Opinion | Here’s how to keep Michigan water clean and affordable

Jaimien Delp is a lecturer at the University of Michigan and a contributor to FLOW  (For Love Of Water)

Michigan citizens for more than two decades have witnessed the failure of government officials to meet their paramount duty under constitutional and common law to protect the life-sustaining resource of our watersheds, and therefore, the public health and the common good of the people.

This culture of government negligence, in which water, people and health are secondary to political and economic interests, has resulted in the devastation of lives and communities.

The state of Michigan in 2018 alone, and in violation of clear constitutional and legal mandates, has approved multiple permits allowing for the ongoing impairment of Michigan’s water and natural resources. State government allows Nestlé to continue pumping and bottling water from our Great Lakes Basin for private profit, while in Flint, citizens remain without clean, safe water in their homes. To survive, families are forced to support the very companies depriving them, and all of us, of our lawful public resources, while consequently facing eviction for unpaid water bills due to contaminated water.

Detroit Public Schools, as well as those in Ann Arbor, must now also rely on bottled water or “hydration stations,” large water coolers with filters, following the discovery of high levels of lead in their water supplies, all while water shut-offs to households in Detroit continue daily. Enbridge’s decaying Line 5 continues to pump crude oil though the Straits of Mackinac at the risk of unprecedented devastation to the health of citizens along up to 700 miles of coastline.

The list of failures on the part of government and elected officials to defend the right to clean, safe and affordable drinking water for citizens is long, but a few foundational facts bring clarity to the heart of the issue surrounding water injustice:

What is the average annual water bill a resident in Flint is required to pay for contaminated water? Based on a 2015 report from Food and Water Watch, $864.32, though we can accurately say current averages are significantly higher.  In April of this year, resident Tunde Olaniran reported in an article for the Washington Post that her annual water bill, in a single-person household, was $1,800.

What is the average annual water bill for a Detroit resident, facing the shutoff of service? According to Marcus Hudson, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s chief financial officer, in early 2017 the average Detroit household incurred an annual bill of about $972.  This is based on a three-person household that uses 4,800 gallons per month. More recent studies, however, have concluded that the average American home uses 7,000 gallons per month, suggesting this number is closer to $1,500.  

What is Nestlé required to pay annually to the DEQ to withdraw water from Michigan?  Nestlé pays $200 a year for taking more than 210 million gallons of groundwater a year, aside from a one-time administrative fee of $5,000.

What is the multi-generational cost to public health, in total, when government fails to protect the water, which, by law, belongs to the people?

One could never arrive at such a number. It is so high as to be incalculable.  

It is the cost of life.

The key that is often lost in conversation about these issues is that the more than 40 million people who live in the Great Lakes Basin are the beneficiaries of these waters, with our state governments serving as trustees to protect these shared waters for current and future generations.

This is the essence of the common law known as the public trust doctrine.  

You own the water. I own the water. Families in Flint who must bathe with cases of Nestlé bottled water own the water. Parents of children in Detroit who have no running water in their schools own the water. Americans and Canadians living in the Great Lakes watershed all own the water. And yet, we have witnessed state policy in Michigan act directly against the health and common good of its citizens when it comes to protecting this vital resource for us.  

In response to mounting urgency, For Love of Water (FLOW) founder and President Jim Olson, a prominent environmental and water lawyer, went to work identifying the science and law governing these most critical threats.  

This spring, he completed draft model legislation for FLOW to address the loss of access to and affordability of clean water for Michigan’s citizens, embrace the constitutional principle that water is public, and correct the injustice that large-volume bottled water producers pay nothing but token administrative fees for our public water that they convert for private sale and huge profits.  

After consulting other respected water law attorneys and people and organizations involved in water and health issues across the Great Lakes Basin, FLOW’s team developed the final model legislation and a full report and summary – the Public Water, Public Justice Act, released in September – to bring these intertwined water and health crises under a comprehensive legal framework, and recalibrate Michigan’s priorities to protect its public water and its people.

In brief, FLOW’s Public Water, Public Justice Act: (a) affirms public ownership over water, (b) protects sensitive water resources, (c) prohibits the sale of water except for the sale of bottled water authorized by a royalty licensing system, and (d) recoups for public purposes royalties derived from these private bottled water sales. This model law places royalties into a public water, health and justice trust fund to serve people and communities for specific dedicated public purposes, such as replacing lead service lines or creating water affordability plans for disadvantaged people, cities and rural communities.

If a groundswell of people – our leaders, legislators, local governments, organizations, businesses and citizens from all walks of life – work together, there can be new hope for water, health and the common good in Michigan.  All of us, beyond partisanship and self-interests, must now unite in our efforts to secure passage of a law guarding the life-affirming resource that is our Great Lakes watershed.

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Thu, 12/13/2018 - 9:00am

As with all things, if you want to see an entire system go to hell, mandate that it's product is given away free! Ms. Delp is obviously a very nice well intentioned person, she likes dogs after all, but this is why so many people have so little regard for anyone from universities or other NGOs.

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 2:50pm

Will Libertarians never be happy until ever conceivable resource is owned and controlled by a handful of multinational corporations? Why should water not be a public right of the people? Why should Nestlé pay a pathetic $200 a year to reap millions by commodifying a public good? You scoff at these academics, and yet your solution is always 'Let the market decide,' when it has been shown time and time again that corporate entities have no concept of stewardship and will destroy everything in their grasp for a few fucking pennies

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 3:51pm

Nice touch Bones, clearly you need another bong hit or two! But hey, go head drill a well in your backyard or fill as many buckets of water from any lake you can get to, ALL for FREE! That's your and their right, and good luck to you, but its not the point or important part of the whole thing. And neither really are markets (that $200 wasn't set by the market, it was your beloved government!) but i'll take the environment record of market economy nations over your crony Marxist states every time!

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 4:30pm

One of our "points," as critics of this deal with Nestle, as that "the government" is -- via this low fee -- giving away what you seem to be saying should not be "free." If you voted GOP, then this is your government. Not mine ...

Up north living
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 9:13am

There are several errors in this article, some of them bordering on just plain laziness. One example, the average daily use of water in the U.S. has been dropping for 30 years as water efficient appliances and fixtures have been mandated. Water usage for a family of 4 has dropped from 5,000 gallons per month to 4,000 gallons per month in this time frame. The only homes that typically use more have higher occupancy, or irrigate there lawns (not a group that has trouble paying a water bill).

In addition, the lead in water is a local issue that is the responsibility of the local system. Why should the rest of the State pay for Flint's failure to invest in improvements to the main system, or the property owner's failure to remove lead piping from their private property? To be assured, there are some issues, but at least be honest in the reporting instead of trying to use scare tactics to say the whole State is in trouble.

Finally, there is a cost to produce and distribute clean water to homes. The reason water costs are going up is that we are finally reaching a true cost to deliver the water. For 50 years at least, the residents of Michigan have received below cost water, which means there was not enough money to maintain the distribution system. The lack of investment results in a very high need for water system work today.

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 9:47am

This commentary is almost so nonsensical as to be parody. I read it three times and still can't figure out what she's saying or advocating.

Only from an academic.

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 10:01pm

You read it three times and can't figure out what its saying? You must have missed some academics.

Kevin Grand
Thu, 12/13/2018 - 7:17pm

For a so-called "expert" on water, Ms. Delp certainly missed more than a few important details.

For starters, Detroit Public Schools floated nearly $2-billion (yes, with a "B") over the past 2 decades to pay for building improvements. Many of the schools that were promoted on literature supporting the bond projects closed due to declining enrollment before the money could be spent.

Clearly money wasn't problem in DPS' case.

Next., if you don't want to pay DWSD's going rate, there is absolutely NOTHING is stopping someone from going down to the Detroit River, throwing a bucket into it and taking as much water as they can carry with them. There are no guard towers or armed guards preventing people from making use of this free water.

And conveniently "overlooked" is the WRAP fee that is baked in the water bills of those living in the Tri-County Area.

WRAP is a shake down that takes money from those people who pay their water bills and gives it to those who chose not to.

Those few examples right there should make for an interesting follow-up piece.

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 1:21pm

In no section of this opinion article does it claim she's an expert, and saying there's nothing stopping you from going down and scooping your own water out of the Detroit river with a bucket is like a white supremacist saying "if you dont like the way things are done you dont have to live here". That's a moronic argument. You know things are wrong with the way Michigan's water is being handled yet your response to someone trying to start a conversation about it is to try and cherry pick other problems to ignore the ones addressed. Those few examples right there show a lack of caring.

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 7:40pm

Some of you boys have obviously injected yourselves with bile. If you don’t believe our water in Michigan is under seige, then you clearly have spent too much time in a bunker somewhere. I won’t say you are all alike but your are a feral clan. You represent a clear danger to all of the rest of us who understand just what a resource we are charged with guarding.

It’s difficult for such warped views of the world to ever take a turn toward the common good, yet with diligence and the occasional trephining, some of you might make it.

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 8:48pm

“You are” up there.

Thu, 12/13/2018 - 8:48pm

“You are” up there.

Fri, 12/14/2018 - 8:51am

From the little that can be made of your comment, are we to gather that your solution to guarding this precious resource (purified water delivered directly to your faucet) is to give it away free? That's interesting, so price doesn't signal value when it comes to water? So when we leave our faucet leaking down the drain or hose running into the street we care, why? Sounds like a great experiment for YOUR city's water system. I'll look forward to the results, seriously I love following these experiments.