Editor’s note: Not long after the arrival of COVID-19 in Michigan in early 2020, some municipal wastewater systems began monitoring for signs of the virus in their treatment plants. Later, state government funding expandedthe program. Rather than waiting for cases to climb, public officials may be able to use sewage surveillance to forecast a surge of infections through monitoring. Anon-line dashboard provides information on levels and trends across the state.
FLOW interviewed Chelsea Wuth, Associate Public Information Officer of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, about results of the program.
What lessons have you learned from the monitoring thus far? Any surprises?
Wastewater monitoring, especially for SARS-CoV-2, is a relatively new field still in development and, therefore, is still evolving and will continue to do so. However, there has been great progress in the development of laboratory testing methods and analysis of the resulting data. One finding is that while most of the sampling locations analyzed so far have detected the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the wastewater before corresponding COVID-19 cases are reported, the length of time for this “early warning” appears to vary greatly by location.
Another outcome is how the wastewater monitoring data from different types of sampling locations is being used at the local level. Some sampling locations are very large (thousands to over a million people) and provide a large-scale picture of COVID-19 transmission in that community, which can be used to confirm COVID-19 data from other sources and to inform public health messaging. Conversely, increases in virus levels at smaller, facility-level locations may result in more targeted public health actions, such as increased clinical testing that can potentially identify cases before larger outbreaks occur.A report details the successes of the pilot program.
There have been many program partners, including the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, local health departments, academic and private laboratories, wastewater utilities, and municipal governments that are participating in and supporting this effort. The strong relationships have been instrumental to standing up such a large effort.
How will the knowledge gained from this experimental program be used?
Local health departments and their partners can use this data to track COVID-19 in their communities and inform their public health responses.Using this data in conjunction with clinical case data, some local health departments have increased their clinical testing and their communication and outreach efforts in communities where increased viral levels were detected in wastewater. Some participating universities and congregate living facilities use wastewater surveillance data to focus their clinical testing efforts on campus or at their facility to prevent further COVID-19 transmission.
Does the project have application for other diseases?
The wastewater monitoring project is anticipated to continue as a part of Michigan’s COVID-19 response through July 2023. After that, wastewater testing in Michigan will depend on state and federal funding priorities. Beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, there is potential for this type of monitoring to be expanded to detect other diseases in wastewater. Potential examples of this include other respiratory viruses, gastrointestinal viruses, and antibiotic resistant organisms. Having the laboratory methods, infrastructure, and workforce already established through this network will be beneficial to any future applications.
Using the current COVID-19 situation as a pretense, the Trump Administration has stopped enforcing many Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safeguards. This has left individual states with the additional responsibility to sustain environmental protection. Many companies and corporations have recently requested that state regulators be lenient on environmental regulations that require them to test and monitor pollution, claiming that the pandemic has interfered with their ability to comply with preexisting regulations.
This has left many citizens fearful that, if states grant companies leniency in their pollution monitoring and testing practices, then they will be left vulnerable to unknown amounts of pollution. It is especially concerning given tentative scientific findings that exposure to air pollutants increases vulnerability to COVID-19. At this moment, state regulatory transparency is vital to ensure public health and wellness.
Few states have maintained a public collection of pollution reports and companies’ requests for leniency on environmental regulations and permit requirements throughout this crisis (e.g. Minnesota, Indiana, and Pennsylvania). Fortunately, Michigan is one of those states. While the majority of companies in Michigan that requested enforcement leniency from the state have gotten it, all issues of non-compliance appear to have been thoroughly reviewed prior to approval by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to ensure the safety of Michigan citizens.
As of June 15, out of 151 requests, 112 were approved, 33 are pending, and six were rejected. Moreover, only three leniency requests were rejected on the grounds that the COVID-19 situation did not limit the companies’ ability to comply with pre-existing environmental regulations.
Photo: The New York Daily News covers the first Earth Day, 1970
By Liz Kirkwood, FLOW Executive Director
The biggest Earth Day celebration I attended happened 30 years ago when I volunteered as an Earth Day ranger at one of the largest gatherings ever held in New York City in Central Park. It was a big deal, and we had high hopes. Some 750,000 people gathered that day to celebrate 20 years of Earth Day with an incredible, free musical lineup featuring The B-52s, Edie Brickell, and Daryl Hall and John Oates. I was a senior in high school, ready to launch into the world and tackle the most pressing local and global environmental issues, like Amazonian deforestation at the mercy of corporate America’s fast food desires.
Central Park was pulsating to “Love Shack” and other upbeat tunes that beautiful, sunny day, but sadness hit me when the huge crowds departed and left behind thousands of pounds of garbage that I and other rangers cleaned up. This day was supposed to be a call to action and an awakening to celebrate and care for the planet. Instead, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth and raised all sorts of unanswered questions about how positive change could take root.
In 1990, sustainable development was the buzzword of the day, but we struggled to find practical examples where modern industrial communities didn’t externalize costs and create products that harmed and polluted natural ecosystems and wildlife. Finding this balance seemed distant, particularly without the kind of technologies that have revolutionized the way we live, work, and play today. In those days, wewere thinking about organic food, plastics, toxic and chemical contamination, and wilderness protections, to name a few leading concerns. Even though climate change and global warming weren’t officially part of our vocabulary, we were worried about ozone holes and CFCs in styrofoam and other products.
But we had not fully contemplated our fossil fuel addiction and how powerful interests would shape national and global policies and energy practices to delay alternative renewable energies over the next 30 years. Nor did we recognize that our work needed to fully embrace environmental justice in order to root out and dismantle structural racism, poverty, and societal inequities.
In the three decades since, success stories have given us hope with the healing of some rivers, lakes, estuaries, and wetlands, the revival of polluted Rust Belt cities, and the protection of ecologically critical habitats. But we also have witnessed the continued transformation of megacities and urban sprawl, biodiversity loss, the proliferation of global oil production and plastics, and the unprecedented growth of consumerism and cheap products. Our actions have had profound effects that ripple to every corner of the Earth.
The interconnectedness of human and natural ecosystems has never been more apparent. It’s the clarion call, the mantra, and the rallying cry of this global pandemic crisis: We’re all in this together. This virus does not discriminate, taking the lives of people from all socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, and yet, the death toll is disproportionately higher among African Americans and other people of color. In Michigan, for example, African Americans constitute just 14 percent of Michigan’s population, but account for 35 percent of the cases and 40 percent of the deaths attributable to COVID-19, to date. Healthy ecosystems depend on healthy, equitable communities, and access to water. Period.
But we had not fully contemplated our fossil fuel addiction and how powerful interests would shape national and global policies and energy practices to delay alternative renewable energies over the next 30 years. Nor did we recognize that our work needed to fully embrace environmental justice in order to root out and dismantle structural racism, poverty, and societal inequities.
So as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day during these uncertain times, one thing is certain: protecting clean water is more important than ever before. This global pandemic has exposed the gross inequities of our society, including the unconscionable practice of denying people basic access to water for drinking, hand washing, cooking, bathing, and sanitation.
It is time for us to demand public water and public justice for all. Not just water for some. Without access to life’s most essential need — water —our society will falter and our future will falter. This work demands that frontline groups and policy organizations work side-by-side in our collective struggle for water justice. This organizing principle of empowerment guides our work at FLOW. It is a time for us to reimagine how we rebuild a just and equitable society where water is recognized and protected as a human right, where our economy respects human and natural capital, and where we no longer take each other and this small blue planet for granted.
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.
In these challenging times, we are always seeking genuine good news to share. And fortunately, Governor Gretchen Whitmer delivered some urgently needed relief in her March 28th Executive Order restoring water service to the thousands of Michigan households shut off from access to safe water and a $2 million fund to help these communities.
While restoring water won’t happen overnight, Michigan’s leadership gives us hope because it is part of a nationwide trend to pause and, increasingly, ban water shutoffs. A 2016 nationwide assessment of water shutoffs for non-payment revealed that an estimated 15 million people in the United States experienced a water shutoff, a shocking 1 out of every 20 households. To date, 12 statewide orders restoring water service, which apply to private and public water providers, have been issued by the governors of California, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Four of these states are in the Great Lakes Basin.
Accessing safe, affordable water is a struggle for too many people in this water-rich region that contains 20 percent of the planet’s fresh surface water. Many urban and rural communities already here are burdened with the highest water rates in the country, compounded by significant job losses, lack of diverse employment opportunities, shrinking populations, and crumbling infrastructure. The current public health crisis will only exacerbate this unacceptable problem where local ratepayers are expected to pay a disproportionate amount of their income for water service.
Securing Our Water Future and Demanding Justice and Equity in Rebuilding Our Water Systems.
This difficult time gives us a unique opportunity to decide what our water future looks like — a future that makes sure that the federal response to the pandemic and our water infrastructure crisis is both people-centered and rooted in justice. To this end, FLOW continues to work with People’s Water Board, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and Michigan Environmental Council on equitable financing solutions to rebuild our crumbling drinking water, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure in Michigan. Every $1 billion in water infrastructure investment creates an estimated range of 20,000 to 26,000 jobs and can have far-reaching economic benefits, tripling in size with total demand for goods and services reaching an estimated $2.87 to $3.46 billion, according to the Clean Water Council.
In addition, FLOW also is partnering with a chorus of leading regional and national organizations and coalitions, including the Healing Our Waters (HOW) Coalition, Food & Water Action, and the U.S. Water Alliance, to demand the next federal coronavirus stimulus package contain robust instructure funding to end water shutoffs, promote job creation, and reinvest in our water systems like we did some 50 years ago.
Let us all work together to not just pause, but permanently ban, water shutoffs and demand equitable and sustainable solutions to fund and rebuild our water infrastructure. Consider signing this citizen petition authored by Food & Water Action urging Congress to stop water shutoffs during the pandemic crisis. Your voice makes a difference.
At the same time this crisis is exposing how fragile many of our societal systems are, it also is forcing us to identify what matters most: our health, our water, our natural and human-built communities, and our future resilience in the face of climate change impacts. At FLOW, we remain more committed than ever before to protecting and upholding these things that matter most to our shared future.
It Is a Time to Restore the Ethos of the Common Good of All
Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor
By Jim Olson
Like all of you, in this time of the coronavirus pandemic, the common ground we share—the ground we stand on—is shaking, sinking, shifting beneath our feet.
A Sorrow of Loss and Humanity
We experience or share others’ pain, suffering and loss; some close, others far, those thousands we don’t know—nurses, doctors, emergency medical technicians who have risked or even given their lives to help save another. Even with the open spaces of time mixed with work and things at home put off far too long, I can’t shake the sadness that has taken hold of me, a deep sorrow for our common humanity.
A Solace of Hope
Before firing up the laptop this morning, my wife Judy and I watched a great blue heron engulf the top of a tall spruce with its six-foot wingspan. Last evening, we picked a few twigs of pussy willow, tip-toed the riverbank to follow the spring steelhead run up the Platte River in northwest Michigan, and watched a brown trout torment the spawning pair for their eggs. The cycles of seasons, water, plants, animals stirring in the cedar swamp follow their preordained course to seek the common good. Maybe in this dark shadow of COVID-19 we, too, in our shared humanity will return to and follow the common ground that has been shaken.
But I’m also angry.
It took months—absolutely critical months—after the exponential explosion of the coronavirus for the CEO and his confidants on Pennsylvania Avenue to admit the seriousness of the coming crisis. Why are our federal and state governments, and why are we, ourselves so-ill prepared, without foresight and coordination for supplies that are needed to face the COVID-19 crisis? They’ve had fair warning from the SARS, MIRS, and Ebola emergencies. We witnessed the same lax approach when hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria hit us. This is not just in the United States. Last year, cyclones and heavy rains hit southeast Africa and Bangladesh when those in harm’s way could have been helped by a proactive priority to address climate change and their safety.
It took a year for Michigan and federal officials to respond when the residents of Flint were exposed to lead by a governor-appointed, politically directed emergency manager’s rush to shift the city’s water supply to the polluted Flint River.Since 2014, the City of Detroit has refused to stop water shutoffs of poor residents who have no ability to pay—the number approaching as many as 140,000 in 2020.The same is true in the City of Benton Harbor. There is no recognition of the rights of citizens to water and health.
It took a month for Detroit and Michigan to declare an emergency and halt water shutoffs and order the restoration of water service to the thousands of homes still shut off from water when they need it most—to wash hands and surfaces to avoid or mitigate exposure to the virus. And, it’s still not clear these residents can turn on their taps to wash their hands, drink water, and cook.
So, this has been endemic to government for years—free markets, deregulation, slashed taxes, downsized government, increased subsidies, strip-mined laws and lack of enforcement, and indifference to the rights and needs of citizens and the good of others:
The Trump administration has repealed Clean Air Act carbon limits to fuel coal power plants, waived environmental impact and alternative analysis in energy, pipeline, and infrastructure projects, and gutted the Clean Water Act by dropping the “waters of the U.S.” rule with the loss of small cold-water feeder streams and wetlands—regulations that are more necessary than ever because of flooding caused by climate change and unprecedented rainfall.
The Trump administration has also directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop recognizing solid scientific research and ignore scientists who would undermine the agency’s dismantling of environmental health and pollution laws.
The EPA, Ohio, and even the State of Michigan refuse to lay down the law and force cleanup by agricultural and concentrated farm operations that are flushing wastes and nutrients into rivers and Lake Erie. These pollutants have converted one-third of the lake into a toxic green cesspool that has closed beaches, destroyed lakeshore tourism, killed fish, shut down fishing and Toledo’s public water supply for 400,000 people.
States like Michigan have suspended enforcement of environmental standards that exceed the protection of federal standards. These state standards are adopted to address pollution and destruction of our public waters and to protect paramount public rights in our public water for drinking, health, sanitation, sustenance, fishing, navigation, bathing, and swimming. Strangely, if the federal government weakens and suspends federal laws and standards, will our own ability to protect health, water, and people correspondingly be weakened?
Wait, I’m furious.
Last week, the Trump administration leveraged the COVID-19 crisis to suspend federal enforcement of violations of environmental laws under the guise that industry needed help to keep their employees working. The oil and gas industry would put people back to work if they can pollute without fear of enforcement? This is absurd.The administration claimed the suspension was temporary, but the time frame is indefinite. If industry employees can suddenly be put back to work because of COVID-19, why were they were working before COVID-19 to enforce federal health and environmental laws?
The devil’s in the details, the saying goes. In this case, the devil is the infuriating motivation behind the suspension: the EPA cited the release of the suspension of environmental laws was urgent and that the polluting industries couldn’t meet the deadlines for comments in time for the needed action; at the same time, the EPA refused to let public interest groups extend deadlines, saying comments could be timely met despite the coronavirus! Then a federal district court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the federal permit for the Dakota Access Pipeline (the “Standing Rock” case ) through South Dakota was invalid because the company and federal agencies violated the impact statement requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act—the agencies had ignored serious concerns related to risks and worst-case scenarios from a failure and oil spills. Now the pipeline and others can move forward without having to comply with federal laws and regulations—like those that require them to monitor, investigate, and prevent spills from oil and gas pipeline operations (Line 5, in Michigan, anyone?). So, now it’s up to the states and their water, environmental, and health laws. Oh, but what if those laws in Michigan can’t be more stringent than these weaker federal standards?
Hope for Subduing COVID-19 and Return to the Common Good
Let’s get angry and positive at the same time. It’s not enough to blame and become outraged, or furious. How do we turn this loss and mourning into the days of healing, and then bring about constructive change in the hope there is a light overcoming the darkness?
We’ve known for decades that greenhouse gases have warmed the atmosphere, perhaps better described as hydrosphere, and that this has warmed the earth, whipsawed weather and water, and destabilized our earth’s inextricably related support systems. In turn, this has heaped stress and increased the vulnerability of plants, animals, and the water cycle that supports them. COVID-19 is the next notch in a noose that has a stranglehold on our lives, communities, air, water, habitat, plants and animals—an awareness and hope that we might all put humanity and the common good of health, education, environment, and basic services such as drinking water, first, and collectively do something about it. We can no longer sit by and do nothing, while the global corporate dominance of economics, a culture of weak government, and the “great god” of free markets enslave us and our planet. My hope is that we don’t chalk up COVID-19 as an isolated tragedy waiting to happen.
But we can’t stop there and blame it all on climate change either. Before the recent devastation from droughts, fires, massive storms and precipitation, and flooding, we’ve had years of deregulation and increasing toxic pollution, plastic islands and invisible fibers in our oceans and water, loss of forests, erosion, sedimentation, and deaths caused by a society that has turned its back on the ethos and laws once passed for the common good. While the nation suffers through this time of COVID-19, we must not let leaders and their slash-and-burn politics gut the very laws that protect water, air, health, and environment and expose us to even greater risks of harm on top of what we are all facing.
The time has come to recognize we all live in an interdependent, interconnected world. We are on the same island coursing around the sun, we are a humanity that will survive only if we put the common good of all for generations to come, first, and utilitarian and material endeavors and wants, second.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Photo: FLOW Executive Director Liz Kirkwood (third from left) and family takes flight over Route 40 and celebrates the view of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (Fitzroy range) on the way to the town of El Chaltén in Argentina.
Dear Friends of FLOW,
I hope you and your loved ones are healthy and safe in these very trying times.
It’s hard to believe that it was only two weeks ago when many of us awakened to the deep impact that a global pandemic would have on our everyday lives. I realized just how serious the coronavirus outbreak was while my family and I were visiting the town of Pucón, Chile. The United States had just announced a European travel ban, and we immediately worried about travel bans extending across South America and the possibility of being stranded.
We jumped into high gear, forgoing the last weeks of our three-month sabbatical in Argentina and Chile, and secured seats on one of the last international flights out of Argentina. Six thousand miles later, we arrived in Traverse City, thankful to be safe in our home and grateful for the unforgettable friendships and experiences we gleaned, and the time we spent in the wilderness of Patagonia.
I write this note to you from my remote home office, while self-quarantining, to let you know that FLOW’s staff and I are back together (at least virtually—all from our homes), and more dedicated to our work than ever before. Because what could be more important than ensuring access to safe, affordable drinking water for all during a public health emergency?
We cannot beat COVID-19 without access to safe water for all of us. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer recognized this when she announced “a water-restart plan” to restore water to thousands of shut-off homes. Turning on the tap for some 10,000 households, however, is not happening fast enough, leaving the most vulnerable families at high risk of infection. A sobering op-ed about the crisis and water shutoffs by Elin Betanzo and Sylvia Orduño lays out the complexities and dangers involved in restoring water service. And this new article by FLOW’s Interim Legal Director Janet Pritchard lends additional perspective.
Thankfully, the People’s Water Board (PWB), We the People of Detroit, and other frontline partner organizations are delivering water, gallon by gallon, to affected families in Detroit, Flint, and elsewhere. Read more from the PWB’s demand letter to the Governor, urging immediate help and a future ban on all water shutoffs.
Water is a public health issue. Water is a human right. This is what the pandemic tells us.
The health and well-being of FLOW’s staff, our board, our volunteers, our supporters, our friends, our partners, and all of our communities is our highest priority. We responded to the pandemic by closing our Traverse City office on March 16, and our office will remain closed through at least April 13, pursuant to Governor Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Executive Order.
But our work continues. It continues every day. We are developing legal and policy solutions for Michigan’s water infrastructure crisis and addressing the COVID-19 emergency needs, fighting Line 5 to prevent a catastrophic Great Lakes oil spill, educating about the importance of groundwater and the need for septic system pollution-control legislation, elevating the role of government in safeguarding our natural resources, and much, much more.
We’re also busy revising plans that we were making to connect with you in person over the next several months. You know how much we love to gather together and celebrate the gifts of our water. While we have to pause these gatherings during this time of social distancing, we will continue to celebrate with you remotely. This April 22nd, for example, is the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. So stay tuned for our writings on this and other causes for celebration.
In the meantime, let’s lift up our neighbors, families, and ourselves as we confront this global challenge together. Let’s find the solace of not only our human compassion, but also of open spaces and open waters. Let’s tap into the mystery and nurturing balm of nature. With spring knocking on our door, I am reminded of the late poet Mary Oliver’s words: “I don’t know lots of things but I know this: … when spring flows over the starting point I’ll think I’m going to drown in the shimmering miles of it.“
We are all in this together. We must center our lives around protecting each other and those resources that sustain us, foremost among them our water.
Yours in solidarity,
Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director
PS – To lift each other up, FLOW invites you to contribute your compelling water photo and story to us for possible publication on our website or Facebook page. Please send your high-resolution photos of water to us at email@example.com. Identify yourself and who (if not you) took the photograph, confirm that you authorize FLOW to post the photograph, and if possible tell us when and where you took it. Feel free to tell us a little story about the photo, too. Thanks!
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
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.
As the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) intensifies here in the Great Lakes region and beyond, our thoughts are with those everywhere whose health and well-being are impacted.
To ensure the safety of our staff, board, volunteers, and visitors, we have closed our office in downtown Traverse City through Friday, March 27—or longer, if needed, in response to emerging information and rapidly changing circumstances. Our staff members will work remotely during that time to protect themselves and others, consistent with guidance provided by local, state, and national public health experts.
As of March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that for the next 8 weeks, organizers cancel or postpone in-person events that consist of 50 people or more throughout the United States. We will alert you to any changes because of the pandemic to our planned events or other activities via email, our website, and Facebook.
During this public health crisis, we at FLOW are reminded how vital water is to our common welfare.
A primary measure to combat coronavirus is to wash one’s hands often with soap and water. But even that simple act of prevention is out of reach for thousands of residents in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan facing exorbitant water bills and service shutoffs, an unacceptable reality that our founder Jim Olson recently addressed in his blog.
That is just one example of why FLOW’s work must continue in these challenging times to advance policies and programs designed to protect the Great Lakes, groundwater, and safe and affordable drinking water for all. We will continue to keep you informed of our progress and opportunities for you to help make a difference.
Please stay current with our online communications and connect with us by phone at 231-944-1568, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your continued support as we strive to protect our public waters for the benefit of all of us.