As the Pandemic Flares, Southeast Michigan Cities Start Shutting Off their Residents’ Water Again

Matt Harmon is FLOW’s Milliken intern for communications

By Matt Harmon

Even though Michigan is considered the Great Lake State, bordered by four of the five Great Lakes, and everyone needs water, especially during a global pandemic, some Michigan suburbs like Oak Park and Hazel Park are resuming water shutoff policies after the statewide moratorium expired on March 31 of this year. According to the Oak Park Office of Utility Billing and Collections, Oak Park resumed water shutoffs two weeks ago in conjunction with Sec. 82-269 of their City Code of Ordinances on discontinuances of water service. Meanwhile, cities like Detroit, and various suburbs surrounding the city, are announcing that they are extending their water shutoff moratoria into next year while they look for ways to end shutoffs permanently.

For years, activists have been making the case that Michigan residents can’t possibly protect themselves from illness without clean water at home. During the current pandemic, activists are pressing city officials, questioning how they can’t see the inhumanity of a Michigan resident or families living without running water. Families cannot maintain a healthy environment such as flushing their toilet, bathing, washing their hands, cleaning, and cooking. It’s a matter of survival. That’s what people mean when they proclaim, “Water is life!” 

Organizations like the People’s Water Board Coalition (PWBC) are currently working to end water shutoffs for good, and in some cities their pressure is resulting in renewed moratoria, citing the ongoing pandemic as circumstances for keeping water in homes. Just in Macomb County, cities surrounding Detroit like Warren, New Haven, Roseville, and Centerline have extended the moratorium on water shutoffs, recognizing the inherent danger of shutting off water in the midst of a global pandemic. PWBC’s outreach has been instrumental in reinstating these moratoriums.

As cities in the Detroit metropolitan area resume water shutoffs while the City of Detroit extends its moratorium, PWBC is actively reaching out to Southeast Michigan municipalities to continue the state-wide moratorium and work to implement an income-based water affordability plan. 

Rev. Cass Charrette is an organizer with PWBC and part of an effort to inform city governments that state and federal funding is currently available and more funding is on the way to aid water utilities and customers. The three funding sources Charrette is urging cities to either apply for or expect in the coming months include Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), COVID Emergency Rental Assistance (CERA), and American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). According to the Michigan Department of Treasury, ​$1.8 billion of the ARPA funds have been allocated to 49 Michigan cities and townships and $1.93 billion to 83 Michigan counties.

“There’s this narrative that people don’t want to pay their water bills. This is not true. Water is a necessity to life,” said Charrette.

On March 28, 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-28 which created a moratorium on water shutoffs in the State of Michigan. Legislators like Senator Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) were instrumental in securing this moratorium and extending it until March 31, 2021. Months after March 31, cities are now resuming water shutoffs. These municipalities need to be reminded of the importance of clean, running water in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

“There’s this narrative that people don’t want to pay their water bills. This is not true. Water is a necessity to life.”

Despite fluctuating mask mandates and lower virus rate peaks, the pandemic is far from over. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the highly transmissible COVID-19 Delta variant has become the primary strain of coronavirus in the nation with a 70-percent increase in just one week. According to CDC director Rochelle Walensky, a vast majority of the cases are among the unvaccinated.

As of August 2, 2021, Michigan’s COVID rates are increasing, with a total of 2,605 new cases and 26 additional deaths from July 29 to August 2. According to the Oakland County COVID-19 Dashboard where Oak Park and Hazel Park are situated, the 7-day average has been steadily rising since late June and currently rests at 78 cases as of August 4. With our state’s vaccination rates at 63.8 percent, the pandemic still poses a real threat to the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

This is not meant to be alarmist, but rather an observation of the lessons municipalities should have learned over the course of this pandemic. The CDC still lists handwashing as a method of protection against the coronavirus. Additionally, the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition recommends that those recovering from COVID-19 drink 2-4 ounces of water every 15 minutes because “when you are dehydrated, your respiratory secretions thicken and are hard to clear from your lungs.”

On December 8, 2020, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan announced that Detroit would extend its water shutoff moratorium into 2022 and will be looking to discontinue the practice permanently in the coming years. The work of organizations like PWBC in making this moratorium a reality cannot be overstated. Through relief work, activism, organizing, presentations, community meetings, blogs, webinars, and more, activists are at the front of this issue and actualizing real change.

The federal government used to contribute a larger share and much more per capita to municipal water infrastructure. As a result, while the federal government’s spending on Transportation and Water Infrastructure has stayed relatively steady from 1956 to 2017, growth in expenses and in population have soared, leaving state and local governments to pay much more over the same time period. This ultimately results in residents being burdened to pay more than they can afford for these crucial resources.

“We need to change this old way of doing business of paying the expense for having water shut off which puts an added burden on the consumer to pay the shut-off and turn-on fees, when these families already cannot afford the water bill,” said Charrette.

Charrette said some cities have not offered the aforementioned funding sources to residents, keeping residents unaware of the available resources. These funding sources should be on all city websites. PWBC is calling on cities like Oak Park and Hazel Park to continue the moratorium on water shutoffs and use the three government funding programs to clear arrearage debt off all customers with shutoff notices.

“Just as food and shelter are essential to life, so is water. We must change the system to include an income-based water affordability plan so all people can live in dignity with running water and children are not taken away by Health and Human Services for a lack of water.”

So where does that leave residents? For starters, city residents can call their municipal offices and ask about water shutoff policies, attend city council meetings to put the pressure on elected officials to extend moratoriums and establish water affordability programs, and check if they qualify for LIHWAP and/or CERA funding programs to pay for arrearages by visiting the CERA application website.

“Just as food and shelter are essential to life, so is water. We must change the system to include an income-based water affordability plan so all people can live in dignity with running water and children are not taken away by Health and Human Services for a lack of water,” said Charrette.

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