How will climate change impact water affordability in the Great Lakes?

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In 2014, the City of Detroit cut off water service to more than 20,000 customers for nonpayment. This left scores of poor, primarily Black households without the necessities for safe and sanitary daily life.

“People cannot drink. They cannot cook. They cannot flush toilets or maintain sanitation,” said Rev. Kenita Harris, a minister at Detroit Bible Tabernacle at a recent water activist demonstration in Detroit. “The lack of water threatens the lives of people and disrupts community health and well-being.”

Detroit issued a water shutoff moratorium in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that will cease at the end of 2022. The State of Michigan also issued a moratorium statewide in December 2020, but that expired on April 1, 2021. Water activists like harris want to see Detroit and other cities adopt water rates indexed to income, something the city of Detroit has so far rejected.

Since the state dropped its moratorium, several water utilities across Michigan have resumed shutting off water service to those behind their bills. Shutoffs have resumed in Saginaw and Muskegon, while Flint has joined Detroit in continuing a moratorium on residential water shutoffs for now. Flint has resumed shutting off service to delinquent commercial customers.

Water is unaffordable in Michigan. A recent study by the University of Michigan looked at water affordability across the state. It found that between 7% and 10% of Michigan households struggled to pay for water service and that households in large cities pay, on average, $124 more than other households. Those in poverty pay, on average, $9 more than those who are not in poverty.

Costs are rising. The same study found that the cost of water service in the Midwest increased by more than 400% between 1986 and 2018–more than the increase in health care.

And that lack of affordability doesn't just impact low-income residents and people of color. The same study found that water unaffordability is a challenge shared by rural, urban, and suburban Michigan residents. Michigan's rural Thumb is among the hardest hit by unaffordable water bills.

Source: Michigan Statewide Water Affordability Assessment

According to the study, water service is increasing for multiple reasons, not the least of which is a decline in deferral subsidies to local water utilities. Deferred spending on infrastructure maintenance means that costs only increase over time; more than $20 billion will be required to address the gap in maintenance investment over the next two decades.

And climate change will add additional pressures on costs and affordability. The National Climate Assessment on Water projects that the duration and intensity of precipitation in the upper Midwest and east coast will intensify in coming years, putting more pressure on sewer systems and increasing the risk of flooding and basement backups, as Detroit saw in 2021. Building additional capacity to handle this extra water will be extremely costly, and utilities will pass those costs to on customers. The increased risk of flooding represents a threat to human health in the form of waterborne disease and mold left behind by floodwaters.

“With more frequent heavy precipitation, that's going to… potentially make combined sewer overflow events more frequent, putting [water utilities] in violation of water quality standards more often, and requiring them to upgrade their stormwater collection systems,” Dr. Casey Brown, a professor of water resources engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told Michigan Climate News. “The kind of the additionality of climate changes. is hard to quantify.”


Join Michigan Climate News, Planet Detroit with drinking water expert Elin Betanzo of Safe Water Engineering, Michigan Sen. Stephanie Chang, and water affordability advocate Sylvia Orduño his Friday at noon on Facebook Live to discuss the problem and the solutions. Register here.


In the case of Detroit, those costs could run anywhere between $5 billion and $20 billion, according to the Great Lakes Water Authority, which operates the region’s water and sewer infrastructure. And that's just for sewer infrastructure. Climate change is likely to drive up water infrastructure costs as well, according to Brown.

“If you have an increasing intensity of precipitation – so when it rains, it rains hard more often – that can mobilize potential contaminants in the watershed; chemicals or even just turbidity,” he said. “And that might put a burden on your drinking water treatment plants on your treatment processes that would be a concern for surface water-based systems.”


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