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Opinion | Income-based water bills will ensure access for Michigan families

Imagine waking up in the morning to get your kids ready for school and turning the tap on and nothing comes out. Imagine going to your neighbors, friends, or family to see if you can fill a jug so that you can brush your teeth and wash your face or make a cup of coffee. Imagine a bill so high that you can’t possibly afford it on your income.

Monica Lewis Patrick, Denise Poloyac and Jill Ryan headshots
Monica Lewis Patrick is president and CEO of We the People of Detroit. Denise Poloyac is associate director of the National Wildlife Federation, Great Lakes Regional Center. Jill Ryan is executive director of Freshwater Future.

This is the reality for far too many Michiganders, and it’s long past the time that we do something about it.

Michiganders of every color all over the state have been fighting for years to ensure that we all have access to safe, affordable drinking water. That is also the goal of the Water Equals Life (WEL) Coalition. We are a coalition of water justice advocates, environmental groups, and social justice groups who have come together in a statewide campaign to ensure everyone’s basic human need for water is met, regardless of income. 

Fortunately, there are also elected representatives in Lansing who share our values and have been waging the fight for access to water with us. That effort is currently spearheaded by Senator Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), a legislator that has been working for safe, affordable water.

With more than one third of Michiganders in need of safe, affordable water, we must get the solution to this problem right and do it as soon as possible. To truly make sure that the human need for water is met for all Michiganders, the Legislature must reduce the burden for those in need and make sure the water is safe and affordable. 

That is why any legislation passed must use a three-tier system based on income level to create affordable water rates, ensuring that payments do not exceed a defined percentage of their household income;  make sure water bills are capped at 3 percent of household income for those at particular low-income levels; and, include drinking water along with storm and sewage costs in income-based bills, which, in some places are different parts of the bill.

Done correctly, income-based water bills will keep water flowing in households and revenue flowing to local water systems. When bills are made affordable based on income, it virtually assures people can keep up with payments and ward off harmful water shutoffs. That creates a far steadier stream of revenue to local water systems that can then also save administrative costs. Everyone benefits!

While we support the general direction of Senator Chang’s draft bills and have valued her advocacy over the years, we know how important it is to make water affordable for the millions of low-income Michiganders who struggle to make ends meet. 

Numbers can’t adequately portray the anguish families experience when water service is at risk, or the health hazards they face when water service is denied. That is why we need Senator Chang and her colleagues to cap water bills at 3 percent of household income for low-income residents in a water affordability program and ensure that total water usage is made affordable for all. 

We invite you to stand with us and contact Senator Chang by phone or email. Please ask her to make sure her affordable water legislation has three income tiers and will cost eligible households no more than three percent of their income, including fees for stormwater and sewerage. Together we can secure affordable water rates for all Michiganders. 

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