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Opinion | Michigan lawmakers must do more to solve drinking water crisis

One of the enduring lessons of Flint’s water crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic was the realization that far too many Michigan residents either lack access to safe tap water or cannot afford to pay for it. This is fundamentally wrong, especially in a state that borders four of the five Great Lakes and sits atop a volume of groundwater that is so massive it’s been called the sixth Great Lake.

Ridgway White
Ridgway White is president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, headquartered in Flint.

The extent of Michigan’s drinking water crisis was unknown before the Flint water crisis, even among environmental advocates, policymakers and funders, including the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Since the 1980s, Mott has provided over $130 million to protect the Great Lakes and ensure that people and the environment have sustainable levels of clean water. But we and our grantees previously were focused on the quality of water in lakes and rivers that are the source of drinking water — not the quality or cost of water coming out of the tap.

Mott expanded its freshwater grantmaking strategy during Flint’s water crisis, embracing what is known as a one-water solution. It means that water should be clean, affordable and accessible from the source to the tap. We must focus more attention and resources on water in all forms — in the natural environment, drinking water, stormwater and treated wastewater — to ensure that it is managed holistically and sustainably, to maintain healthy environments and support strong economies.

The Foundation also funded research into the kinds of water infrastructure issues that erupted in Flint and have caused problems in other industrialized cities in the Great Lakes region. That work made clear that Michigan has a three-pronged water crisis: crumbling water infrastructure, soaring water rates and, in some communities, water that isn’t safe to drink.

It’s imperative that all Michigan residents have access to safe, affordable water. At the same time, Michigan communities must have the funding they need to build, operate and maintain water infrastructure. I believe we can meet both needs, but it will require new sources of revenue. Now is the time to act.

Michigan has a window of opportunity to address a suite of water-related issues facing communities and individuals. An unprecedented — but short-lived — surplus of revenue in the state budget creates space, and legislative leaders have expressed a desire to tackle these complex, intertwined issues. But that window will close before long, so they must act quickly to develop the funding needed on a long-term, sustained basis.

The issues of water safety and affordability can be solved, and we know from polling that there is strong public support for addressing these problems. There isn’t a single solution, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. But there are policy ideas worth considering, many of them developed by Mott Foundation grantees and their allies. They break out broadly into four categories:

  • Use state tax revenue to fund water affordability and infrastructure improvements on the premise that providing access to safe and affordable water is a social right and, therefore, a core function of government.
  • Charge a royalty fee on groundwater withdrawals for bottled water and use the new revenue to fund a water assistance program. This isn’t an entirely new concept. Michigan has charged royalties on oil and gas extracted from state-owned land for decades, and the $1 billion in revenue has been used to preserve sensitive lands and create new recreational opportunities statewide.
  • Allow water utilities to create programs and rate structures that ensure solvency while providing lower-income customers with affordable water. There are several ways to accomplish this, such as charging variable rates or adding a monthly bill assessment to fund an assistance program, like the energy assistance programs already in place.
  • Include bottled water in Michigan’s 10-cent deposit law, which currently covers cans and bottles for pop, beer and many other beverages. The state could use excess deposit money to protect the environment, help maintain water infrastructure and ensure that all residents have access to safe, affordable water. This also would keep millions of pounds of plastic out of landfills. The state would need to make provisions to ensure this would not become another levy on lower-income families.

By providing $25 million for water affordability and asking for another $40 million in 2024, Gov. Whitmer has laid the groundwork for addressing the immediate needs of Michiganders to access water and keep it turned on. But more needs to be done.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang has convened a work group to explore water affordability issues and offer viable solutions. I commend the senator for taking the lead on this issue and wish her well. All interested parties are at the table — frontline community groups, water utilities, municipal government leaders and policy experts — so we can hope the outcome will balance needed investments in infrastructure, source water protection and equitable water rates.

Because Michigan sits in the center of this country’s greatest source of freshwater, we should lead the charge on water issues. The Mott Foundation will do all it can to help. Michigan voters want these problems addressed, and there are feasible solutions. We need more legislators with vision and courage to step up and get the ball rolling.

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