Photo courtesy of People’s Water Board Coalition
Story update: Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order on Saturday, March 28, stipulating that people who have lost water service because of non-payment of bills will have that service reconnected. The order comes with a $2 million state grant attached that will be administered by the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and sent to communities to reconnect service, which Whitmer deemed essential to help fight the spread of the coronavirus. Communities will be required to provide a 25% match for the state grant.
“The executive order directing water utilities to reconnect water access to all residents in Michigan and to restart all water systems is mission critical to ensure we can stay healthy and fight against this global pandemic,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “Frontline groups including People’s Water Board Coalition, We the People of Detroit, Flint Rising, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO), Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition and others deserve special recognition as the heroes for their tireless advocacy seeking water justice in the State of Michigan. In addition to this emergency directive, we at FLOW are committed to seeking the ban of water shutoffs and other long-term policies to ensure that everyone has access to safe, affordable water. Water is a human right.”
Both Emergency Relief and Long-Term Solutions Needed
By Janet Meissner Pritchard, FLOW interim legal director
The coronavirus pandemic threatens the health of all Michiganders. And for those who already faced water insecurity, such as many families in Flint or the more than 9,500 households in Detroit whose water has been shut off due to inability to pay soaring water bills, these health risks are worsened.
People living in households without access to safe and clean water are unable to wash their hands regularly to help prevent transmission of the coronavirus and protect themselves. This increases the risk of spreading COVID-19 to others, too. And public water stations set up by community groups like We the People of Detroit to provide emergency water for shut-off households are drawing fewer volunteers to staff these sites, due to fear of contracting the virus.
The pandemic also deepens the economic insecurity of these households. Low-income, hourly wage workers are more likely to be impacted by workplace closures brought by the pandemic. When restaurants and other businesses stop, the paychecks to workers do, too. Without access to safe, clean running water in their homes, these already financially stressed households also pay much more for water by purchasing bottled water–if they can find it in local shops during this time of shopping panic.
Ordering Restoration of Water Services Is Not Enough
On March 9, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department announced a moratorium on water shutoffs and ordered water services to be restored to shut-off households. But, as of March 23, only 679 homes had service restored.
This unacceptably slow pace is, in part, because homes that have been without service for weeks, months, or even years have considerable problems with lead service lines and residential plumbing characterized by corroded and burst pipes, water heaters lined with dangerous deposits, water-borne microbial contamination in the lines from stagnant water and raw sewage, and lead contamination in plumbing and fixtures. If these plumbing risks are not corrected prior to restoring water service, “every home with an extended shutoff is like its own Flint water crisis waiting to happen.”
In the face of these multiple challenges, metro Detroiters, led by the People’s Water Board, held a press conference last Friday, March 20, calling on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to take emergency action. Their letter to the Governor specifies several measures, including the provision of public water stations and sanitation products, that must be put in place immediately to address the current health emergency for households without clean, safe water.
The letter also points to steps needed to provide a long-term solution to these persistent problems of water insecurity. No family in Michigan should be without easy access to clean, safe, affordable water now or at any time.
The waters of the state of Michigan are valuable natural resources held in trust by the state to ensure safe, clean, accessible, and affordable water for all people and communities. Under the common law public trust doctrine, every landowner or lawful occupant of land has a right to access the water flowing through or beneath that land to serve his or her basic needs, including drinking and sanitation. When modern water works and sewerage systems were built to serve our cities, local laws required people to forego digging private wells or septic tanks and hook up to public service lines instead. But the water flowing through those lines is the same water still protected by the public trust. This is why FLOW is working with the People’s Water Board and other groups to find long-term solutions to Michigan’s water infrastructure crisis.
FLOW’s Response to the Persistent Water Infrastructure Crisis in Michigan
FLOW’s work to ensure Clean Water for All aims to identify, develop, and explain a set of policies through which the state can address Michigan’s water infrastructure funding shortfall (estimated to be over $800 million annually) to ensure safe, clean, accessible, and affordable water for all people and communities, consistent with the State’s public trust duties.
FLOW is working to:
- Research and analyze the best funding and financing options to keep Michigan’s water safe, clean, accessible, and affordable.
- Build relationships with other environmental and community groups—including the People’s Water Board, Michigan Clean Water Action, Sierra Club, and the Michigan Environmental Council— working on these issues in Michigan, and with water infrastructure and public financing experts, government officials, and lawmakers who can help to identify and implement equitable solutions to our water infrastructure needs.
- Ensure a legal framework around water infrastructure that is grounded in public trust and good governance principles.
- Identify, explain, and generate widespread support and consensus for the adoption of policies to ensure sustainable, accountable, and equitable funding for water infrastructure in Michigan.
Learn more about FLOW’s work to ensure Clean Water for All of Michigan here.