finding solutions to the problems of our times.

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