Tag: water shutoff

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

Take Action: Call Your Michigan Lawmaker to Extend the Moratorium on Water Shutoffs

Photo courtesy of People's Water Board Coalition

Janet Meissner Pritchard is FLOW’s Interim Legal Director

By Janet Meissner Pritchard

October 21, 2020, marked the sixth annual observation of Imagine a Day Without Water. Imagine having no water to drink, prepare a meal, or to wash your hands. Having no water to shower, flush the toilet, or do laundry. For thousands of Michigan families since this national day of observance was founded, going through daily life without access to safe, clean, and affordable water requires no imagination at all. Since 2014, roughly 140,000 homes in Detroit alone have had their water shut off at least once due to unaffordable water bills, some multiple times after paying back-due bills and falling behind again.  

COVID-19 Highlights Need for Universal Access to Clean Water and an End to Shutoffs

The pandemic has underscored that universal access to safe, clean, and affordable water is essential for public health. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an Executive Order on March 20 requiring the restoration of water services for households whose water had been shut off due to inability to pay; this order was later extended to remain in place through December 31, and state funds were authorized to help relieve water bill debt for families unable to pay their bills during the pandemic. On October 2, however, the Michigan Supreme Court struck down pandemic-related emergency orders issued by Gov. Whitmer and, on October 12, the Court clarified that this ruling applied to the Governor’s emergency orders relating to water shutoffs, among many other emergency orders. 

Also on October 12, a group of Michigan legislators led by Senator Stephanie Chang introduced a new version of Senate Bill 241 that would effectively codify Whitmer’s emergency orders requiring the restoration of water services to keep these important protections in place through December 31. The Whitmer administration has been working with legislative leaders to advance this solution, and the bill is expected to be taken up by the legislature on November 4 or 5. 

While the attention of most Michigan voters is rightly attuned to the Nov. 3 general election, it also remains important to hold our current representatives to account regarding on-going issues like the pandemic response and access to safe, clean, and affordable water.

FLOW Is Calling on Michiganders to Take Action: Learn more about State Senate Bill 241 to prevent household water shutoffs through December 31 for Michiganders in need and then contact your state lawmaker.

Click here to find contact information for your senator, by address or zip code.

Video: Detroit resident Nicole Hill had her water mistakenly turned off twice in 2014 because of double-billing. She worried the state would take her children away. She tried to tough it out being a single mom of seven kids in a home without water. She became seriously ill and was hospitalized. Now she speaks out as a member of the People’s Water Board and Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, and a Tri-chair for the Poor People’s Campaign. Hill is devoted to combating poverty on all levels through her work in water affordability and social change.

Michigan’s U.S. lawmakers also are leading the charge to enact a federal moratorium against water shutoffs as part of COVID relief legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. Michigan Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell were among those leading the charge. Thanks to their persistent and persuasive efforts, the “skinny” version of the HEROES Act passed by the House in early October included $1.5 billion for water affordability and a national moratorium on water shutoffs. Although this legislation is not expected to be taken up by the Senate prior to the November 3 election, it remains an active issue at the federal level. 

Video: Harley Rouda, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Environment, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the Vice Chairwoman of the Subcommittee (who is pictured above with Monica Lewis-Patrick of We The People of Detroit), released a video report pressing for a national moratorium on water shutoffs and immediate restoration of service for homes that have already had their water shut off.

The Public Trust and FLOW’s Public Water, Public Justice Model Legislation

Moratoria against water shutoffs provide an important measure of protection and security for households who would otherwise be without access to safe, clean, affordable water in their homes. But long-term solutions are desperately needed that ensure this right and provide equitable, reliable, sustainable funding and financing for water utilities to provide this service, regardless of a families’ income.

Access to safe, clean, affordable water for drinking and personal sanitation is a human right, essential to life and dignity. Under public trust law, the state as sovereign holds water in trust for the benefit of the people of the state, including for sustenance and bathing. Each state has the power to determine the nature and extent of the public trust in its waters. The government is absolutely accountable to its citizens, as legal beneficiaries of the public trust in water, to ensure that these waters, and public trust uses, are protected from substantial interference or impairment or alienated or disposed of for solely private purposes or gain. 

Several Michigan water and natural resources laws have declared a public trust in water. For example, the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) provides for the protection of the air, water, and natural resources and the public trust in those resources from impairment. It is in this tradition that FLOW recommends a comprehensive public trust framework for equitably funding and managing public water services.

FLOW’s Public Water, Public Justice (PWPJ) model legislation includes a declaration of the public trust in water and the delivery of public drinking water as a public good and service. These statutory declarations would protect the quality and reasonable use of the waters of the state by providing access to clean, safe, and affordable water for all residents of Michigan. The PWPJ model legislation also provides a funding mechanism to help drinking water utilities to fulfill these public trust duties by collecting a royalty on water bottled for commercial sale and placing royalties into a dedicated trust fund to be used to support water affordability programs and water infrastructure projects.

How Do Hands Get Washed?

By Mary McKSchmidt

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.

We’re All in this Together

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 jacob@flowforwater.org. 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!