Opinion | To protect all Michiganders, maintain access to clean water

Amid a global pandemic that has already taken the lives of more than 7,500 Michiganders, access to clean water is essential to protecting our health.

That’s why on March 28, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an emergency order requiring the reconnection of service to residents who had their water shut off. The Governor then extended this order in July to stop water shut offs through the end of this year. 

On Oct. 12, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that most of Gov. Whitmer’s emergency orders issued after April 30 were unconstitutional, including water service restoration. The power to protect Michiganders now lies in the hands of the state Legislature. 

Marianne Udow-Phillips is the founding executive director of the Center for Health research Transformation at the University of Michigan. Prior, she served as the director of Michigan’s Department of Human Services.

Senate Bill 241 has been introduced by Sen. Stephanie Chang to make sure that Michigan residents have access to clean, safe water. SB 241 would maintain Gov. Whitmer’s water restoration order and make sure Michiganders’ water is not shut off while we battle Covid-19. The Legislature should extend the bill as written and pass it immediately to protect the health of Michigan residents.

Having access to clean water is essential for basic sanitation. The Centers for Disease Control’s guidance on protection from COVID-19 calls for frequent and thorough hand washing to protect yourself and others from spreading the virus. As the CDC notes, COVID-19 spreads easily from person to person, and washing your hands reduces the likelihood that you or others become infected. 

For those who cannot afford their water bills, shutoffs not only endanger their lives, but the lives of others they come in contact with. Clean and available water is essential to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

This is not a novel idea. Early in the pandemic, 29 states, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC recognized the importance of accessible, clean water in fighting COVID-19. They protected their residents from water shutoffs. 

In the 23 days since the Michigan Supreme Court decision, some of Gov. Whitmer’s executive orders have been restored by the Legislature. Water protection has not been one of them.

Families are again at risk of losing access to water solely because they cannot afford their water bills – a particular challenge in light of the impact of COVID-19 on the economy. 

While the Michigan Legislature authorized the use of $25 million in CARES Act funds for easing some of the financial burden of the cost of water, these resources expire at the end of the year and only provide a patchwork of relief across the state. The funds only applied to water utilities that volunteered to participate -- which at this point is a mere 130 of 1,400 water systems. 

Sen. Chang’s bill provides a statewide solution for ensuring all Michiganders have access to clean water during this pandemic. This is especially crucial because the pandemic is expected to last well into next year, even in the most favorable scenarios.

Losing access to clean water is coming at a time when confirmed COVID-19 cases are at their highest level ever in Michigan, higher than they were at the time Gov. Whitmer issued her water restoration order on March 28. 

Fortunately, the Legislature can do something. They can pass State Sen. Chang’s Senate Bill 241, extend it beyond year end and ensure it’s implemented at least until we have a safe and widely accessible vaccine.

When the Michigan Supreme Court struck down Gov. Whitmer’s emergency orders, many elected officials committed to work in partnership with the Governor. 

Now is their chance. Legislators should not deny their constituents a crucial protection to help slow COVID-19. This is an issue that impacts every Michigan community.

As someone who has spent her life working to improve health and health care in Michigan and beyond, I urge lawmakers to vote “Yes” on Sen. Chang’s water shut-off moratorium bill, so we can keep the water running and protect Michiganders from this potentially deadly virus. 

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Mary Ellen Howard
Wed, 11/11/2020 - 9:12am

Thank you Marianne, for raising this important public health issue. Access to clean, affordable water is necessary for life and to prevent the spread of disease.

Geoffrey Owen
Fri, 11/13/2020 - 12:30am

No water. No money. No jobs. Now the kids are going back to remote learning. People are supposed to stay home from work to help with their lessons. This would qualify for unemployment under the Cares Act, but that is over. Guns in the State Capitol building. Guns at polling places. The State Senate Majority leader zoom meeting the day after the Michigan Supreme Court says the governor has no emergency powers to deal with a pandemic, presumably to see how much more damage they can do. Sorry to rant but people getting Covid19 at the rate of 6,000 per day, still spreading from the rash of Trump rallies. And people are dieing. This is all normal since we have a Republican president (had) and a Republican state legislature. Great article by the way. Thanks Marianne! But as I am saying, why are idiot political reprobates destroying the health and welfare of Michigan residents, and for Gods' sake, why did half of them just vote for more?