Gov. Gretchen Whitmer took action Wednesday to extend water reconnections for Michiganders at least through the end of the year, while simultaneously urging lawmakers to hold water utilities accountable to the state.
Executive Order 2020-144 extends protections that Whitmer originally put in place in late March. Those provide support for residents facing water shutoffs due to nonpayment during the state’s COVID-19 outbreak, as access to clean water is especially crucial during a pandemic that necessitates handwashing to stay healthy.
Those protections had been slated to last until the end of the virus outbreak. As of Wednesday, it appears that Whitmer expects that to continue at least until Dec. 31.
“As Michigan families grapple with the impacts of COVID-19 on public health and our economy, our administration is taking proactive steps to ensure that no one has to worry about having access to clean drinking water or losing power during this unprecedented crisis,” Whitmer said in a statement.
“Extending these protections is the right thing to do, and I remain committed to working with the legislature and our partners in the federal government to develop long-term policy solutions to make water affordable for every family in Michigan.”
According to Whitmer’s statement, 2,477 Michigan residents have gotten their water services restored since March under the state’s Restart Grant Program.
As for how many Michiganders still remain without access to clean water, however, the state’s uniquely deregulated water sector makes it virtually impossible to know, as the Michigan Advance first reported.
Michigan’s water utilities have been untouched by economic regulation since the mid-1990s — meaning that utilities are not required to report data to the state, like how many residents have been shut off due to nonpayment and how many have been reconnected.
Despite Whitmer’s orders, any information the water utilities provide to the state is on a voluntary basis. The burden remains on residents themselves to ensure their water provider is cooperating.
With this in mind, Whitmer urged the state Legislature on Wednesday to pass legislation that would establish a reporting process for water utilities. In addition to ensuring rate transparency, it would provide a baseline for how many Michiganders are with and without access to water for the first time in 25 years.
Several lawmakers and environmental groups applauded Whitmer’s action Wednesday.
Mary Brady-Enerson, Michigan Director of Clean Water Action, said the order “is absolutely necessary to ensure that Michigan residents have access to safe, clean, affordable water for drinking and hygiene.”
“Michigan’s water affordability problems did not begin with this pandemic, and they won’t end without further action to prohibit the practice of shutting off water for nonpayment,” Brady-Enerson said.
State Sen. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) pointed out that COVID-19 and water shutoffs have disproportionately affected people of color in Michigan.
“Black and Brown families in Southeast Michigan have struggled the most because of this virus, but thanks to Gov. Whitmer’s tireless leadership, nearly 2,500 residents have had their water restored during the pandemic. It is my hope this order will allow many more families to have their water restored for sanitation purposes. As we know, hand washing is one of the best things we can do to protect ourselves from COVID-19 and other illnesses,” Hollier said.
Hollier added that while the EO is a “great start,” he welcomes the help of other state lawmakers to legislatively strengthen residents’ access to clean water.
Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said Whitmer’s order “ensures all Michiganders, especially those in our communities of color, have access to water during this incredibly challenging pandemic — which we will never contain if thousands of households don’t even have water to wash their hands.
“There is still much work to be done federally and in the Michigan Legislature to ensure we have a permanent fix for turning the water on, keeping it on and making it affordable for all,” Wozniak said.
Whitmer also called on Congress to pass the HEROES Act, which would provide $1.5 billion to assist low income consumers and other vulnerable populations to deal with drinking water and wastewater expenses.