Tag: Clean water for all

To Combat Coronavirus, Michigan’s Governor Orders Communities to Turn Water Back On to Shutoff Homes

Photo courtesy of People’s Water Board

FLOW and allies continue to seek emergency and permanent solutions to ensure access to clean, safe, affordable water for all 

By Janet Meissner Pritchard, FLOW interim legal director

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on March 28 ordered all local public water systems to halt disconnections and restore drinking water and sanitation services to residents who had their water shut off because of non-payment of bills. The order comes with a $2 million state fund to help communities reconnect service, which Gov. Whitmer deemed essential to help fight the spread of the coronavirus in hard-hit Michigan. Communities will be required to provide a 25% match for a state grant. All public water utilities that shut off services due to non-payment must report to the State Emergency Operations Center about the state of water access in their service areas no later than April 12. If that report does not satisfy the executive order’s list of requirements, the utility must submit a supplemental report every 30 days until it does meet the requirements.

Whitmer’s action followed urgent calls by the People’s Water Board Coalition and its partners—some of which (like Michigan Welfare Rights Organization) have been leading this fight for nearly 20 years. Continued leadership and collaboration with these frontline groups must happen to ensure that water service is restored to every household in need as soon as possible, and that emergency water and sanitation supplies are provided during the intervening days.

The Governor’s order provides needed national leadership during the COVID-19 crisis to not only stop water shutoffs but also require reconnections, while providing some of the resources necessary to safely reconnect water service. In many cases, more than just turning a valve is required to restore water because households that have been shut off for months or even years often have considerable problems with residential plumbing. Common challenges include 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,” national drinking water expert Elin Betanzo and Sylvia Orduño of the People’s Water Board wrote in a March 24 op-ed in The Detroit News. In effect, utilities caused much of this plumbing damage through their reckless and inhumane water shut-off policies. 

In response to the state moratorium halting further water shut-offs during the pandemic, Detroit officials disclosed that they do not have records of all the thousands of households that had been shut off—a failure that further underscores the marginalization of these households. Indeed, a lack of data was even used as a justification for declining to recognize the public health emergency that extensive water shut-offs already posed before the pandemic

What’s clear is that the practice and policy of water shutoffs is inhumane and fuels public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.  Moreover, this policy must be permanently banned. The next COVID-19 federal relief bill must include a national moratorium on water shut-offs and resources to restore shut-off water services. A permanent moratorium on water shutoffs nationwide is a priority because water and public health are inseparably linked. Remember that the CDC’s number one recommendation for combating COVID-19 is to wash your hands, and this simple act is not even possible for the thousands of households who lack basic sanitation and access to water.

FLOW’s Work to Ensure Clean, Safe, Affordable Water for All is More Important Now than Ever 

FLOW is working to build understanding around the unaffordability of water services and other issues compounding our water infrastructure crisis and strategizing, in partnership with the People’s Water Board and other allied organizations, how to finance much-needed investments in Michigan’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems. 

FLOW’s work on water infrastructure financing aims to identify a set of policies that:

  • Fully address Michigan’s perpetual funding shortfall for water infrastructure, estimated to total at least $800 million annually.
  • Are feasible and cost-effective.
  • Ensure the burden for funding water infrastructure for Michigan is equitably distributed and that funds for water infrastructure are equitably allocated.
  • Eliminate water shutoffs and establish comprehensive affordable water plans and funds for eligible households. 
  • Secure and strengthen good governance principles, including transparency and accountability for decisions pertaining to funding water infrastructure. 
  • Secure and strengthen the public trust principles governing Michigan’s water resources. 

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changes the landscape in which this work takes place. Economists project that the pandemic will throw us into a global recession, with severe impacts felt for the next several years. The economic strain that this predicted recession would impose on both households and governments could further constrain spending on water infrastructure, a need we have failed to prioritize for many decades, even during prosperous times.  

The pandemic and its impacts, including its economic fallout, also provide a lens that magnifies the importance of this work, however. First, a crisis like this exposes the underlying weaknesses of systems we rely on to keep us safe: our health system, our government planning and coordination systems, and our water infrastructure system. For example, the fact that, prior to the onset of the pandemic, an estimated 10,000 households in Detroit lacked water services due to inability of impoverished families to pay soaring water bills is a glaring example of flaws in the way we have  financed our water infrastructure, a basic necessity of life.

With the novel coronavirus continuing to threaten Michigan, health professionals advise that the way to protect ourselves and prevent spread of the virus is to wash our hands. This simple guidance, in turn, has exposed the disturbing fact that widespread water shutoffs during a pandemic threaten us all. The moratorium against water shut-offs during the pandemic, coupled with Governor Whitmer’s order to restore water services, is an essential first step.  A more permanent fix is required, however—one that considers the right of every household to safe, clean, affordable water in the context of a broad analysis of how we understand and pay for our water infrastructure systems. Only this deeper analysis of our water infrastructure financing challenges and comprehensive, sustainable solutions will help us build a more resilient society, protected and served by 21st-century water infrastructure.

Second, as with almost any crisis, both the health and the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic fall disproportionately on people and communities that already were the most vulnerable, in terms of both health and finances. This underscores the importance of the equity lens which is at the front and center of our analysis of water infrastructure finance challenges and solutions.

Third, economists forecast that the worldwide economic downturn expected to follow the pandemic could be especially deep and lengthy. This is because the social distancing measures required to deal with the pandemic—which may continue to be needed to varying degrees for another 18 months or longer—not only strain the viability of many businesses and the employment they provide, but also impede our ability to rely on consumer-led growth to pull out of the recession. The global economy we have built over the past century relies on consumer spending to drive two-thirds of economic activity worldwide and 70 percent of the U.S. economy.

In the midst of this predicted global recession and the strains it places on government revenues and services, it will be important that policymakers understand that a dramatic drop in consumer spending provides an additional reason to invest in our failing infrastructure systems over the next several years. In fact, U.S. House Democrats are proposing a five-year, $760 billion investment to get our existing infrastructure working again and fund new, transformative projects that would create more than 10 million jobs, while reducing carbon pollution and dramatically improving safety. 

FLOW, along with many others working on this agenda, has signed an open letter calling on Congress to adopt a Green Stimulus to Rebuild our Economy to address three converging crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession, the climate emergency, and extreme inequality. These investments can replace economic drivers we are losing with the drop in consumer spending and provide family-supporting jobs for workers displaced by the economic fall-out of the pandemic, while building the infrastructure needed to protect us and enable us to thrive in the 21st century and beyond. Even President Trump, who has so far failed to take meaningful action towards his campaign promise to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, is calling for investment in infrastructure as part of future COVID-19 relief packages

The next COVID-19 federal relief bill must include a national moratorium on water shut-offs and resources to restore shut-off water services.

Finally, while we may not be able to predict all the various challenges that might beset us in the future, we can and must build our resiliency to survive such challenges. We face many threats, including climate change, that are not going away even as the pandemic and its fallout pose additional challenges. We’ve built an economy based on a “take-make-dump trajectory” in terms of how we have used and depleted natural resources to drive our economy. We need to build an economy based on a very different understanding of the relationship with our environment. A resilient, thriving, diverse, and sustainable economy relies first and foremost on a resilient, thriving, diverse, and sustainable environment. 

With regard to water resources, this points back to the ancient and enduring public trust doctrine as the fundamental framework through which we should understand all of our interactions with and governance of water. The doctrine holds that our waters are held in the public trust for the benefit of all; while allowing for the reasonable use of water, including for economic benefit as well as sustenance, no permissible use can undermine the health, integrity, and sustainability of the resource itself. These public trust principles stand in stark contrast to the commodification of water, which we must diligently resist. 

More specifically, the Public Water, Health, and Justice Fund that could be created through the Public Water, Public Justice Act proposed by FLOW in 2018 could provide a new steady source of funding to help restore and retain access to clean, safe, affordable water for years to come. The Public Water, Public Justice Act would prohibit the sale of water except for the sale of bottled water authorized by a royalty licensing system, and recoup for public purposes royalties derived from these bottled water sales. Royalties would be placed into a trust fund to serve people and communities for specific dedicated public purposes, such as replacing lead service lines or creating water affordability plans for disadvantaged people or cities and rural communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of FLOW’s work on water infrastructure and the public trust, now more than ever. Together we can build a healthier future and thriving communities centered around water.

COVID-19 Pandemic Highlights Michigan’s Failure to Provide Clean Water for All

Photo courtesy of People's Water Board Coalition

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.