A growing number of Americans, not just Detroiters, are accumulating water debt and living without water. (Shutterstock photo)

The Great Lakes State has had its fair share of water woes. However, in 2020, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and eventually the state Legislature, supported an end to water shutoffs through March 31 of this year due to COVID-19. Now a similar bill, led by two congresswomen from Michigan, is gaining traction at the federal level.

U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell introduced House Resolution 616 in January and have gained 78 co-sponsors. Their bill would prevent water shutoffs, regardless of a resident’s ability to pay, through the end of the pandemic, as government and health officials continue to tell U.S. residents that frequent handwashing can help prevent the spread of the virus. Water advocates in Detroit say water affordability and access to clean water is not just a Detroit or Michigan issue — it’s a national problem that has affected individuals and families for decades.

Water is an essential daily need to drink, cook and clean. It is widely accepted that hygiene and sanitation are needed to maintain public health. 

Even though the federal bill would halt water shutoffs only temporarily, Tlaib said water affordability has been an ongoing “crisis” within her district. She recalled when the United Nations visited Detroit to express concern for the “unprecedented scale of shutoffs” that were disproportionately affecting some of Detroit’s most vulnerable residents. The United Nations deemed the shutoffs a violation of human rights.

Tlaib said she helped file Freedom Of Information Act requests to assist groups that were gathering data years ago. The Detroit Democrat said 15 million Americans across the country, not just Detroiters, are now in jeopardy of shutoffs or already are without access to water. She is emphasizing the impact of their lack of access to water while promoting the legislation she introduced with Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat. 

“We knew before (coronavirus) that (a lack of access to water) was a public health crisis,” Tlaib said. “But if anything, the pandemic really brought it to light as we were telling people to put a mask on, use sanitizer, and wash their hands, and many of our residents could not do that.”

The National Association of Clean Water Agencies and the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies are gathering data on Americans’ growing water debt. Residents are expected to accumulate $9.2 billion in household water debt from the coronavirus pandemic, and the loss in drinking water and wastewater revenue is expected to hit $30 billion nationally. 

Detroit began shutting off water to residents with outstanding water bills in 2014, a year after the City filed for bankruptcy. Schools, homes and businesses that had outstanding bills for 60 days or more, or that owed more than $150, were subject to water shutoffs. The back pay from withheld payments exacerbated the issue as late fees and charges for returning water services were added to the original bills that residents already couldn’t afford.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan announced in December that Detroit would no longer conduct water shutoffs due to a resident’s inability to pay. However, the City has yet to share a long-term plan to support this effort, which has made some question the validity of the promise.

Tlaib said she wishes there was more information from the City about the promise to end water shutoffs, but she encourages residents to take advantage of State grants and federal funding to supplement plumbing and infrastructure issues. Many Detroiters whose water had been shut off long-term have had difficulty restoring water due to deteriorated pipes that are no longer safe to run water.

Sylvia Orduño, an advocate  for water affordability in Detroit with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, said she was glad to hear Duggan announce an end to shutoffs, but she remains skeptical until a long-term plan is shared. She said she’s yet to see a collective effort from local and state governments to address the water needs of residents. According to Orduño, water affordability shouldn’t be treated as a single-bill issue, and Tlaib and Dingell’s resolution is only a short-term solution to a larger problem.

“At the local level, we’ve had so many struggles, especially with mayors over the years who have not wanted to acknowledge the problem or address it head-on, and instead try to divert attention and blame the residents themselves, as if this is some kind of personal failure or lack of responsibility or accountability,” Orduño said. The local organizer said the plan fails to acknowledge why the rates are as high. Nor does it acknowledge the system is failing or that the City itself is accountable, she said. 

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The Michigan Welfare Rights Organization is a founding member of the People’s Water Board Coalition. The group includes anti-poverty and grassroots advocates who push for greater  access to education, public health and housing. Orduño said even faith-based groups have joined the coalition because they believe water is not just human right, “but a moral imperative.”

The coalition is part of a federal class-action lawsuit supported by the American Civil Liberties Union to tie water bills to income, which could make water affordable and ultimately end water shutoffs post-pandemic. The lawsuit was filed in July 2020.

The ACLU has argued that water shut-offs go against the state’s constitution and discrimination laws of the Fair Housing Act and the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act due to the disproportionate number of Black and Brown residents who have been affected by water shut-off policies.

Lawyers representing Whitmer, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown and Mayor Mike Duggan tried to dismiss the case earlier this month. The case is pending.

The ACLU claims Whitmer made an assertion that water shutoffs had no connection to the spread of disease before coronavirus and allowed the City of Detroit to continue shutting off water to residents until the pandemic began.

According to Orduño, many Detroiters who have had their water shut off in the past remain unconvinced that the government will listen to their stories and make positive policy change, especially when the governments’ legal representatives are trying to dismiss the current lawsuit.

“There is a difference between assistance and affordability,” Orduño said, “and there have been multiple efforts over the years to try to engage different administrations to have this conversation about the need for residents to pay based on what they can afford rather than set up residents to pay in a vicious cycle.”

Olivia Lewis is a reporter for BridgeDetroit. She was formerly a reporter for the Battle Creek Enquirer and the Indianapolis Star. She has also worked in philanthropy for the Kresge Foundation, the Council...

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