New partnerships are needed to solve Michigan’s water-related issues

Ridgway White headshot.
Ridgway White is president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, headquartered in Flint. He has been a leader in efforts to help Flint recover from its water crisis and an advocate for equitable access to safe, affordable water. Photo: Mike Naddeo

The following opinion piece by Ridgway White, president and CEO of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, was published by Bridge Michigan on Oct. 20, 2020.

Michigan is known as the Great Lakes State — and rightly so. Bordering four of the five lakes, it has the longest freshwater coastline in the United States.

Despite that, many Michigan residents lack access to safe, affordable drinking water, and numerous communities cannot afford the cost of upgrading water infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic is only making things worse.

Well-managed water utilities are essential to public health, which is why Gov. Gretchen Whitmer imposed a statewide moratorium on shutoffs when the pandemic started — as did many other governors. But this happened just as Michigan’s drinking water and wastewater utilities began to experience severe decreases in revenue because of the economic decline caused by the pandemic.

Personnel costs also are increasing as local water utilities add staff to manage essential operations during the pandemic. This is not unique to Michigan. By next year, water and wastewater utilities across the U.S. are collectively projecting a $30 billion decrease in revenue.

This is occurring against the backdrop of reduced federal funding for water infrastructure and the mandate that all Michigan cities remove lead service lines over the next 20 years.

For water utilities, the pandemic is like salt in the wound of a long-standing, national water infrastructure crisis. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, spending on water infrastructure nationally in 2019 was $81 billion less than what was needed.

Part of the problem is that the federal government has abdicated its role as a major funding partner to local communities plagued by failing roads, bridges and water systems. The federal government’s share of water infrastructure investment has decreased dramatically since the 1970s and now covers just 4% of all spending.

Gov. Whitmer has proposed a $500 million fund to modernize Michigan’s drinking water infrastructure and sewer systems, but that won’t cover all the necessary work. The state needs to spend about $1 billion annually over the next decade just to upgrade drinking water systems, according to a 2016 Public Sector Consultants study.

Michigan and its communities cannot complete this critically important work on their own. We need to restore the partnership among local, state and federal agencies that work on water infrastructure issues.

One thing is clear: Without significant federal investment to upgrade water infrastructure, utilities will be forced to pass costs along to their customers. This will further exacerbate already gross inequities in access to safe, affordable water.

Michigan, along with all other states and their communities, needs a federal partner that will do the following:

  • Implement a plan to ensure safe, affordable drinking water in all communities — urban and rural, rich and poor — by investing in the repair of water mains and sewer systems, replacing lead service pipes, upgrading treatment plants, and investing in technology that helps individuals and businesses use water more efficiently. This may require new funding mechanisms to ensure the long-term financial stability of local water and wastewater utilities.
  • Safeguard watersheds and water infrastructure from natural and man-made disasters by restoring wetlands and utilizing more “green” infrastructure projects, which reduce flooding and trap pollutants naturally.
  • Help states address water quality concerns in a comprehensive manner and respond to new threats, including PFAS contamination. PFAS chemicals, a group of over 5,000 man-made compounds that have been linked to cancer and other health threats, have been found in all five Great Lakes, which collectively provide drinking water for 48 million people. The lack of federal leadership on the issue prompted Michigan to develop its own standards for PFAS compounds in water, which are among the nation’s toughest.
  • Use infrastructure investments to help communities and states confront racial and environmental justice disparities, which contributed to water crises in Flint; Baltimore; Newark, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; and other cities.

The failure to take such steps will leave more communities at risk of widespread water contamination, which can have lasting health effects. It also can erode community trust in the quality of tap water and the government agencies charged with protecting it.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is working to address both issues in our hometown of Flint. Among the projects we’ve supported to help Flint recover from the water crisis is the McKenzie Patrice Croom Flint Community Lab. It will provide independent, accurate information on water quality to help restore community trust.

Everyone needs access to safe, affordable drinking water, but we also need to keep utilities financially healthy. Increasing government funding for water infrastructure projects could help us achieve both. It also would create jobs, bolster the economy and strengthen communities.

Modernizing infrastructure and ensuring universal access to safe, affordable water is a huge and costly undertaking. But America can do great things when its people unite behind a common goal. Let’s get to work, together, on building an America that’s better for everyone.