Tag: water shutoff moratorium

Will Michigan Keep the Water on during COVID-19?

Pritchard is FLOW’s interim legal director

By Janet Meissner Pritchard

COVID-19 has already taken the lives of more than 8,100 Michiganders, and the pandemic is surging in Michigan, with more than 7,000 new cases per day diagnosed in Michigan over recent days. Given this grim context, it is essential for public health to secure access to safe, affordable drinking water for all Michiganders.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has taken actions to do just that. In March, she issued an Executive Order requiring the restoration of water services for households whose water had been shut off due to inability to pay. In July, she extended that order to remain in place through December 2020, and state funds were authorized to help relieve water bill debt for families unable to pay during the public health emergency.

Michigan Senate Bill 241 Would Halt Water Shutoffs during the Pandemic

On October 12, however, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that most of Gov. Whitmer’s emergency orders issued after April 30 were unconstitutional, including those requiring water service restoration. On the same day, a group of Michigan legislators led by State Senator Stephanie Chang introduced a new version of Senate Bill 241 (SB241) that would effectively codify Whitmer’s emergency orders requiring the restoration of water services to keep these important protections in place while Michigan continues to battle COVID-19. The Executive Order issued in July had extended protections through the end of this year. In light of the continuing threat of the pandemic, legislators are expected to negotiate a new date through which these protections should remain in place.

Water shutoffs not only endanger the lives of those who cannot afford their water bills, but also the lives of others with whom they come into contact. As emphasized in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on protection from the coronavirus, frequent and thorough hand washing is recommended to protect yourself and others from spreading the virus. Accordingly, clean and available water for all is essential to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

The duty to protect Michiganders now lies with the state legislature. In the month since the Michigan Supreme Court decision invalidated Governor Whitmer’s emergency orders, the legislature has restored some of those same orders, but not the temporary ban on household water shutoffs. Legislators are expected to consider SB241, however, when they reconvene in early December. Specifically, SB241 would: 

  • Put into place a moratorium on shutting off residential water for non-payment;
  • Restore residential water services to those without water due to non-payment;
  • Require the water utility to make a best effort to rectify the situation in cases where a residential unit lacks water but it is not due to non-payment,;
  • Mandate that water utilities report every 30 days on their efforts to identify residential units without water and to restore water services. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, 29 states have taken action to ensure residential access to safe water to fight COVID-19. With confirmed cases at their highest level ever, now is not the time to allow these protections to lapse in Michigan.

A Decades-long Fight for Water Justice

The People’s Water Board Coalition (PWBC) and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization (MWRO) have been working for decades to secure protections against water shutoffs. Until recently, however, it has been difficult to obtain data on water shutoffs — households that have been shut off due to non-payment, shut off households where service has been restored, and households at risk of being shut off. Following Governor Whitmer’s emergency orders to restore water service to shut off households, PWBC, MWRO, and allied organizations successfully advocated for Michigan legislators to pass Senate Bill 690, which includes the appropriation of federal COVID-19 relief funds to support the restoration of water services. Advocates also successfully argued for this law to include data reporting measures requiring municipal water systems that apply for these funds to report information on water shutoffs, service restoration, and water bill arrearages to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). 

Using this data collected by DHHS, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has calculated that approximately 800,000 Michiganders — in both rural and urban communities — are water insecure. That is, they either live in households without access to residential water services or are at risk of having their water shut off if protective measures such as those in SB241 are not in place. According to data reported to DHHS by municipal water systems, water bills for 317,631 households throughout the state had fallen into arrears since March 1, 2020. Based upon an average household size of 2.49 per household, this equates to approximately 800,000 Michiganders — or about 8% of the state’s population — who are water insecure.

Without the protections afforded by SB241, this number will likely grow as the economic impacts of the pandemic continue. The water bill arrearage data reported to the MDHHS are an indication of Michiganders’ struggle to cope financially, even with the support provided to households through the federal CARES Act passed at the start of the pandemic crisis. Financial supports such as extended unemployment insurance and a moratorium on evictions are due to lapse on December 31, 2020, and have yet to be extended by the U.S. Congress. With the pandemic surging and uncertainty as to if or when the federal government will provide further financial support to struggling families, the number of water insecure households in Michigan is likely to surge as well, if SB241 is not passed by state legislators with urgency.  

FLOW and our allies are asking Michigan residents to contact your legislative representatives as soon as possible and urge them to support SB241. Here are some talking points to keep in mind: 

  • It is estimated that approximately 800,000 Michiganders are at risk of having their water shut off due to inability to pay their water bills during the pandemic, if the moratorium on shutoffs is not reinstated.  
  • The CDC states that frequent handwashing is an important measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 
  • Maintaining health measures like frequent handwashing is essential to slowing the spread of the coronavirus to enable the full reopening of Michigan’s economy and job recovery. 

Ask your state legislators: 

  • Will you support the passage of SB241 to secure access to safe tap water during this pandemic?
  • Will you ask your party’s legislative leaders to move SB241 quickly?

It is important to line up as many legislators as possible behind this bill. Click here to find contact information for your state senator. In particular, advocates of the bill are targeting the following state senators, so if you live in one of the districts identified below, your efforts to contact your senator could be particularly impactful. The number of water insecure households listed for each district is based on data recently reported to DHHS.

    • Sen. Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (16th district) has at least 4,098 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-5932
      • SenMShirkey@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Dale Zorn (17th district) has at least 5,149 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-3543
      • SenDZorn@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Pete Lucido (8th district) has at least 8,173 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-7670 or toll free at (855) DIST-008
      • SenPLucido@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Curt VanderWall (35th district) has at least 276 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-1725
      • SenCVanderWall@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Aric Nesbitt (26th district) has at least 781 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-0793
      • SenANesbitt@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Jim Runestad (15th district) has at least 1,358 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-1758
      • SenJRunestad@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Dan Lauwers (25th district) has at least 5,639 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-7708
      • SenDLauwers@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Lana Theis (22nd district) has at least 744 households in her district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-2420 or toll free at (855) DIST-022
      • SenLTheis@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Ruth Johnson (14th district) has at least 475 households in her district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-1636
      • SenRJohnson@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Kim LaSata (21st district) has at least 2,566 households in her district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-6960
      • SenKLaSata@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. John Bizon (19th) has at least 11,784 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-2426
      • SenJBizon@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Tom Barrett (24th district) has at least 805 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-3447
      • SenTBarrett@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Kevin Daley (31st district) has at least 2,156 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-1777
      • SenKDaley@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Ken Horn (32nd district): has at least 15,555 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-1760 or toll free (855) 347-8032
      • SenKHorn@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Roger Victory (30th district) has at least 15 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-6920
      • SenRVictory@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Jon Bumstead (34th district) has at least 7,591 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-1635
      • SenJBumstead@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Rick Outman (33rd district) has at least 1,638 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-3760
      • SenROutman@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Jim Stamas (36th district) has at least 1,450 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-7946 or toll free at (855) 347-8036
      • SenJStamas@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Wayne Schmidt (37th district) has at least 2,107 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
      • (517) 373-2413
      • SenWSchmidt@senate.michigan.gov
    • Sen. Ed McBroom (38th district) has at least 4,581 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241. 
  • Sen. Michael MacDonald (10th district) has at least 8,260 households in his district that have fallen into arrears and are at risk of being shut off without SB241.
    • (517) 373-7315 
    • SenMMacDonald@senate.michigan.gov