Rahul Mitra is an associate professor at Wayne State University who researches environmental organizing and policymaking, especially around water systems. Learn more about the Detroit Water Stories Project.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to reconnect water services to homes that were shut off, and create a $2 million fund to help local authorities comply, is a vital step to beating the coronavirus pandemic.
After all, it’s simply common sense that in order to wash our hands for 20 seconds to prevent spreading the virus, we need to have clean running water in our homes. Since 2014, however, more than 141,000 Detroit homes have been disconnected from water service due to nonpayment of water bills, in a city that has emerged as one of the COVID-19 epicenters in the United States.
Nevertheless, as welcome as the governor’s executive order is, it will not end the coronavirus crisis nor protect us from future pandemics, without three additional actions in the short, medium and long term. These recommendations are derived from my two-year Detroit Water Stories project, that has been researching the interconnected risks to water access and security for the city.
In the short term, we need emergency water relief for thousands of residents who still lack running water, despite assurances since March 9 from city and state authorities they will be reconnected. As authorities have discovered, however, past water shutoffs have resulted in complex infrastructural and institutional problems, so that the pace of reconnections has been far slower than expected even as the Coronavirus case tally climbs exponentially. Thus, while working to reconnect homes by the newly announced date of Wednesday, April 1, the state should supply residents with boxed or bottled water to tide them over and stem the rate of infection. This shouldn’t become an excuse to descend into the heavy-handed emergency management we have seen in Flint, Detroit and many other Michigan cities. Rather, authorities should partner with community leaders and water activists who have worked on the ground assiduously for the past six years to deliver water to disconnected residents and help them pay their water bills, gaining their trust and goodwill. Let’s leverage this trust to ensure a short-term stopgap to water scarcity right away.
In the medium term, the moratorium on water shutoffs should be extended beyond the COVID-19 duration. Even before the pandemic hit Michigan, independent researchers, public health experts and community leaders recognized that disconnecting water to thousands was setting the stage for a major crisis. These predictions did not even count the very real social costs already apparent to community members, such as stigma and isolation, destruction of families owing to CPS intervention, eviction of tenants by unscrupulous landlords, worsening foreclosures, and gentrification of working-class neighborhoods. Although COVID-19 finally made it impossible for authorities to ignore these social costs, the shutoffs must be banned indefinitely to protect Michiganders from both this current and future pandemics. The simple reason why is because current water rates are unsustainably high for a large portion of the state’s residents.
Finally, for the long run, state and municipal authorities should collaborate with community leaders, public policy researchers and engineers to draft an income-based water affordability plan for Michigan. Detroit’s average monthly residential water bill is $77.01—far higher than for most of the nation, and a much larger proportion of household income than the EPA recommends—making it impossible for several low and fixed-income families to afford. Water assistance programs, such as WRAP, have provided temporary respite, but too many people eventually miss their payments again and get re-penalized. Decades of under-investment in water infrastructure and regional infighting have created an unsustainable water rate system that exacerbates pandemics like COVID-19. Nor is this problem restricted to Detroit, for residents across Oakland, Wayne, Macomb, Genesee, Washtenaw and Ingham counties also struggle with high water bills, and shutoffs have occurred in Benton Harbor, Flint, Hamtramck and Highland Park (not just Detroit). An affordable water system would ensure more people would pay into the system, raising its usability and safety rate, lessening fears of contamination, freeing up money for infrastructure repairs, and ultimately reducing public health risks for the entire state.
Detroit’s water activists repeatedly use the slogan, “Water is Life.” The coronavirus has hopefully reminded the rest of us of the unquenchable fact behind this rhetoric. To protect ourselves from future pandemic risks, water affordability and security are key measures to adopt statewide.