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Opinion | Keep Michigan water affordable and in public hands

Michigan is a water wonderland — think Great Lakes, 36,000 miles of rivers and streams, groundwater that supplies 45 percent of our state with drinking water, and more than 6 million acres of wetlands. 

Liz Kirkwood
Liz Kirkwood is executive director of FLOW (For Love of Water), a nonprofit devoted to Great Lakes water issues. (Courtesy photo)

But these waters face a daunting array of challenges, everything from microplastics to toxic “forever chemicals,” inadequate infrastructure funding to the stresses of climate change. The impact on residents includes soaring water bills, water shutoffs and widespread concern about lead and chemical contamination.

In 2023, Michigan needs an inspiring vision, championed from the highest places inside our government and out. In her State of the State message set for Jan. 25, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has a chance to show the way by articulating bold proposals for Michigan’s water. I urge her to declare 2023 the Year of Keeping Water Public and Protected for All in Michigan.

Our water fares best when it remains in public control. 

Privatization of water and sewer services elsewhere has led to inferior maintenance and higher costs to customers. Allowing private interests to commodify groundwater drains a vital public resource without benefit to the public. The future of our water is too important to leave to short-sighted, profit-seeking private interests. 

Here are a few steps Michigan must take to keep our water public and protected:

Secure Affordable Rates and Public Control

  • Water affordability and access: Water is essential to sanitation, health and life itself. No Michigander should be denied public water service because of inability to pay. Michigan should enact legislation to ban residential water shutoffs, fix the affordability crisis and address water injustices.
     
  • Public Water Legislation: The state should enact legislation imposing royalties on bottlers who commodify waters owned by the State of Michigan at practically no cost and reap extraordinary profit on the resale. The royalties should make up a clean water trust fund to serve Michigan residents and communities for dedicated public purposes, including ending water shutoffs and helping people whose wells are contaminated.
     
  • Keep municipal water utilities public: Michigan must draw a clear line against any plan to privatize public water services, which weakens local control and can ratchet up rates while maintenance lags.

Protect Drinking Water and Public Health

We have made considerable progress in dealing with the kind of pollution the 1972 Clean Water Act targeted, but new threats continually emerge for which our laws are ill-prepared. The governor should call for actions to address not only these threats but also the mistakes of the past:

  • Groundwater: These vital but largely invisible waters are contaminated in over 15,000 localities. Another $50 million a year should be dedicated to the cleanup of toxic sites and prevention of groundwater contamination.
     
  • Climate resilience and water infrastructure funding: Climate change is putting unprecedented stress on already-faltering water systems. Despite a one-time infusion of federal funds last year, our water infrastructure faces a multi-billion dollar investment gap. We need long-term funding sources, and new water projects must be designed for an era of intensifying storms. 
     
  • A new approach to chemical contamination: We can no longer deal with chemicals like PFAS one-by-one and after they have done environmental harm. Instead, the precautionary principle should be the foundation of our chemical policy, requiring chemical manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of the chemicals before they can be authorized for commerce.

Our actions now will define and shape the future of the Great Lakes. This future demands a new relationship with water, and recognizes, in the words of Jacques Cousteau, that “the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” 

Imagine a future where we place water at the center of all decision-making. And imagine the profoundly positive impacts that result in energy choices, food systems, the transportation and housing sectors, urban development, manufacturing and more. 

Safeguarding our Great Lakes is a deeply shared value and, despite daily indications of bitter polarization in our politics, this important area of common ground bridges political divides. Prudently conceived and boldly implemented, keeping our water public and protected for all can help secure Michigan’s future.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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