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Tapped Out Detroit Residents in Water Fight With City

Detroit has shut off water to thousands of residents for non-payment. Critics say this is more about gentrification than delinquent dues.

Where water once flowed, there’s nothing. The only thing coming out of the faucets in Nicole Hill’s Detroit home is the squeaky sound of empty spouts. Her plight is like thousands of other residents in the Motor City who’ve seen their water turned off for non-payment.

“It’s the worst experience I've ever been through,” said Hill. “I just cannot imagine that there’s thousands of people right here in the city that are going through this and that so many people see nothing wrong with it. They feel like, ‘Well if you didn’t pay your bill, then you shouldn’t get water.’”

Hill’s tale is just a droplet in a flood of frustration, confusion and irritation taking part in Detroit’s water wars. The contested water bills have caused a dry spell to spread throughout the city. Beginning in March, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has shut off water service to about 12,500 customers for not paying.

Hill has been without water service for two months as she challenges bills totaling about $5,700.

“I have questioned the water department on several occasions about [it] and got no remedy to what could possibly be causing it,” she said. “Every time I contradict something, they come up with another explanation as to why my water bill is supposedly accurate.”

“I don’t see any way I could be capable of using that much water without it just literally running nonstop, 24/7.”

Late last year the Associated Press reported the city had a huge problem with leaky pipes throughout its infrastructure, which an untold amount of gallons of water being wasted.

Detroit Cracks Down on Unpaid Accounts

Nearly half of customers in the city are two or more months behind on payments and owe more than $150, according to a city water department executive. The average amount due is $560.

“The department would be irresponsible if it just allowed this to continue” said Darryl Latimer of the DWSD. “You never want to exercise shut-offs. That's basically your last resort. But we were left with no choice.”

Latimer said DWSD always has gone after delinquent accounts and discontinued water service for bills with balance. But with almost a 50 percent delinquency rate that’s “steadily growing” and “unsustainable,” the utility decided to be more aggressive in its turn-off program. The discontinuation of service for so many customers also reflects the worries of the department’s own financial woes.

“We reached our decision this year looking at our financials,” Latimer said. “Looking at our financials, looking at the increase that was coming for the city of Detroit, all of which was basically associated to bad debt.”

“We had to do something to stop that. And so this was the process that we went through.”

The amount of all the unpaid accounts totals near $90 million.

Water Crisis Riles Advocacy Groups

The water cut offs have forced many residents to depend on donations or buy expensive, packaged water. The situation has angered advocacy groups which see Detroit’s drought as a human rights crisis. Several groups approached the United Nation in late June to ask for aid.

“This is a human rights violation,” said Maureen Taylor, Chairwoman of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. “What kind of government would allow its people to live without water. What kind of people are we?”

Critics argue the water shut offs are more about gentrification and people wanting to profit off of residents than helping a city awash in financial troubles.

“This has nothing to do about people not paying their bills, but everything to do about commandeering a multi-billion dollar enterprise called the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department,” said Monica Lewis Patrick of We the People of Detroit and The People’s Water Coalition.

“You've got a local golf course that owes over $420,000 in unpaid water bills. You have the VA Hospital that owes over $132,000 in unpaid water bills. And they're hiding behind the protection of disputing the issue while they are targeting what are the most vulnerable members of our community, our elders and our children.”

City officials are defending their actions and say they have a specific benchmark to determine which residents have their water service turned off.

"We're looking at being 60 days past due and an amount greater than $150,” Latimer said. “When we send out a shut-off notice, it's associated with the property, not an individual. So we send it out to the property. We're trying to get those individuals that have just said, ‘Hey, I'm not going to pay because no one's here to force me to pay, so I'm not going to pay.'"

Patrick has taken to the streets to spread awareness about the water fight.

“One of the most egregious issues that I think this country is facing [is for it to] allow people to be denied water because someone else wants to benefit from that,” she said.

She says some residents have had their children taken away because they don’t have water to bathe them.

“It is so important to me if should I die tomorrow that my children know that I didn't sit down on my watch -- that I didn't allow this to go down without trying to be part of the solution,” Patrick said. “What we know is if we don't fight we definitely are destined to lose.”

NBC News' Shannon Urtnowski contributed to this story.