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Michigan Law Gives Utilities Authority to End Water Shutoffs

Water utilities have legal authority to ensure vulnerable residents avoid losing access to drinking water.

ANN ARBOR, MICH. – As the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that water shutoffs are a threat to public health, a new report by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and the National Wildlife Federation debunks the theory that Michigan law forbids water utilities from offering flexible payment structures, which would prevent the most vulnerable residents from losing access to drinking water. Read the report here.

“As Michiganders try to survive the coronavirus pandemic, access to water for hygiene is a matter of life and death, yet thousands of families have no water in their homes,” said report co-author Oday Salim, staff attorney for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center.  “State law provides a simple way to put an end to water shutoffs: Water utilities can provide a flexible rate structure — as some utilities have done for senior citizens — to make sure that people don’t have to choose between paying for clean water or paying for food.” 

Water rates for people in Michigan and in communities across the country have skyrocketed over the last 10 years — in large part due to plummeting federal investment in water infrastructure that has left local communities on the hook for operating, maintaining and updating expensive water distribution systems. In recent years, thousands of Michigan residents have had their water shut off, because they have not been able to afford their water bills. Cities like Flint and Detroit have some of the highest water rates in the nation. Detroit’s water rates have doubled over the last decade.

Yet, as the report makes clear, local utilities in Michigan already have legal authority to provide rate flexibility to people with less income — thereby ensuring water access without widespread water shutoffs.

While Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has mandated an end to water shutoffs in the short-term due to the current pandemic, there is an urgent need for a long-term solution that funds local water utilities without leaving residents lacking access to water due to affordability concerns. The new report offers one way local water utilities can help immediately: They can provide a flexible rate structure to ensure people – especially the most vulnerable and those who are going through economic hardship — can afford water.

“We welcome the actions by Gov. Whitmer and local officials to stop water shutoffs in the state,” said report co-author Erin Mette, Equal Justice Works Fellow for the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. “These actions have provided important short-term relief. However, they do not address long-term problems that are curtailing access to clean water to our most vulnerable communities. This report leaves no doubt that we have a humane and immediate solution to provide water to everyone in the state. We look forward to working with local water utilities to help them meet their needs, while providing water access to all Michiganders.”

Water shutoffs in Michigan disproportionately impact communities of color and low-income families. And the problem is becoming more pervasive. A Michigan State University study estimates that, by 2022, more than 35 percent of people in the United States will have trouble paying their water bills if water bills continue to increase as projected.

“All Michiganders deserve equal access to water in their homes, regardless of their income,” said Jeremy Orr, staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Communities have long-been fighting for income-based water rates, which are legal under Michigan law, as this report reveals. Water utilities should no longer be permitted to take the drastic and unjust action of shutting off water in homes, which punishes people for being poor and threatens their health and well-being.”

The new report, “Legal Pathways to Income-Based Drinking Water Rates in Michigan,” finds state law provides broad latitude for water utilities — and indeed a wide variety of government service providers, from water distribution to trash collection — to offer flexible rate structures to help ensure that services are affordable. Several local utilities in Michigan already offer reduced rates for older residents, as well as (in a few cases) people with lower household incomes. The latter approach, in which people with less money or who are experiencing economic hardship pay lower rates, has been implemented in cities such as Philadelphia, Pa. 

“We are at a crossroads,” said Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising. “It is time to stand up and reject past policies that have allowed people to be treated with cruelty and intolerance, and it is time to extend the hand of love and compassion to those most in need. We support a vision in which every man, woman and child in the state of Michigan has access to clean, safe and affordable water so that people are made whole again, public health is restored and communities are strengthened. We have solutions to make that vision a reality. It’s now time for public officials to act.”

The report was written by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and National Wildlife Federation, with financial support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

 

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