District of Columbia residents and leaders of African American churches are fed up with having to pay exorbitant water bills and have organized to put a stop to the practice.

Two hundred residents and faith leaders convened at the Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast Washington on March 1 to decide a plan of action to fight the high water bills. The Rev. Willie Wilson, co-pastor of the church, said the problem that Black residents and churches face dealing with their water bills is part of a larger scheme by some forces to get African Americans out of the city.

District residents are paying higher water bills to clean up the Anacostia River. (AFRO File Photo)

“This water problem connects with gentrification,” Wilson said. “The policies of the District of Columbia government have created the condition we are in.”

The District is mandated by federal law to pay $2.9 billion for state-of-the-art tunnels that will keep sewage and groundwater from flooding the area’s rivers. In order to pay for the tunnels, a plan was approved by DC Water’s board in 2009 that would assess a charge of $1.24 per square feet of concrete where water builds up and goes into the sewage system.

This is known as the Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (IAC).

Some District Black churches have high IACs because they have large parking lots attached to their sanctuaries and business offices. For example, Union Temple would have high water bills because its large parking lot is right outside of the church whereas Asbury United Methodist Church on 11th Street. N.W. doesn’t have big water assessments because its parking lot is underground and there is ample parking on the street that is not assessed against the church.

When the charge first started in 2009, it was small but now churches can be assessed tens of thousands of dollars that are based on aerial shots of all D.C. properties that have outside concrete. DC Water regulates IAC rates.

District Black places of worship such as Imani Temple, Rock Creek Baptist Church and Metropolitan Baptist Church have left the city for Prince George’s County for several reasons, some of which include high water bills.

Kim Mitchell is a resident who is also fighting her high water bills. In her testimonial before the gathering, she said she wanted to be a homeowner and achieved her dream but now it is in trouble.

“I can’t believe that I will lose my home over a water bill?” Mitchell said. “I want to know what the city council is doing about this. I want to ask them ‘why did you sell us out?’

“I want to tell those Uncle Toms on the city council that has no backbone that it is time for you to go.”

A classic example of how high water bills have affected churches is the St. Paul’s Rock Creek Church in Northwest Washington. The church has a parking lot and a large cemetery.

Before the IAC program, water bills averaged $400 a month, Cecily Thorne, the church’s director of operations, told the gathering.

“But now our water bills are $19,000 a month,” she said. “We looked closely at the bill and saw that only $1500 was for water use. We have a cemetery that has been in the city since the 1700s.

“There is obviously something wrong and we need something to be done about it soon,” Thorne said.

A number of leaders pledged at the meeting to work together to create an ad hoc civic and political engagement organization that will fight the exorbitant water bills.  Some of the members it include the Rev. Graylan Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Keith Byrd of Zion Baptist Church, health care activist Ambrose Lane, Ed Lazere, candidate for chairman of the D.C. Council, and solar power activist Robert Robinson.

After the meeting, residents signed up for various committees such as phone banking and community outreach.