World Water Day in Michigan and Beyond

Today is World Water Day, which has me thinking about Michigan and how it stands as a potential bellwether for change on drinking water issues nationally.

Lack of access to clean drinking water is a global crisis affecting billions of people. It is also a local problem that cripples communities and undermines equity. Perhaps the starkest example in the United States in recent years is the Flint Water Crisis that continues to this day. But the drinking water crisis in the U.S. is not just about lead and it is not just Flint.

In the United States, contaminants that harm human health have been found in tap and source water in every state in the nation. In fact, nearly 1 in 4 Americans is served by systems that violate the federal safe drinking water law. Offenses range from arsenic to lead contamination and include often-serious failures of officials to test or report contamination levels. Meanwhile, thousands more potentially dangerous contaminants are not even covered by our current laws.

These risks are not shared equally. Children, the elderly, and pregnant women are more vulnerable to many contaminants. Lower-income communities and communities of color face divestment and discrimination, often leaving them with crumbling infrastructure and unanswered pleas for help. Rural populations often receive water from small water systems that have difficulty complying with drinking water standards and can be put at risk by contamination of their sources of water.

Still, with the Flint water crisis and widespread water shutoffs in cities like Detroit, Flint, and elsewhere, Michigan has become ground-zero for the drinking water contamination problems that plague the nation. Lead is a primary concern for residents in the state because no level of lead exposure is safe. But there is growing concern about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and other toxic contaminants afflicting drinking water. Adequate water infrastructure and the affordability of safe water are also major concerns, especially in urban areas like Flint and Detroit.

There is hope, though, that things in Michigan are changing. Both Governor Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel have proclaimed their intent to make clean drinking water a high priority.

U.S. EPA Region 5

In order to do so, getting lead out of drinking water should be a top priority for the state. First and foremost, we must finally get lead out of drinking water in Flint. The city remains under a court order to replace its lead pipes—which leached lead into residents’ drinking water—within the next year. The state can help keep things on track by making sure that Flint has the funding and support it needs to get the job done as quickly as possible.

Michigan can also do more to protect others in the state from problems like those in Flint. While communities like Lansing, Michigan, have proven they can get the lead pipes out, hundreds of thousands of lead service lines still exist across the state. Last year, with input from NRDC and many community stakeholders, Michigan adopted the most health protective lead in drinking water provisions in the nation. Several water agencies and cities have attacked those standards in court, but the Governor and Attorney General are pushing back. So are NRDC and local partners who recently filed a legal brief in support of the rules. Instead of fighting those rules, cities should be working with the state to identify resources to solve the problem. We must do more to finance and replace our aging water infrastructure to protect clean water and public health.

PFAS pollution also threatens drinking water not just in Michigan but across the nation. Michigan’s own testing has revealed PFAS contamination in more than 100 public water systems. For decades, PFAS have been widely used in industrial settings and consumer products, including for things like nonstick cookware (like Teflon®), stain-resistant repellents used on carpets and fabric (like Scotchgard® and Stainmaster®), firefighting foam, and textiles (like Gore-Tex®), among many other uses. A robust body of scientific evidence demonstrates the link between low dose-exposures to many PFAS contaminants and serious human health risks, including cancer and adverse immunological, developmental, and reproductive effects. To protect its residents, Michigan can and should set health-protective regulatory standards for drinking water and for groundwater cleanup.

And while ensuring safe drinking water is a critical first step, everyone should also have a right to affordable water to meet their basic household needs. That is why Michigan state Senator Stephanie Chang is introducing a package of bills to improve transparency and guarantee affordable water bills for those with the least ability to pay. As detailed in a blog by my colleague Larry Levine, these bills provide “strong consumer protections for people receiving public water service.” They would ensure transparency of rate-setting and collections practices, among other things. And they “would create a new program—similar to existing programs to help low-income residents afford gas and electric bills—to guarantee affordable water bills for those with the least ability to pay.”

Finally, as Michigan addresses each of these challenges, we all must engage and advocate for equity in decision-making. We must help create a system where all communities have a level playing field of power to receive equal protection of water as a human right. As we’ve seen from Flint, socioeconomic and racial bias may determine whether a community is made sick by its drinking water.

I suspect most people think that there is already a right to safe and affordable water in the United States. We often take it for granted. Indeed, we have laws like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act for a reason. But, for as important as these laws are, they have many loopholes and have not resulted in clean water for all. That is why more action is needed.

In the wake of the Flint Water Crisis, Michigan has been seen as a drinking water horror story—that’s why NRDC has been so invested in our water work there. If Michigan can become the Gold Standard for how we address drinking water issues, then we can fix these vexing issues across the country. Governor Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel have signaled their intention to be strong leaders on water. In fact, Governor Whitmer has agreed that water is a fundamental human right. Ensuring that clean and affordable water is an enforceable right will not only benefit all Michiganders but will help guide the way so that decisionmakers in other states and at a federal level may learn from their example.

About the Authors

Steve Fleischli

Senior Director, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities program

Join Us

When you sign up you'll become a member of NRDC's Activist Network. We will keep you informed with the latest alerts and progress reports.