Water rights activists continue years-long push for a statewide affordability plan on World Water Day

Michigan “has a black eye on this issue,” one advocate said.

For the first time in over 40 years, the United Nations held a world water conference in New York last week. The international body proclaimed that the planet’s water supply is plagued by overconsumption and unsustainable use.

“Water is humanity’s lifeblood,” said Antonio Guterres, the U.N. Secretary-General, who used the occasion to call on “governments to develop and implement plans that ensure equitable water access for all people.” 

Detroit water rights activists used the platform to pressure elected officials to act on Michigan’s statewide water affordability plan.   

Writing in Common Dreams, Detroit’s Monica Lewis-Patrick referenced 400% increases in water and sewer services in Michigan since 1986. That eventually led to water shutoffs and racist and predatory practices that “hurt people’s ability to care for themselves and their families,” according to Lewis-Patrick, co-founder of the water rights advocacy group, We the People of Detroit. 

“Policymakers have a job to do,” she said, calling on them to address the “most pressing water injustices” in Detroit and nationally.

“In the long run, we need to follow the leadership of local communities, sustain investment in our water systems, end water shutoffs, and make a national commitment to water affordability,” Lewis-Patrick wrote. 

While Lewis-Patrick’s comments were aimed at an audience broader than Michigan and Detroit, comments from her colleagues on a World Water Week call were focused on a state-wide drinking water affordability plan in Michigan.

In 2010 the U.N. passed a resolution recognizing the “human right to water and sanitation.” In 2014, the U.N. sent a Special Rapporteur to Detroit to document the harm caused by shutoffs in the city with a majority Black population. 

And since 2014, Michigan has had two drinking water failures related to lead in the water—Flint under former Gov. Rick Snyder and Benton Harbor under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. 

In the nine years since the U.N. intervention, advocates say progress has been made on drinking water equity culminating in Detroit’s Lifeline Plan designed to provide financial assistance to customers for their water bills.  

But more needs to be done, according to Norrel Hemphill, a fellow with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. 

“Water justice advocates continue to push toward more transparency, true affordability components, shut-off protection, and an affordable rate structure that allows residents to maintain access to clean, safe water permanently,” Hemphill told Planet Detroit. 

Hemphill said aspects of the city’s plan fall below national standards and Michigan’s “budgetary commitments are lacking compared to the need.” She commended Gov. Whitmer for adding $25 million to her budget for affordability. 

But the $25 million for water affordability is a small fraction of the recent billion-dollar subsidies the legislature, with the signature of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has provided to business interests for economic development. 

Statewide problem

Dealing with shut-offs and affordability issues has long been viewed as an urban issue impacting majority-Black cities like Flint and Benton Harbor and Detroit. But a 2021 University of Michigan study documented that it’s a state-wide problem.

“The challenges affect households statewide—whether residents live in cities, suburbs, or rural areas—and the magnitude of the affordability problem has been increasing,” the study said. 

According to the study, it would cost the state between $78 and $145 million to address the issue. 

State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D) is sponsoring water affordability legislation, and she pegged the amount at $100 million. Chang started working on an affordability plan in her first term as a legislator in 2015. 

Sen. Chang’s office did not respond to a request for a status update on the legislation.  

From Petoskey in northwest Michigan, Jill Ryan said, “solving water affordability and preventing water shut-offs are complex issues.” Ryan is the executive director of the non-profit Freshwater Future

The problems “haven’t been solved by our elected officials, and that is why we are coming forward as residents, activists, and communities to create the solutions together,” Ryan said. 

And Gov. Whitmer “has been quieter than we would like” on this issue, according to Ryan. 

In her 2018 election campaign for governor, Whitmer said, “I believe water to meet basic needs is a fundamental right and essential to public health. I will work to ensure that everyone has access to a livable quantity of water at an affordable rate.” 

Whitmer’s office declined to comment on this story. 

A potential barrier to advancing water affordability in Michigan is that there’s “no right to safe and affordable water in Michigan or federally,” according to Andy Buchsbaum, a Great Lakes policy expert and lecturer at the University of Michigan Law School. 

But “Michigan is getting closer to an affordability plan, chipping away at the issues,” Buchsbaum said.

If passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Whitmer, pending affordability legislation would codify the human right to water in Michigan law. 

Political will 

In 2022, Baltimore joined Philadelphia as one of the only two cities with affordability plans based on income, according to Baltimore Sun reporting. 

Baltimore advocates “looked to the work of Detroit activists in designing the Baltimore program,” Mary Grant, the Public Water for All director for the national non-profit Food and Water Watch, said, because of their “deep knowledge” accumulated over years of water equity work.

Grant cited the recent shift in Michigan’s political landscape as an opportunity to advance water affordability as Democrats control government’s executive and legislative branches. 

“Change is possible, and the moment is now,” Grant said, spotlighting policymakers and elected officials. “This issue is not about the workability or practicality of these programs, but about the political will.”

Given Michigan’s wealth of water as the Great Lakes state, its slow walk on drinking water affordability stands out.

“Michigan has a black eye on this issue,” Petoskey advocate Jill Ryan said.

Our reporting 

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