News collaborative examines the true cost of water in Michigan

A man wearing a bright yellow safety jacket and a hard hat directs heavy machinery being used to excavate dirt around water pipes.
After decades of neglect, communities in Michigan are faced with the huge task and expense of modernizing critical infrastructure. Photo: J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

Communities across Michigan are facing water crises, but the overriding issue isn’t a lack of water — it’s the long-term neglect of infrastructure that delivers water to homes and businesses across the Great Lakes state.

That was one of the main lessons from a 10-part series of news articles called “Water’s True Cost.” The series was produced by the Great Lakes News Collaborative, which includes Detroit Public Television, Bridge Michigan, Michigan Radio and Circle of Blue. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation provides grant funding to the media outlets, which maintain their editorial independence.

A side profile portrait of a mature Black woman wearing a head wrap and glasses looks at the camera.
Cecily McClellan, co-founder of We the People of Detroit, was featured in a Great Lakes News Collaborative series about the cost of water in Michigan. Photo: Courtesy of J. Carl Ganter / Circle of Blue

The series examined the causes of Michigan’s burgeoning water crises and explored practical solutions. It was published online and broadcast on public radio and television stations across Michigan.

“We couldn’t be in a more important moment to be talking about water,” said J. Carl Ganter, executive director of Circle of Blue. “Michigan faces big challenges, and it’s a bellwether for how other states and nations manage their own water crises, and there are many.”

Communities across Michigan rely on aging networks of water mains, pumps and treatment systems that were built decades ago, and some are on the verge of failing. Upgrading that equipment to meet the current needs of communities is a costly proposition — one that has implications for government budgets, household finances and public health.

Although the series focused on Michigan communities, failing water infrastructure is a national problem, said Natasha Blakely, news director at Detroit Public Television. “A lot of older communities across the country are dealing with the same kinds of crumbling infrastructure issues that contributed to Flint’s water crisis,” she said.

A man stands in front of the base of a water storage structure. A pile of pieces of the structure are on the ground behind him.
A crumbling water storage structure in South Haven symbolizes Michigan’s water infrastructure crisis. Photo: Courtesy of Kelly House / Bridge Michigan

The Flint water crisis erupted in 2014 after the city — which was under state control at the time — switched its source of drinking water to the Flint River as part of a cost-cutting measure, but then failed to properly treat the water. That error caused lead, a potent neurotoxin, to leach from aging pipes and into the community’s water supply, causing a public health emergency.

Flint has removed and replaced most of its lead service lines, but many cities across the U.S. still rely on old water mains and lead pipes to deliver drinking water to homes, schools and businesses. All Michigan cities must remove lead service lines by 2045, but few are taking a comprehensive approach to upgrading all water infrastructure, according to reporters who produced the series. They said the reasons vary.

Under-resourced communities often lack the funds needed to upgrade water systems. In more affluent communities, government officials are often reluctant to raise water rates to cover the cost of infrastructure improvements because higher fees are politically unpopular.

State and federal lawmakers recently approved the biggest influx of state and federal funding for water system improvements in a half-century. The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $55 billion for water infrastructure upgrades nationally. Nearly $2 billion of that will be spent on Michigan water systems. While significant, those funds won’t come close to fixing all the problems.

“On one hand, this influx of money is revolutionary compared to where we were, but it’s also a drop in the bucket in comparison to where the experts say we need to be from a funding perspective,” said Kelly House, a reporter for Bridge Michigan.

Michigan needs to spend an additional $800 million annually to cover the cost of all water infrastructure improvements, according to government estimates. Nationally, the 50 states collectively need to spend an additional $82 billion annually to update water infrastructure.

On one hand, this influx of money is revolutionary compared to where we were, but it’s also a drop in the bucket in comparison to where the experts say we need to be from a funding perspective.”
A portrait of Bridge Michigan journalist Kelly House. Kelley House, Bridge Michigan

“Water’s True Cost” has generated discussion among policymakers, the public and other environmental journalists. Ultimately, members of the collaborative hope the series informs policy discussions around rate restructuring, consolidation of services and other initiatives that could bring about better management of water systems.

Increasing awareness of critical water issues was one of Mott’s goals when the Foundation first provided funding for the Great Lakes News Collaborative in 2020, said Kim Gleffe, program officer for the Foundation’s Environment team.

“In the wake of the Flint water crisis, Mott began funding a variety of initiatives that seek to raise awareness of water issues and ensure that all people in the U.S. have access to safe, affordable tap water,” Gleffe said. “The Collaborative’s series highlighted the importance of maintaining high-quality water infrastructure and how we’re all affected by these issues.”

Lester Graham, a reporter at Michigan Radio, said the series also illustrated the strength of the Collaborative’s journalism model. He said sharing the workload and all news content among the four participating media outlets, without having to compete with each other, enables the team of journalists to produce more in-depth stories on complex issues.

“I think the greatest value of the Collaborative is our collective strength,” Graham said. “Put reporters from four different media and backgrounds together, and they can offer input for each story, which makes it stronger.”