The Detroit News, Elizabeth Conley, Associated Press
In this July 8, 2014 file photo, Chester Clemons, a water shut-off technician for the city of Detroit, shuts off the water at a home in the Palmer Woods neighborhood of Detroit.

DETROIT — Cold weather will slow water service shutoffs in Detroit, but not halt a nearly yearlong push to collect on accounts 60 days or $150 or more past due.

Crews have disconnected service to 31,300 customers since Jan. 1 due to unpaid bills and will continue that this winter — stopping only during long bouts of below freezing temperatures when the ground is too hard to dig to water connections, Detroit Water and Sewerage spokeswoman Curtrise Garner told The Associated Press.

"It has to be pretty low, below 32 for a long period of time," Garner said. "Last year was really, really cold for a long time. We had a brief hiatus."

Outside of spates of extreme cold, the water department will be "doing business as usual," she said.

Shut-off numbers skyrocketed from about 1,200 from January through March to over 3,000 in April. The issue brought local, national and even international protesters to Detroit.

A several-week respite allowed people behind on their bills to enter into payment plans. Shutoffs dropped from a high of 7,200 in June to 1,600 in August. They have since picked back up with 5,100 in September and 4,200 last month.

The United Nations sent two human rights officials to Detroit in October to speak with residents and Mayor Mike Duggan.

"We're absolutely concerned about the situation and we're keeping a close eye on it — particularly in inclement weather during cold months when folks need hot water," said Darrell Dawsey, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which tried to prevent the shutoffs this summer.

Detroit's water system serves about 4 million people in communities across southeastern Michigan.

Including businesses, schools and commercial buildings, the department has about 323,900 Detroit accounts. As of March 6, nearly 165,000 were overdue for a total of $175 million. Residential customers accounted for $92 million of that amount.

Garner said the water department needs the once-uncollected money for sewer repairs, new vehicles and other capital improvements. Past collection efforts were spotty with thousands of bills going out, but little followup was done to get people to pay.

"We are trying to change the behavior so that the water bill is one of the top bills you pay," said Garner. "If not, our paying customers have to pay for everybody."

Through all of 2013, just over $2.5 million was collected from people who were shut off. About $3.7 million was collected from shut-off residents over the first nine months of 2014, while another $451,000 came in during October.

Service also has been restored to more than 17,400 customers and 33,000 customers have been enrolled in payment plans.

"People are definitely more proactive," Garner said. "When they come to get assistance they are paying the current bill and paying in arrears."

Most of the houses where water has not been restored are vacant, she added.

Water shutiff help: http://bit.ly/1sULjdu