Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a moratorium on the practice of shutting off water in homes with unpaid bills. The order also requires already disconnected homes to be safely reconnected to water. For years, community activists in Detroit and Flint have been advocating for utilities to stop water shut-offs and instead adopt income-based rates and other equity measures to prevent the practice in the future.
Whitmer's order to restore water to every home in Michigan raises the bar nationally during the COVID-19 crisis, as perhaps millions of people each year face shut-offs due to unaffordable water rates. As public health experts speak with one voice about the importance of handwashing to protect against COVID-19, an alarming number of people in Michigan – with Detroit as the epicenter – do not have any running water.
Following are statements from prominent water activists in response to the executive order:
“By making sure that people have running water in their homes, Governor Whitmer is saving lives of Michiganders, and creating a model that can be replicated by all states that shut off water as a punishment for unpaid bills. Denying water to people for any reason—especially based on their ability to pay high water bills—is tragic. But right now it’s exponentially more dangerous, more unjust, and grossly unequitable, as the nation grapples with how to stop transmission of the COVID-19 virus. To avoid ongoing contagion, we urge the state to take the step of providing an emergency water source until the water is safely reconnected and safe to drink at every home. This is especially urgent for homes that have been disconnected for an extended period, as water that has been sitting in stagnant pipes for a long time after shutoff can become a petri dish for bacteria and other pathogens, like Legionella, as well as lead contamination,” said Cyndi Roper, Senior Advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
“Clean, safe, affordable water has always been a public health issue. At this time, it is even more imperative for newly reconnected residents to have emergency water and cleaning supplies until the water is safe to drink,” said Nayyirah Shariff, Director of Flint Rising.
“Water is life-sustaining. We can’t be healthy individuals or a healthy community without access to running water in our homes. The people of Detroit and the state of Michigan need and deserve water every day, and especially during this pandemic. Reconnecting people to water in their homes is the right decision, but we need an emergency source of water until safe water is again flowing through our kitchen and bathroom taps,” said Nicole Hill of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization.
Over the past month, as the COVID-19 crisis intensified, NRDC has worked nonstop with partners at the People’s Water Board Coalition and Flint Rising in calling for a moratorium on water shutoffs, restoration of water services for all occupied homes, and the establishment of emergency water stations for cooking and drinking.
Governor Whitmer had supported Detroit Mayor Duggan’s suspension of shut-offs in that city earlier this month and his directive for about 3,000 homes to be reconnected to water. However, activists estimated nearly 10,000 homes in Detroit would not be reconnected under the order nor would homes elsewhere in Michigan, including Flint, which is estimated to have 5,000 homes disconnected from water service.
Water shut-offs are not unique to Michigan. Estimates of the total number of people whose water has been shut off range from tens of thousands to as many as several million, but the reality is that nobody knows because there are no national data on the issue. Utilities have aggressively used water shutoffs to collect on unaffordable water bills. Residential water rates have increased at three times the rate of inflation over the last decade. As a result, many low-income households struggle to pay their water bills and are subject to shutoffs and tax liens.