Low-income households in Detroit spend at least a quarter of their disposable income on water and sewer bills, placing the city’s poorest residents among those hardest hit by rising water costs in Michigan, a team of analysts revealed in a report released Thursday.
Compared to other household costs, water and sewer bills have skyrocketed since the mid-1980s, growing twice as fast as the wages of low-income workers and faster than any other basic need. with the exception of health care, they found. Water costs doubled in Michigan and roughly tripled in Flint and Detroit between 1980 and 2018, when costs are adjusted for inflation.
“If we continue on this trajectory, more people will have difficulty paying for their water and more communities will experience problems,” said Jennifer Read, director of the University of Michigan Water Center.
Read was the lead author of Thursday’s study, “Water Service Affordability in Michigan: A Statewide Assessment,” conducted by analysts from the Water Center, Michigan State University Extension and Safe Water Engineering, a drinking water consultancy based. in Metro Detroit.
Analysts examined public census data and conducted interviews with water utility workers, state employees, and people in communities hard hit by unaffordable bills to understand the current state of affordability. of water in Michigan. They found that unaffordable water rates were “a widespread and growing problem throughout Michigan.”
A number of problems converged to create the affordability problem, said Elin Betanzo, founder of Safe Water Engineering and co-author of the study.
Federal spending on infrastructure plummeted after the 1970s, she said, when many of the country’s water systems were new and did not require much maintenance. Federal and state investments have failed to keep pace with the increase in maintenance costs over time, putting more pressure on utilities to rely on customer payments and leading some to do without. money for planning, renovations or updates, Betanzo said.
Utilities are also grappling with the prospect of detecting and mitigating emerging contaminants, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyls, or PFAS, a family of man-made chemicals that do not break down in the environment.
“All of these things come together to create this really damaging situation,” Betanzo said.
Analysts have drawn up a list of policy recommendations that they believe could limit high water costs and improve service.
Among their recommendations: Definitely ban water cuts for poor households.
Michigan communities were ordered to stop water cuts when the coronavirus pandemic struck last year. Detroit – where the water department years ago waged a controversial shutdown campaign amid its financial crisis – will continue its moratorium until 2022.
A shutdown can be the last straw for families facing expenses they cannot afford, creating problems ranging from stress and poor hygiene to loss of parental rights, Read said.
In addition to outlawing cuts, analysts have recommended that utilities and policymakers find ways to help households that struggle to pay for water services, including by forgiving existing debts, reducing costs. services or providing grants for the repair of wells and septic tanks to needy families.
They also recommended:
– Fill gaps in the technical and financial capacity of Michigan water and sewer services by providing funds and expertise to cash-strapped utilities.
– Improve data collection by requiring Michigan utilities to report on their funding, infrastructure and maintenance plans.
– Require public services to seek the advice of the communities they serve before making infrastructure and planning decisions.
– Ensure that the state plays a greater role in monitoring public services to ensure the protection of public health, water quality and appropriate water tariffs.
While water affordability is an acute issue in Detroit and other Michigan cities, it’s not just an urban issue, analysts have warned. Low-income residents of Thumb spend 20-25% of their income on water and sewer bills; low-income residents in parts of central Michigan and the western Upper Peninsula spend 15-20%.
Michigan residents who have private water supplies, such as septic tanks and wells, also face challenges. Analysts have found that about 20% of Michigan’s wells and 27% of septic systems are in need of repair and replacement.
“These problems do not only affect vulnerable households in Flint, Detroit or Benton Harbor, they are also encountered in economically struggling areas of Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, including households on private wells, septic tanks and those in mobile homes, “said Ritchie Harrison, extension specialist at MSU Extension’s Community, Food and Environment Institute and co-author of the study. “It is important to recognize the similarities of these economic challenges and their impact on communities across the state. “