Tag: water infrastructure

Drinking Water Week 2024

We are so used to turning on the tap and receiving safe drinking water that we often forget how vulnerable that water can be to contamination.

During Drinking Water Week, recognized May 5-11 by the State of Michigan and nationally, filling knowledge gaps is a critical priority. Knowing the source of your drinking water is crucial, and so is knowing about threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to prevent its contamination. Michigan also proclaims Thursday, May 9, as Private Residential Well Awareness Day to bring attention to the 2.6 million Michiganders who depend on private wells for their drinking water.

Michiganders have reason to grasp the threat to our drinking water. The lead contamination crises in Flint and Benton Harbor provide sobering lessons about one threat to drinking water. The federal government has now committed $15 billion nationwide for the replacement of lead pipes through which drinking water flows.

Another threat to public drinking water is the family of chemicals known as PFAS, the so-called “forever chemicals”, used in many consumer products. These compounds pose potentially major human health effects.

The good news is that both the State of Michigan and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have set health-based limits for some PFAS in public drinking water supplies.

The threat from other contaminants is greatest to those who rely on the more than 1.25 million private wells in Michigan, which go largely untested. Many people don’t realize that 45% of Michigan’s population gets drinking water from underground sources.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that private well users have their water tested annually for contaminants. The CDC also recommends keeping household hazardous materials such as paint, fertilizer, pesticides, and motor oil far away from wells.

For Michigan residents who receive drinking water from public water supplies, safety and contamination are regulated. Federal and state Safe Drinking Water laws require regular testing and treatment of public water. Customers of public water supplies are entitled to receive annual consumer confidence reports that detail levels of key contaminants and any violations of drinking water standards.

In 2022, according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), there were 1,012 violations of Safe Drinking Act requirements at 328 community supplies. Most of these violations related to treatment or reporting requirements, not violations of health-based drinking water standards.

Many Michiganders drink bottled water—some as a short-term replacement for contaminated public or private water supplies, but far more do so for the perceived convenience and hydration. Many bottled water customers, however, do not realize that much bottled water comes from public supplies—they are drinking bottled tap water from systems paid for by taxpayers and marked up for significant profit by the private sector. Aquafina and Dasani labels in Michigan are drawn from the public supply for Southeast Michigan. And most of the remainder of bottled water packaged in Michigan—such as BlueTriton’s (formerly Nestle’s)—comes from groundwater that is tributary to Michigan’s streams and lakes. In effect, it and consequent private profits come from sources that belong to the people of Michigan under the public trust doctrine.

We should not take our drinking water for granted. Becoming aware of sources and threats is vital to our individual, family, and public health. Learn more about FLOW’s efforts to protect groundwater here on our website.

State Expands Clean Water Funding; More Funding Needed

On Earth Day, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) announced a $290 million expansion of the MI Clean Water Plan with proceeds from the bipartisan, voter-approved 2002 Great Lakes Water Quality Protection Bond. The funds will expand state low-interest loans to local governments for drinking water and water management resources for their residents through an expansion of the state’s low-interest loan offerings.

Governor Whitmer said that during her tenure in office the state has invested over $4 billion to upgrade drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater facilities, supporting 57,000 jobs, but “we know we still have more work to do. “

This financing supports critical water infrastructure projects like lead service line removals, rehabilitation and upgrades to drinking water and wastewater plants, improvements to sewer systems, and much more. The $290 million will be split between the state’s Clean Water State Revolving Fund and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and will be available through loans and low interest financing this year.

Even with the $290 million, the need from communities across the state for drinking water and sewage treatment far exceeds available resources.

  • In Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 EGLE provided historic financing and funding opportunities to communities but was still only able to fund $1.7 billion of the over $5 billion in community requests.
  • This funding shortfall will continue in FY 2025, where the department received over $3.5 billion in project requests from communities, but expects to have less than $720 million available after exhausting significant one-time federal resources.
  • Most of the state’s water systems are over 50 years old, and a significant portion are approaching 100 years of service life. Recent reports have highlighted that Michigan has an annual gap of between $860 million to $1.1 billion in water infrastructure needs due to decades of deferred maintenance.

Green Infrastructure: Smart solutions for stormwater runoff

Download the brief: Stormwater Utilities (pdf)

Over the past few decades, Michigan has faced an increase in unpredictable storm events. Unfortunately, our existing stormwater infrastructure is not built to handle the frequency and intensity of these storms, creating problems with water runoff and flooding. 

This, in turn, has led to problems such as water pollution, algal blooms, beach closures, threats to public health, and increased infrastructure costs to taxpayers. Polluted runoff also contaminates the environment and endangers aquatic life. Stormwater utilities can be a part of the solution, by enabling communities to fund modern, green stormwater infrastructure and protect the environment and public health.

In the brief above, dive in deeper as FLOW explores the issue and possible solutions to solve it. FLOW is working to develop a legislative solution to enable small and mid-sized communities in Michigan to legally establish stormwater utilities and secure a reliable source of funding for this crucial infrastructure. Stormwater utilities are an essential tool for managing and mitigating the negative impacts of stormwater runoff, including flood damage, erosion, and pollution.


Water: Essential for Life, Victim of Politics

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.

Governor Whitmer’s Budget Proposes Major New Funding for Water Priorities

Whitmer budget presentation

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.

Infrastructure Bill Passes, Now the Work Begins in the Great Lakes Basin

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.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

By Dave Dempsey

Michigan has a gigantic opportunity to provide clean drinking water, clean up sewage and stormwater runoff, and restore the Great Lakes—while promoting access for all to clean, safe, affordable water—after last Friday’s final bipartisan Congressional action on the Infrastructure and Investment Jobs Act. President Joe Biden in a statement said he will sign the legislation this week.

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 aid from 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.

The federal money will come to Michigan at a time when the Governor has ordered a complete review of the state’s water program and laws in the wake of an overdue state response to lead contamination in the water supply of the City of Benton Harbor that has been challenged by community groups and organizations including FLOW.

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.

Gov. Whitmer’s Proposed Investments a Step Forward in Solving Michigan’s Water Infrastructure Crisis

Janet Meissner Pritchard is FLOW’s Interim Legal Director

By Janet Meissner Pritchard

On October 1, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced $500 million in investments in clean water that she designed to be a significant step forward in solving Michigan’s inequitable, unsustainable water infrastructure crisis. 

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.

Our Public Water, Infrastructure and Health:  Here Come the Profiteers!

Our public water systems are in crisis.

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 sovereign in 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?