By Mary McKSchmidt
I worry, as I am prone to do, about the thousands of families in Detroit without even a dribble flowing from faucets, their water shut off because of unpaid bills.
How do they wash their hands for 20 seconds when they enter their homes? How do they drink plenty of water at the first hint of COVID-19 symptoms? How do they stay healthy?
Still reeling from the decline in manufacturing and the resulting mass exodus of people, Detroit has fewer residents to pick up the tab for oversized and aging water infrastructure. Under pressure to meet EPA water quality requirements and with federal funding for water and sewer systems declining, the investment burden has fallen on the shoulders of local taxpayers. With roughly 35% of Detroit residents living below the poverty level, and bankruptcy driving a 2014 decision to use water shutoffs as an incentive for bill payment, at least 100,000 households have experienced a water shutoff over the last seven years.
Data suggests the problem was not willingness to pay, but ability to pay.
On March 7, before the first case of coronavirus was reported in Michigan, Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Detroit Mayor Mike Dugan, and Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown initiated a Coronavirus Water Restart Plan. For $25/month for the duration of the crisis, 2,640 Detroit households will be allowed to reconnect to city water. Thankfully, the state of Michigan is picking up the reconnecting costs. But while the monthly fee is more affordable, ultimately, the families will be charged for water used during this crisis, as well as those unpaid bills from the past.
Gov. Whitmer issued a March 28 Executive Order to restore water shutoffs and allocated $2 million to reconnect water lines.
If they were without sufficient funds before the looming recession, where will they find money after? Particularly if the rates remain the same?
In the documentary, Flint: The Poisoning of an American City, groundwater expert Dr. Will Sarni says we need to think about water at a national level. “We have 19th century water policy, 20th century infrastructure, and 21st century challenges with respect to our water.”
We are seeing the result as COVID-19 sweeps across our country. A 2017 Michigan State University study estimates that if water costs continue to increase at the same rate for the next five years, a third of U.S. households may be unable to afford water. Meanwhile, 90 cities and states have suspended water shutoffs during the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, only 20% have agreed to reconnect those households to public water. According to a report in The Guardian, the rest have only committed to halting new shutoffs.
It makes me appreciate the leadership demonstrated by Michigan’s governor, not only in extending a hand to Detroit, but also with her decision on April 28 requiring the re-connection of water services to all households in the state.
Water is a matter of life and health. Ask the families of the 15,718 people in Michigan who have contracted COVID-19 in the last 25 days. Weep with the families of the 617 who had died as of April 5. And pray for those in this country who still do not have access to water. Their health affects us all.
Mary McKSchmidt is an author, speaker and advocate for water who lives in west Michigan. Her latest book, Uncharted Waters: Romance, Adventure, and Advocacy on the Great Lakes, is a charming, funny, and honest series of vignettes sharing the tales of a former Fortune 500 executive learning to sail, learning to love, learning to fight for the water and life she holds dear.