By Jim Olson, FLOW founder and senior legal advisor
Recent reports show that four decades ago, Congress was advised that citizens in our cities and towns would face lead poisoning from lead pipes in municipal drinking water systems. Nothing was done. The failure of Congress to address this crisis then and now is a window into the collapse of our society’s shared view that government exists for the common good of all.
A recognized research scientist advised Congress in the 1980s that citizens in our cities and towns would be exposed to lead in drinking water. But as with tobacco, asbestos, agent orange, PFAs, and climate change – the list goes on – government leaders sat and sat and sat again on the lead poisoning threat. Imagine, Congress didn’t act for forty years to address something as fundamental to life and health as drinking water, and it did not act until the lead-poisoning of residents in Washington D.C., the City of Flint, and elsewhere boiled into national outrage.
Behind the lead poisoning and similar health issues is the failure of Congress to restore federal grant funding to communities across America. Beginning in the late 1980s, Congress halted federal grants, monies that had made municipal drinking water safe and affordable since the early 1970s. By the mid-1990s, federal aid turned into massive loans that shifted the financial burden to cities and towns and their resident ratepayers to pay for their drinking water.
The result: grossly unaffordable water bills and a plague of deteriorating drinking water systems, all dumped on the backs of the poor and middle class. This outcome is not surprising given that in 1977 federal funding provided 63% of funding for water infrastructure systems in the United States. But by 2014, this had fallen to 9% – with most of the funding coming in the form of loans to be repaid by local ratepayers.
Politicians too often wait to do anything until there is an emergency or crisis. Then they drag their feet until hauled into court or public pressure becomes too strong to ignore. By the time an emergency exists, the damage is devastating and irreparable, and the costs to fix the problem are magnitudes higher than the cost if the problem had been met head on in the first place. Rather than “win-win,” our leaders chose “lose-lose.”
In the 1980s, deregulation, neoliberalism, so-called free markets and tax cuts, heavily tilted toward the wealthy, became more important to presidential administrations and leaders on both sides of the political aisle than the safety of citizens. Now, this bury-the-problem disease is endemic.
Water is public, not owned by anyone. Water is held and managed by states as sovereign for their people. Why? The reality is that water is essential to life and health and serves everyone. Water must not become the victim or servant of political self-interests and ideology.
The budget proposal announced by Governor Whitmer on February 8 contains hundreds of millions of dollars in new and increased funding for vital water needs and is an encouraging sign as the new legislative session gets into full swing.
Whitmer’s budget for the fiscal year that begins next October 1 includes the following items:
$280.5 million for local wastewater and drinking water infrastructure;
$226 million to remove and replace 40,000 lead service lines over the next 10 years;
$122.5 million to ensure the quality of drinking water through water filter distribution, and faucet and plumbing replacement in residences with lead pipes;
$100 million to establish an environmental justice contamination cleanup and redevelopment fund for sites in underrepresented and underserved communities. The Governor says the initiative will also expand air pollution controls in historically disadvantaged and underrepresented communities. “This funding will begin the process of rectifying environmental injustice,” the budget says.
$25 million for the removal of dams, allowing natural flow of rivers and preventing catastrophic dam failures.
$23.8 million to conduct studies and collect data on Michigan’s groundwater resources.
$7 million for a new, interactive groundwater database.
FLOW is reacting positively to the Governor’s proposal. “Whitmer’s budget reflects her Administration’s continued commitment to securing safe, affordable drinking water for all,” said Liz Kirkwood, FLOW’s Executive Director.
Kirkwood said the Governor’s groundwater funding proposals are welcome. Groundwater protection is a FLOW priority. “We applaud the Administration’s commitment to investing in groundwater management and protection. For too long, Michigan has ignored the vital role of groundwater in protecting our drinking water and the ecological health of rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands.
“Moving forward,” Kirkwood continued, “FLOW will work to ensure decision-makers scale up long-term investments in our water infrastructure with affordable rates, groundwater management and protection, and climate and community resiliency.”
In a separate bill already signed by the Governor, the Michigan Legislature approved $25 million to establish a water affordability program that would prevent the shutoff of water services to residential customers struggling to pay their water service bills. While the fund lands well short of the need, its establishment is an encouraging sign that the Governor and Legislature understand water service is essential to all Michiganders.
Photo: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Nov. 9, 2021, joined by Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad and construction workers, visits the Benton Harbor site where the first lead service lines were being replaced after her expedited commitment to replace 100% of those lines in the city in 18 months.
As FLOW begins to review what the $1.2 trillion bill means for environmental investments in Michigan, one of our guiding principles will be the need to assure the federal money goes where it is needed most—to help communities that are unable to drink their water safely and affordably, and to address our most urgent water pollution problems. National and state leadership is critical to securing equitable access to water.
FLOW has continued to urge state and federal officials to address lead, PFAS, and other contaminants in drinking water and to assure water affordability for water customers facing shutoffs because of skyrocketing rates. During the early months of the pandemic, FLOW demanded a water shutoff moratorium. This state water policy resulted in significantly lower rates of infection and death from the pandemic. The state should program some of the new federal funding to address the urgent matter of water affordability.
Nationally, the legislation spends $55 billion on water and wastewater infrastructure. It has $15 billion to replace lead pipes and $10 billion to address water contamination from PFAS substances.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer says that Michigan should receive a total of$10 billion in federal aidfrom the bill, including funding for roads, bridges, energy efficiency, and environmental needs.
One of the best early analyses of the bill’s environmental impact in Michigan as provided by Bridge Magazine, which notes the state will receive:
$1.3 billion for water infrastructure, including replacement of lead lines that contaminate drinking water in communities like Benton Harbor and Flint and funds to address widespread PFAS chemical contamination.
$1 billion in public transportation improvements.
$110 million for electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have an extra $1 billion to spend over five years on Great Lakes restoration. This infusion of funds should be spent to have lasting benefits for the Lakes. Because it comes from an infrastructure bill, it makes sense for much of the money to be spent on green infrastructure—restoring wetlands, cleaning up urban stormwater, and improving stream hydrology.
One of the biggest obstacles to the allocation of the funds in Michigan may be reaching agreement between Governor Whitmer and the Legislature. They have not yet agreed on how to spend $5.7 billion in federal funds from the federal COVID-19 relief bill passed earlier this year
Pres. Biden is pushing a second, larger piece of legislation called the Build Back Better Act, which includes what the White House calls “the largest effort to combat climate change in American history.” It is unclear when Congress will take up the approximately $1.75 billion bill.
The new investment package will provide grants for much-needed water infrastructure projects such as replacing lead service lines, addressing failing or inadequate wastewater infrastructure that contributes to violations of water quality standards, and increasing green infrastructure to reduce risk of flooding and other wet weather impacts that can lead to water quality problems.
Three features of this investment package are particularly welcome. First, the bulk of the new investments ($417 million) will be made as grants, rather than loans, to fund water infrastructure projects, and a substantial portion of these grant funds will be directed to disadvantaged communities. This is important because the severe decline in federal and state grants for water infrastructure since the late 1970s has led to an overreliance on water ratepayers to repay bonds and loans used to finance much-needed infrastructure projects, resulting in soaring water rates that are unaffordable for households struggling to make ends meet.
Second, Gov. Whitmer’s funding package includes $7.5 million to develop affordable water rates and other affordability programs. Implementing affordable rate structures, such as income-based rates, and other affordability programs, will further relieve the burden on struggling rate payers, greatly reduce the likelihood of household water shutoffs, and ensure more reliable revenues for water utilities. Third, the package also includes $35 million to address failing septic systems, which are contaminating rivers, lakes, groundwater, and private wells in some communities across Michigan.
Status Quo Is Inequitable and Unsustainable
During the 20th century, small and large cities and towns across Michigan and the United States benefited from extensive federal investments in public water systems. Today, local taxpayers and ratepayers bear the burden of assessing, operating, maintaining, and financing water infrastructure with far fewer state and federal subsidies. This overreliance on ratepayers compounds existing inequities. The inability of vulnerable communities to pay for much-needed infrastructure maintenance and upgrades means their needs remain unmet, subjecting these already-vulnerable communities to greater risks of water insecurity and related health, social, and economic impacts.
Overreliance on ratepayers is also unsustainable, not only for households, but also for water utilities that are forced to increase water rates to pay for water infrastructure projects. Water rates might still be manageable for a majority of ratepayers today, but rates are expected to increase sharply, driven in large part by the need to maintain and upgrade neglected water infrastructure. In 2018, the American Association of Civil Engineers gave Michigan a D+ rating for the state of its water infrastructure. Michigan’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission determined in 2016 that an additional $800 million is needed annually to make the state’s water infrastructure fit for the 21st century, and this estimate did not account for emerging threats to water quality such as PFAS.
Under a business-as-usual trajectory, in which these infrastructure costs are placed on ratepayers, water prices in Michigan and nationally are expected to skyrocket to four times current levels over the next few decades. If water rates rise at projected levels, conservative projections estimate that nationally over 35% of American households will face water bills requiring them to pay more than 4.5% of their household income for water and sanitation, the threshold beyond which water-and-sewer service becomes unaffordable, per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, although some analysts set that affordability limit at a much lower 2% of household income. Michigan ranks 12th in the nation for the number of census tracts at high risk for unaffordable water bills by 2023.
For many years, water affordability and justice advocates such as the People’s Water Board Coalition and We the People of Detroit have been urging utilities to adopt affordable water rates and other programs to make water bills affordable for families struggling to make ends meet. Since 2014, more than 140,000 Michigan households have had their water shut off due to inability to pay unaffordable water bills. The $7.5 million made available under Gov. Whitmer’s initiative to communities to develop sustainable water rate plans and implement pilot affordability plans within their communities are a long-overdue, initial response to these demands. To create the systemic change needed and to fully address the affordability crisis, more resources will be needed and frontline communities must be involved in the design and implementation of affordability plans.
Needs of Rural Residents Also Addressed
While 70% of Michigan’s population relies on a community system to handle wastewater from their homes, the remaining population relies on residential septic systems. As highlighted at FLOW’s 2019 Michigan Septic Summit, failing septic systems can lead to both public health and environmental risks. But the cost of replacing failing septic systems can be overwhelming for individual homeowners and small rural communities. To make these costs more manageable, Gov. Whitmer’s investment package includes $35 million to establish a low-interest revolving loan program for homeowners and communities to replace or eliminate failing septic systems that are impacting Michigan’s water resources.
While $500 million for water infrastructure is a significant sum, even more is needed to address Michigan’s mounting annual funding gap. The investments recently announced by Gov. Whitmer also indicate a welcome shift in approach to how Michigan pays for water infrastructure—providing more grant funds, addressing affordability concerns, and extending support to homeowners and rural communities to address failing septic systems. his shift, however, needs to be reinforced and furthered too.
Michigan lawmakers and water utilities need to join Gov. Whitmer and water justice advocates to relieve pressure on struggling ratepayers, especially in communities facing economic hardship. We need to rebuild our water infrastructure using revenue sources that are more substantial, more equitable, and more sustainable to ensure safe, clean, and affordable water for all in Michigan.
Every person and business in every city and town in the U.S. will face increasing competition for water, more and more repairs, improvements, and replacement of crumbling infrastructure or preventing illness or pollution. They will also face the wild card of increased frequency and intensity of rainfall and flooding, like Houston and Puerto Rico, or at the opposite extreme drought, high temperatures and winds like those that fueled have fueled the fires and destruction across California this past year. There’s simply no way out, and the stakes, threats, and costs are rising faster than the waters along our coastlines from melting glaciers on Greenland. For years, professionals, towns and cities, policy and science organizations, neighborhoods, citizens, and businesses have pleaded for a new federal plan to redesign, rebuild, and improve America’s public water infrastructure, one that continues to provide safe, clean, affordable water for all in this Country. Except for a few wealthier states and areas of the country, the federal and state governments have not been able to agree on laws that will address this now close to insurmountable crisis.
On February 12, 2018, President Trump unveiled his water infrastructure plan to make “America great again.” The Trump plan pegs the cost of rebuilding the country’s water infrastructure at $600 billion. To pay for this, he wants to reduce the federal government’s share from 75 to 80 percent level to 20 percent; this will quadruple the state and local share from 20 percent up to 80 percent. This means state and local governments will have to compete for a share of the $120 billion a loan application process that appears to reward those states and cities who demonstrate innovative funding partnerships with private investors.
The plan would leave it to each state and local government to figure out how to pay for their remaining 75 to 80 percent share of the costs of a project. Without the larger federal grant or even loan share, states and local governments will have to find ways to finance the $600 billion for water infrastructure. Historically, this has meant tax-based bonds or revenue bonds tied to increased fees by users. Most users are already maxed out with what they can afford. Stagnant cities and rural areas struggling for population will become prey to private investors who promise to fix the system in exchange for a purchase or long-term lease of infrastructure. In short, President Trump’s plan will convert our public water infrastructure systems into private water infrastructure systems. His vision to make America “great again” is to encourage and speed up the private ownership and control of our public water commons, so fundamental and essential to the health, well-being, and liberty of every American.
Two weeks earlier, Michigan’s Governor Snyder announced his roll out of a water infrastructure plan for rebuilding the pipes, and pumps, and facilities for water supplies, delivery, and treatment of wastes. Governor Snyder puts the tab at $13 billion. But he proposes only $110 million annually from the state, paid for out of a fee to all users of water systems in Michigan. According to the Governor’s 21st Century Infrastructure Council, the real cost to upgrade and fix Michigan’s pipes and systems is closer to $1 billion a year. The plan does not explain where the additional 90 percent will come from, but the answer is obvious: local governments. So not only will there be a state user fee, local governments will be forced to seek revenue bonds to make up the difference, all of which will come out of the fees of their users. In effect, costs will rise even more steeply, and small towns and our cities will not be able to afford the plan. Instead, there will be increased risks of safety, pollution, disease and health threats, and continuing rises in patches and repairs, that will at some point in time result in another Flint or Detroit with illness, health risks, and water shutoffs because people will not be able to pay what will be disproportionately high-water fees.
The combined effect of the Trump and Snyder plans is to remove obstacles and encourage private funding and investment and markets to rebuild, control, and operate public water and infrastructure. Private firms are already vying to rebuild the federal highway system in exchange for private control and profit. Privatizing prisons has been a disaster. Governor Snyder recently ended a privatization of food service in schools. The track record of privatized municipal water systems has been somewhere between checkered and a failure. The most tragic was the transfer of Cochabamba, Bolivia’s water system to Bechtel through strings imposed on the financing by the World Bank. When Bechtel took over and placed meters on peasants’ wells, a massive protest forced Bechtel to leave the country.
Here in the U.S. on a less dramatic but equally compelling scale, privatization has not worked. Promised upgrades are not made or fall short, leaks and failures continue, and the price of water for residents and businesses rise. In 2012, Pittsburg entered into an agreement that promised the French water giant Veolia one-half the money saved by conservation measures as an incentive to fix the system. Water prices soared, some inflated by as much as 600 percent, and thousands of billing errors resulted in turmoil with little access to correct them except protest. Worse lead in pipes and water increased, and by 2016 Pittsburg terminated Veolia’s contract and sued for abuse and breach of trust, gross mismanagement, and maximizing profits over the interests of the city and its citizens. From Bayonne, New Jersey, to Atlanta, Georgia, Missoula, Montana, the story has been the same. In Missoula, after great promises and public support of the city’s sale of its water system to Carlyle Group, the City had to file a condemnation lawsuit to get its water system back before the corporation unloaded its water infrastructure asset for a cool $327 million. The court ruled in favor of the city, transferring the water system back into public hands and oversight.
There is a bitter irony in all of this:Water is public, held by each state as sovereignin public trust to assure health and access to safe water for each person. While a homeowner, farmer, or business does not own the water, each has a right shared in common with others to reasonable use of water from a stream or lake bordering or the groundwater moving beneath the land. In order to protect public health and pay for these new water utilities and their infrastructure, state law prohibits homeowners or occupants from using or installing private water wells or septic systems in areas served by public systems. People will pay even higher and higher costs for the public water they are already entitled to use under our laws and federal and state constitution.
But there’s another twist to this irony. Governor Snyder’s plan for Michigan sets aside the first $110 million to inspect and put a value on our water infrastructure as “assets.” Assets generally refer to property on a balance sheet. If our water is public. If our water is public and sovereign, and our water infrastructure is public and sovereign, backed by users and taxpayers under full faith and credit of our state, how can it be treated by Governor Snyder merely as an “asset?” One clue is the push to create what are called 3Ps—Public Private Partnerships—which denote any combination of ways to provide for private investment and profits or a rate of return from water systems’ customers. In order to attract investors and maximize value and gains, water infrastructure must be inventoried and appraised as an “asset.” When the words “3Ps” pop up, proceed with caution.
Water and our public infrastructure has always been public. Citizens, businesses, cities and towns should take a serious pause before jumping on the privatization train. It is not all gravy, if at all. The link between our public water and public infrastructure to our health, life, and enjoyment of our homes and communities is to close, too tied to public accountability and transparency, for us to hand over to innocuous acronyms like 3Ps, a nicely spun phrase intended to turn your tap over to private profiteers.
Jim Olson, President and Founder
No matter how we as states and local governments or neighbors solve our public water crisis, one thing is constant: We must vigilantly protect and maintain our water and infrastructure public. There are some things that are common and public by nature, which leads to a question: President Trump and Governor Snyder, where are the interests of the “people” and “public” and “public sovereign water” in your water infrastructure plans?