State senate expected to consider key legislation after Nov. 3 general election
By Janet Meissner Pritchard
October 21, 2020, marked the sixth annual observation of Imagine a Day Without Water. Imagine having no water to drink, prepare a meal, or to wash your hands. Having no water to shower, flush the toilet, or do laundry. For thousands of Michigan families since this national day of observance was founded, going through daily life without access to safe, clean, and affordable water requires no imagination at all. Since 2014, roughly 140,000 homes in Detroit alone have had their water shut off at least once due to unaffordable water bills, some multiple times after paying back-due bills and falling behind again.
COVID-19 Highlights Need for Universal Access to Clean Water and an End to Shutoffs
The pandemic has underscored that universal access to safe, clean, and affordable water is essential for public health. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an Executive Order on March 20 requiring the restoration of water services for households whose water had been shut off due to inability to pay; this order was later extended to remain in place through December 31, and state funds were authorized to help relieve water bill debt for families unable to pay their bills during the pandemic. On October 2, however, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down pandemic-related emergency orders issued by Gov. Whitmer and, on October 12, the Court clarified that this ruling applied to the Governor’s emergency orders relating to water shutoffs, among many other emergency orders.
Also on October 12, a group of Michigan legislators led by Senator Stephanie Chang introduced a new version of Senate Bill 241 that would effectively codify Whitmer’s emergency orders requiring the restoration of water services to keep these important protections in place through December 31. The Whitmer administration has been working with legislative leaders to advance this solution, and the bill is expected to be taken up by the legislature on November 4 or 5.
While the attention of most Michigan voters is rightly attuned to the Nov. 3 general election, it also remains important to hold our current representatives to account regarding on-going issues like the pandemic response and access to safe, clean, and affordable water.
FLOW Is Calling on Michiganders to Take Action: Learn more about State Senate Bill 241 to prevent household water shutoffs through December 31 for Michiganders in need and then contact your state lawmaker.
Click here to find contact information for your senator, by address or zip code.
Video: Detroit resident Nicole Hill had her water mistakenly turned off twice in 2014 because of double-billing. She worried the state would take her children away. She tried to tough it out being a single mom of seven kids in a home without water. She became seriously ill and was hospitalized. Now she speaks out as a member of the People’s Water Board and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, and a Tri-chair for the Poor People’s Campaign. Hill is devoted to combating poverty on all levels through her work in water affordability and social change.
Michigan’s U.S. lawmakers also are leading the charge to enact a federal moratorium against water shutoffs as part of COVID relief legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. Michigan Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell were among those leading the charge. Thanks to their persistent and persuasive efforts, the “skinny” version of the HEROES Act passed by the House in early October included $1.5 billion for water affordability and a national moratorium on water shutoffs. Although this legislation is not expected to be taken up by the Senate prior to the November 3 election, it remains an active issue at the federal level.
Video: Harley Rouda, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the Vice Chairwoman of the Subcommittee (who is pictured above with Monica Lewis-Patrick of We The People of Detroit), released a video report pressing for a national moratorium on water shutoffs and immediate restoration of service for homes that have already had their water shut off.
The Public Trust and FLOW’s Public Water, Public Justice Model Legislation
Moratoria against water shutoffs provide an important measure of protection and security for households who would otherwise be without access to safe, clean, affordable water in their homes. But long-term solutions are desperately needed that ensure this right and provide equitable, reliable, sustainable funding and financing for water utilities to provide this service, regardless of a families’ income.
Access to safe, clean, affordable water for drinking and personal sanitation is a human right, essential to life and dignity. Under public trust law, the state as sovereign holds water in trust for the benefit of the people of the state, including for sustenance and bathing. Each state has the power to determine the nature and extent of the public trust in its waters. The government is absolutely accountable to its citizens, as legal beneficiaries of the public trust in water, to ensure that these waters, and public trust uses, are protected from substantial interference or impairment or alienated or disposed of for solely private purposes or gain.
Several Michigan water and natural resources laws have declared a public trust in water. For example, the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) provides for the protection of the air, water, and natural resources and the public trust in those resources from impairment. It is in this tradition that FLOW recommends a comprehensive public trust framework for equitably funding and managing public water services.
FLOW’s Public Water, Public Justice (PWPJ) model legislation includes a declaration of the public trust in water and the delivery of public drinking water as a public good and service. These statutory declarations would protect the quality and reasonable use of the waters of the state by providing access to clean, safe, and affordable water for all residents of Michigan. The PWPJ model legislation also provides a funding mechanism to help drinking water utilities to fulfill these public trust duties by collecting a royalty on water bottled for commercial sale and placing royalties into a dedicated trust fund to be used to support water affordability programs and water infrastructure projects.