How many Michiganders are still without clean water during COVID-19? Not even the state knows.

Complicated reporting system creates barriers for reconnections 

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Updated, 12:23 p.m. 5/22/20

Even when we’re not living through a pandemic, access to clean water can mean the difference between life and death for some of the most vulnerable populations. During the COVID-19 crisis, that access becomes even more vital.

With that in mind, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on March 28 ordered public water utilities to immediately restore service by April 12 for every Michigander whose water has been shut off due to non-payment.

Advocates say that Whitmer’s order was positive, but has significant limitations that lay bare a larger, more systemic problem.

According to the state, more than 1,500 have had their water turned on since then — but how many more still need to be reconnected? The answer to that question is murkier than you may think — and goes back to some big policy changes made in Michigan last century.

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Charlotte Jameson, program director of legislative affairs, drinking water and energy at the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC), says Michigan’s deregulated reporting system makes it almost impossible to know exactly how many residents are still living with their water shut off.

“It’s incredibly difficult to know what is happening at any given water utility because they’re regulated at the local level,” Jameson said.

“So there’s very little access to data, very little transparency in terms of how utilities do rate making, very little transparency into their operations, who they’re shutting off and who they’re not, why they’re shutting people off. We just don’t have that information,” she added.

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have noted that the consequences of those changes still reverberate today, with vulnerable populations including people of color, women, low-income residents and others facing the highest risk of utility shutoffs.

“As millions of people lose their jobs as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, renters are faced with the added threat of being put out of their homes or cut off from access to utilities during a global crisis,” said Sandra Park, senior staff attorney at the ACLU in an April 30 press release. “Evictions and utility shut-offs will disproportionately harm communities of color, and particularly, women of color.”

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25 years, zero state economic regulation

It didn’t always used to be this way.

Prior to 1995, the state’s water utilities were economically regulated under the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), along with electricity and natural gas utilities. 

But legislation passed in that year and signed by Republican former Gov. John Engler separated the water sector out of the MPSC’s jurisdiction, leaving all of Michigan’s almost 1,400 water systems untouched by any kind of economic regulation from the state.

This was part of a national trend of deregulation, according to James Clift, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). Clift says that it may have also been due to some communities having local oversight boards in place that they believed provided sufficient enough oversight.

But the lack of water service regulation in Michigan remains.

Dr. Janice Beecher, a professor and director of Michigan State University’s Institute of Public Utilities, says this is not the norm elsewhere. Michigan is one of only five states (plus the District of Columbia) that does not currently have any economic regulation over its water utilities.

Economic regulatory jurisdiction for the water sector | MSU Institute of Public Utilities

A 2018 policy brief by Beecher, which was prepared for the then-incoming Whitmer administration, explores the ways in which state oversight over water utilities could serve a variety of beneficial purposes to Michiganders.*

Among these are more transparency, better accountability and accuracy in trend reporting, more public confidence in the ratemaking process, reduced opportunities for political corruption and more consistent ratemaking across the state.

There are plenty of potential regulatory models available to choose from, with neighboring Wisconsin’s model as the most aggressive regulation. But Michigan has enacted no such statewide oversight models thus far, leaving the state in a position where even the state government has no way of knowing how many residents are still without water.

Adopting any of the oversight models for the state would require legislation to pass the GOP-led Legislature, which makes it unlikely. Clift notes “there’s nothing on the books right now that authorizes the executive branch to change how we approach water rates.”

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“This hasn’t been an active discussion at this point” on making those changes happen, Clift said, but noted that it could be once the COVID-19 crisis and this week’s flooding disaster in Midland subside.

As much as it is able to, the MEC tracks water supply reports in compliance with Whitmer’s executive order on shutoffs. Out of the 261 jurisdictions identified in MEC’s spreadsheet, including Detroit and Flint, the vast majority do not specify the number of water restorations completed, the number of occupied residences still without water due to non-payment and many other data points.

Yet another hole in the data stems from water utilities not being required to report the number of occupied residences that had their water shut off due to nonpayment before the state of emergency began. This lack of a starting point for jurisdictions makes accurately assessing any kind of progress a near-impossibility.

With access to clean water for handwashing and other essential uses more critical than ever during COVID-19, this lack of transparency on data has become a huge hurdle for advocacy groups and EGLE to hold utilities accountable.

“Having more data to rely on would have been helpful in coordinating the reconnections of water to residences under the governor’s executive order, and provided us with a baseline that we do not have,” said EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid.

“We think it is worth looking at how we might have better and more reliable data once we move past the immediate issues of the COVID-19 emergency. Whether that should be part of changes to the regulatory process is worth examining,” McDiarmid added.

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Jameson said that there’s not a lot more the Whitmer administration can do about this lack of robust reporting. Without a strong regulatory system for public utilities, state officials essentially have their hands tied.

Sean McBrearty, Clean Water Action’s legislative and political director for Michigan, suggests Whitmer should establish an oversight panel to track progress and ensure that water utilities are following the governor’s order. 

This call for an oversight panel made up of residents in impacted communities is echoed by a number of other advocacy groups and legal organizations, including We the People of Detroit and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which all have urged Whitmer to create one for more accountability over the water restoration process.

A physical, mental, emotional and financial strain

Detroit resident Nicole Hill, 47, knows all too well the panic of living without water. On May 12, 2014, Hill dropped her three children off at school and walked into her kitchen to wash dishes.

Nicole Hill

She turned on the faucet. Nothing came out.

Hill had been noticing sharp, unexplained spikes in her water bill for several months prior, but plumbers had assured her there were no leaks or other issues present. So she continued to pay her water bill each month, even as it became increasingly difficult for the college-enrolled single mom to pay the $100, then $200, then $350, then $375 monthly bills.

When no water came out of the kitchen faucet, Hill’s mind first went to the possibility of a water main break in the area. She said this usually happened in her neighborhood once or twice a year without warning.

“I went out at first and asked my neighbors if they were having any issues — and none of them were,” Hill said. “And so then that’s when I’m like, oh my God, something has to be wrong.”

With a call to the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), Hill was horrified to learn that her water had not only been disconnected for lack of payment, but she now owed $3,000 to the water department.

She picked up her youngest daughter from a half-day at school and headed to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in search of answers. But by the time they got to the DHHS office, her water bill had risen again to $5,000.

“It went up $2,000 in less than two hours. So it’s apparent to everyone but DWSD that there was something wrong,” Hill said.

CDC photo by Amanda Mills

She tried to work out a payment plan to pay the bill, but DWSD wouldn’t accept it because so much of the bill was still outstanding. Hill said at this moment, a DHHS worker informed her that having no water at home is grounds for the removal of her children.

Exasperated and now afraid of losing her children, Hill sent her two daughters to stay with her aunt several blocks down the street and sent her son to stay with a neighbor around the corner.

For two months, Hill’s 13-year-old daughter would ride her bike back and forth to deliver water to the house from her aunt, water jugs stuffed into her backpack.

“That’s how we were surviving. We did that for two months before they turned my water back on,” Hill said.

But just months later, Hill found herself once again without water — and this time, she developed bacterial pneumonia in both lungs and wound up in the hospital for two weeks. There, a nurse told her the pneumonia was likely exacerbated by the water shutoff.

“She was like, ‘That’s what’s wrong with you. You haven’t drank any water, you probably haven’t been able to clean properly,’” Hill said.

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Living without running water, Hill says, turns into a constant process of recycling and preserving the water you do have. This means avoiding water evaporation in cooking at all costs, not being able to wash your hands, body or hair properly, and not being able to wash clothes well, if at all.

It also means using straight, undiluted chemical cleansers to wipe down surface areas to avoid cutting them with water — which is generally a health hazard in itself.

Hill began volunteering with the People’s Water Board coalition since her own struggles with water shutoffs in 2014. To this day, she has still not recovered financially. After maxing out her credit cards and filing for bankruptcy just to escape from looming water bills, her low credit score has made it so she can never buy a house or even have a water bill in her name again.

Even still, Hill says she considers herself “one of the lucky ones.”

“In total, my water was off three months altogether between both times. And I’ve met people whose water has been off for five years,” Hill said.

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She and other advocates hope that, in addition to more statewide oversight and transparency in the utility reporting process, the policy of using shutoffs to collect payment in the first place can be discontinued entirely.

Short of that, Hill says a statewide water affordability plan and more enforcement on Whitmer’s executive order are the least Michigan can do for its residents.

“The burden is always put on the tenant or the resident. It’s never put on the people it should be put on,” Hill said.

Relying on residents, not utilities

During the COVID-19 crisis, there’s been an effort to help more Michiganders like Hill.

But with water utilities completely loosened from the grasp of state regulation, the burden of statewide water reconnection efforts is consequently placed on Michiganders themselves.

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Indeed, Whitmer and other state leaders earlier this month encouraged those still without residential water service due to nonpayment to reach out to their local water departments for reconnection.

But having residents reach out to local utilities and try to hold them accountable creates another barrier to access, although it is necessary given the constraints of the current regulatory system.

Some of Michigan’s most vulnerable populations may not even have access to that information, which could result in a situation where some residents who need clean water the most do not receive reconnection because they are not aware of the option.

“It’s particularly attacking low-income poor Black and Brown communities disproportionately,” Hill said.

Regina Strong, EGLE’s environmental justice public advocate, said the department has been trying to help and recently began “circulating information in Spanish and Arabic to reach communities where language may be a barrier to reconnections.”

“We are also continuing our work with front line communities to get the word out,” Strong said.

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Further complicating things, Jameson says, is the discrepancy between what the water utilities are reporting to the state and what residents and activists are seeing on the ground. This is especially true in Detroit.

Data collected by the MEC shows that the DWSD identifies just five occupied homes without water service.

“I’ve heard hundreds more, from people on the ground that still don’t have water,” Jameson said. Part of this problem, she adds, is that many of those homes require a huge amount of plumbing fixtures to even be able to safely transport clean water without leaching chemicals into it.

Monica Lewis-Patrick, president and CEO We The People of Detroit, said residents are doing their part but utilities need to step up.

“While 1,500 Detroit households have had their water access restored, that makes up only 20% of the 9,000 households identified in January without water access,” Lewis-Patrick said, referring to a Bridge report from earlier this year that found about 9,500 homes in Detroit whose water had been shut off due to non-payment.

Hill, who has lived through that experience in Detroit, thinks the real number is even higher.

“There are at least 10,000 people in the city without water right now,” Hill said, citing DWSD’s protocol of only counting “active” resident accounts which leaves out many Detroiters who are also living without water. 

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“If your water has been off for two and a half years, you’re phased out, you’re no longer an active account. … They didn’t even include them in the count at all,” Hill said.

The report from Flint — which is still reeling from the water crisis that started six years ago — is even more vague than Detroit’s and offers no numbers at all. In it, City Administrator Clyde Edwards said that due to the pandemic and staff shortages, Flint “has no practical method of determining which residences, whose water service has been shutoff for non-payment, remain occupied.”

As a result, Edwards says the city is relying solely on public outreach efforts to get residents to request reconnection. And activists and residents remain frustrated by hurdles.

“Right now, in the midst of [COVID-19] there should be no criteria” for getting water services turned back on, Hill said. “It should be: If your water’s off, turn it on. That’s it.

“It shouldn’t matter if you’re on a payment plan, it shouldn’t matter if you’re undocumented, it shouldn’t matter if you’ve been off for several years. You need running water.”