800,000-Plus Risk Water Shutoffs in the Great Lakes State

Co-authored with Sylvia Orduño, People's Water Board Coalition

Skitterphoto on Pexels

More than 317,000 households serving an estimated 800,000 Michiganders throughout Michigan are known to be behind on their water bills and could face water shutoffs, according to new data (XLS) compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in collaboration with the People’s Water Board Coalition (PWBC).

The data show that this is a bipartisan crisis. Michigan’s water affordability crisis is well documented in cities like Detroit and Flint, which are represented by Democrats. However, these new data reveal how the threat of water shutoffs looms for families in urban, suburban, and rural areas, which are represented by Republicans and Democrats.

Our analysis used data compiled by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) through water system reporting requirements in a June 2020 supplemental appropriation, which created a water assistance program funded by federal Coronavirus Relief Fund dollars. Participating water systems submitted data for the accounts that were in arrears for bills accrued between March 1 and August 31, 2020. The data were then matched against the MDHHS food assistance program benefits database. While some of the households were eligible for assistance, the vast majority were ineligible.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stressed the importance of handwashing to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and emerging research suggests there could be a link between a person’s not consuming enough water and their susceptibility to COVID-19. Further, safe and sufficient water is known to be essential to human health.

PWBC and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization have been seeking shutoff protections and water affordability measures for more than two decades. At the onset of the pandemic, NRDC worked with PWBC and others to win water reconnection Executive Orders - 2020-28 and 2020-144. The groups also helped secure funding to offset water bills for low income households and to repair plumbing to make reconnections possible.

We also helped ensure there were reporting requirements in the executive orders and in the legislation that provided the water assistance funding. As a result, we obtained these groundbreaking data highlighting the widespread and bipartisan nature of the state’s water insecurity issues.

In a threat to water security for nearly 1 million Michiganders, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled along party lines in October to limit the Governor’s executive powers. As a result, Governor Whitmer’s water reconnection Executive Order was immediately repealed.  The next lifeline for people facing potential water shutoffs is Senate Bill 241 that Senator Stephanie Chang will be introducing after Thanksgiving. The bill essentially codifies Executive Order - 144 to require reconnections for those homes that have had their water shutoff for non-payment. We’re working to extend the expiration date from December 31, 2020 to March 31, 2021 or later since we know the economic impacts of the pandemic will linger. NRDC, PWBC, and a number of other organizations are working to secure this vital protection, which will benefit hundreds of thousands of Michiganders during the COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath.

The following highlights the impact of water insecurity beyond Detroit and Flint as summarized in our analysis (XLS).

Macomb County

  • 31,548 households serving ~78,869* residents.
    • 16,433 households serving ~41,083* people reside in the county’s senate districts represented by Republicans (SD 8 and SD 10).
    • 15,115 households serving ~37,786* people live in the county’s senate district represented by a Democrat (SD 9).

Monroe County

  • 4,991 households serving 12,477* people are represented by a Republican senator (SD 17).

Saginaw County

  • 15,555 households serving ~38,888* residents all reside in a Senate district represented by a Republican (SD 32).

Upper Peninsula

  • 24 water systems have reported a combined 4,581 households serving ~11,452* residents who are behind on their water bills. All UP residents are represented by a Republican senator (SD 38).

Although the current crisis has intensified the problem of water shutoffs and affordability, this problem predates COVID-19. The data we’ve obtained through legislative and executive actions lay the groundwork for our collective efforts to secure short-term shutoff protections as well as long-term measures to ensure all residents have access to safe, affordable, and sufficient water. 

*Based on 2.5 persons per household as reported in the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

About the Authors

Cyndi Roper

Michigan Senior Policy Advocate, Safe Water Initiative, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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