Photo courtesy of People’s Water Board
FLOW and allies continue to seek emergency and permanent solutions to ensure access to clean, safe, affordable water for all
By Janet Meissner Pritchard, FLOW interim legal director
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer on March 28 ordered all local public water systems to halt disconnections and restore drinking water and sanitation services to residents who had their water shut off because of non-payment of bills. The order comes with a $2 million state fund to help communities reconnect service, which Gov. Whitmer deemed essential to help fight the spread of the coronavirus in hard-hit Michigan. Communities will be required to provide a 25% match for a state grant. All public water utilities that shut off services due to non-payment must report to the State Emergency Operations Center about the state of water access in their service areas no later than April 12. If that report does not satisfy the executive order’s list of requirements, the utility must submit a supplemental report every 30 days until it does meet the requirements.
Whitmer’s action followed urgent calls by the People’s Water Board Coalition and its partners—some of which (like Michigan Welfare Rights Organization) have been leading this fight for nearly 20 years. Continued leadership and collaboration with these frontline groups must happen to ensure that water service is restored to every household in need as soon as possible, and that emergency water and sanitation supplies are provided during the intervening days.
The Governor’s order provides needed national leadership during the COVID-19 crisis to not only stop water shutoffs but also require reconnections, while providing some of the resources necessary to safely reconnect water service. In many cases, more than just turning a valve is required to restore water because households that have been shut off for months or even years often have considerable problems with residential plumbing. Common challenges include corroded and burst pipes, water heaters lined with dangerous deposits, water-borne microbial contamination in the lines from stagnant water and raw sewage, and lead contamination in plumbing and fixtures.
If these plumbing risks are not corrected prior to restoring water service, “every home with an extended shutoff is like its own Flint water crisis waiting to happen,” national drinking water expert Elin Betanzo and Sylvia Orduño of the People’s Water Board wrote in a March 24 op-ed in The Detroit News. In effect, utilities caused much of this plumbing damage through their reckless and inhumane water shut-off policies.
In response to the state moratorium halting further water shut-offs during the pandemic, Detroit officials disclosed that they do not have records of all the thousands of households that had been shut off—a failure that further underscores the marginalization of these households. Indeed, a lack of data was even used as a justification for declining to recognize the public health emergency that extensive water shut-offs already posed before the pandemic.
What’s clear is that the practice and policy of water shutoffs is inhumane and fuels public health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, this policy must be permanently banned. The next COVID-19 federal relief bill must include a national moratorium on water shut-offs and resources to restore shut-off water services. A permanent moratorium on water shutoffs nationwide is a priority because water and public health are inseparably linked. Remember that the CDC’s number one recommendation for combating COVID-19 is to wash your hands, and this simple act is not even possible for the thousands of households who lack basic sanitation and access to water.
FLOW’s Work to Ensure Clean, Safe, Affordable Water for All is More Important Now than Ever
FLOW is working to build understanding around the unaffordability of water services and other issues compounding our water infrastructure crisis and strategizing, in partnership with the People’s Water Board and other allied organizations, how to finance much-needed investments in Michigan’s drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater systems.
FLOW’s work on water infrastructure financing aims to identify a set of policies that:
- Fully address Michigan’s perpetual funding shortfall for water infrastructure, estimated to total at least $800 million annually.
- Are feasible and cost-effective.
- Ensure the burden for funding water infrastructure for Michigan is equitably distributed and that funds for water infrastructure are equitably allocated.
- Eliminate water shutoffs and establish comprehensive affordable water plans and funds for eligible households.
- Secure and strengthen good governance principles, including transparency and accountability for decisions pertaining to funding water infrastructure.
- Secure and strengthen the public trust principles governing Michigan’s water resources.
The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changes the landscape in which this work takes place. Economists project that the pandemic will throw us into a global recession, with severe impacts felt for the next several years. The economic strain that this predicted recession would impose on both households and governments could further constrain spending on water infrastructure, a need we have failed to prioritize for many decades, even during prosperous times.
The pandemic and its impacts, including its economic fallout, also provide a lens that magnifies the importance of this work, however. First, a crisis like this exposes the underlying weaknesses of systems we rely on to keep us safe: our health system, our government planning and coordination systems, and our water infrastructure system. For example, the fact that, prior to the onset of the pandemic, an estimated 10,000 households in Detroit lacked water services due to inability of impoverished families to pay soaring water bills is a glaring example of flaws in the way we have financed our water infrastructure, a basic necessity of life.
With the novel coronavirus continuing to threaten Michigan, health professionals advise that the way to protect ourselves and prevent spread of the virus is to wash our hands. This simple guidance, in turn, has exposed the disturbing fact that widespread water shutoffs during a pandemic threaten us all. The moratorium against water shut-offs during the pandemic, coupled with Governor Whitmer’s order to restore water services, is an essential first step. A more permanent fix is required, however—one that considers the right of every household to safe, clean, affordable water in the context of a broad analysis of how we understand and pay for our water infrastructure systems. Only this deeper analysis of our water infrastructure financing challenges and comprehensive, sustainable solutions will help us build a more resilient society, protected and served by 21st-century water infrastructure.
Second, as with almost any crisis, both the health and the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic fall disproportionately on people and communities that already were the most vulnerable, in terms of both health and finances. This underscores the importance of the equity lens which is at the front and center of our analysis of water infrastructure finance challenges and solutions.
Third, economists forecast that the worldwide economic downturn expected to follow the pandemic could be especially deep and lengthy. This is because the social distancing measures required to deal with the pandemic—which may continue to be needed to varying degrees for another 18 months or longer—not only strain the viability of many businesses and the employment they provide, but also impede our ability to rely on consumer-led growth to pull out of the recession. The global economy we have built over the past century relies on consumer spending to drive two-thirds of economic activity worldwide and 70 percent of the U.S. economy.
In the midst of this predicted global recession and the strains it places on government revenues and services, it will be important that policymakers understand that a dramatic drop in consumer spending provides an additional reason to invest in our failing infrastructure systems over the next several years. In fact, U.S. House Democrats are proposing a five-year, $760 billion investment to get our existing infrastructure working again and fund new, transformative projects that would create more than 10 million jobs, while reducing carbon pollution and dramatically improving safety.
FLOW, along with many others working on this agenda, has signed an open letter calling on Congress to adopt a Green Stimulus to Rebuild our Economy to address three converging crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession, the climate emergency, and extreme inequality. These investments can replace economic drivers we are losing with the drop in consumer spending and provide family-supporting jobs for workers displaced by the economic fall-out of the pandemic, while building the infrastructure needed to protect us and enable us to thrive in the 21st century and beyond. Even President Trump, who has so far failed to take meaningful action towards his campaign promise to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure, is calling for investment in infrastructure as part of future COVID-19 relief packages.
Finally, while we may not be able to predict all the various challenges that might beset us in the future, we can and must build our resiliency to survive such challenges. We face many threats, including climate change, that are not going away even as the pandemic and its fallout pose additional challenges. We’ve built an economy based on a “take-make-dump trajectory” in terms of how we have used and depleted natural resources to drive our economy. We need to build an economy based on a very different understanding of the relationship with our environment. A resilient, thriving, diverse, and sustainable economy relies first and foremost on a resilient, thriving, diverse, and sustainable environment.
With regard to water resources, this points back to the ancient and enduring public trust doctrine as the fundamental framework through which we should understand all of our interactions with and governance of water. The doctrine holds that our waters are held in the public trust for the benefit of all; while allowing for the reasonable use of water, including for economic benefit as well as sustenance, no permissible use can undermine the health, integrity, and sustainability of the resource itself. These public trust principles stand in stark contrast to the commodification of water, which we must diligently resist.
More specifically, the Public Water, Health, and Justice Fund that could be created through the Public Water, Public Justice Act proposed by FLOW in 2018 could provide a new steady source of funding to help restore and retain access to clean, safe, affordable water for years to come. The Public Water, Public Justice Act would prohibit the sale of water except for the sale of bottled water authorized by a royalty licensing system, and recoup for public purposes royalties derived from these bottled water sales. Royalties would be placed into a trust fund to serve people and communities for specific dedicated public purposes, such as replacing lead service lines or creating water affordability plans for disadvantaged people or cities and rural communities.
The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the importance of FLOW’s work on water infrastructure and the public trust, now more than ever. Together we can build a healthier future and thriving communities centered around water.