Duggan water advisor Dr. Abdul El-Sayed: Detroit focused on ending shutoffs, but affordability needs national attention

Newly re-elected Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s drinking water focus is clear, according to his point-person for shutoff and affordability plans. 

“The commitment he’s focused on is ending shutoffs. That’s the first-order goal,” Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who advises the mayor on public health and water issues, recently told Planet Detroit in a wide-ranging interview. El-Sayed served as director of the Detroit Health Department from 2015 – 2017.

A current ban on shutoffs runs through 2022.

In addition to ending shutoffs, El-Sayed said it is “critical” that water is affordable and to think “holistically” about water and infrastructure in Michigan. He cited the Flint water crisis as an example of the need for a holistic approach and emphasized that water infrastructure issues are a national problem. 

El-Sayed said his hope is that President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better plan “will pass with a real investment with equitable access to drinking water.” He said that would solve the problems that plagued Flint and now Benton Harbor. 

The long-awaited infrastructure bill recently passed in Congress by a narrow margin when 13 Republicans including west Michigan Rep. Fred Upton broke ranks and supported the bill. 

But at a recent press briefing, U.S. EPA’s administrator for water, Radhika Fox, told Planet Detroit the agency is “concerned” about water affordability, however, “there is no dedicated funding in the infrastructure bill” for it, she said.

Build Back Better legislation includes funding for social programs and contains a tentative $225 million for water affordability which is a tiny fraction of the need. 

In August, Rep. Rashida Tlaib introduced legislation that would address water affordability issues nationally. The bill, the Maintaining Access to Essential Services Act. proposes “$13.5 billion in low-interest loans to public and private water utilities which will be forgiven when the utility forgives household water arrears.”

The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has approximately 50,000 of its 210,000 residential accounts in delinquency representing $38 million, Public Affairs Director Bryan Peckinpaugh told Planet Detroit. 

In Chicago, homeowners have accumulated $421 million in water debt according to recent investigative reporting by WBEZ Chicago. Approximately 60 percent of the debt is in majority Black zip codes.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot ended shutoffs in 2019 after taking office saying, “when you cut somebody off from water, you’re effectively evicting them and putting them on the street.” The city has since been working on an affordability plan. 

Rep. Tlaib’s proposed legislation has a low probability of passage according to the non-partisan legislative tracking service, GovTrack.  Her office did not respond to requests to comment. 

Build Back Better legislation has been mired in partisan disagreement and its future is uncertain as negotiations continue between the White House and Democratic and Republican members of Congress. 

Absent federal action on affordability, El-Sayed said municipal financing at the state or local level could be an option or a tax on corporations “that have been profiteering off of bottling Michigan’s water for a long time.” 

The Traverse City non-profit FLOW (For Love of Water) has called for bottled water companies to pay a royalty for the water they take. The revenue would be put in a trust fund to assist communities with public water and social justice needs.

“The public health and justice trust fund would support dedicated public purposes, such as replacing lead service lines, addressing contaminated community water supplies, establishing an emergency water supply, and creating water affordability plans for disadvantaged communities,” said Flow senior adviser Dave Dempsey. 

FLOW has opposed the taking of water by bottled water companies in Michigan for a decade but the practice has been upheld by administrations of both political parties. 

Asked if there is a possibility for Mayor Duggan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, and the legislature to find common ground on water affordability, El-Sayed said the non-partisan redrawing of legislative districts now in process could provide an opportunity. 

“We’re due for a rethink of our politics here and I hope that means it opens the space for a productive conversation between the state, the city, and the legislature,” he said.

On adopting and implementing a Philadelphia-type affordability plan where water rates are pegged to income, El-Sayed said “it’s the gold standard plan that would solve a lot of these issues once and for all, and I would love to see something like that happen in Michigan.”

But there are constitutional barriers in Michigan that could prohibit the adoption of the Philadelphia plan according to El-Sayed. He cited a 1998 Michigan Supreme Court decision that prohibited a unit of local government from levying a service charge that was actually a tax that did not have voter consent. The Philadelphia plan is funded by rate-payers not in the plan. 

University of Detroit Mercy environmental law attorney Nick Schroeck said it’s good that the city is committed to stopping shut-offs, but a rate structure that is affordable for all residents is still urgently needed. 

“If federal dollars for water affordability do not come through, we still have a water affordability problem that needs to be addressed. Advocates have proposed new rate structures, similar to those that have been implemented in other states,” Schroeck said.

Editor’s note Nov. 20, 2021: A previous headline and version of this story referred to El Sayed as an “exec.” We did not intend to imply that El Sayed is a paid staff of the city. In his words, he is “allied in the effort to end shutoffs per the Mayor’s commitment.”


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