Residential water rates in Michigan are soaring, with an estimated one out of ten households without access to or unable to afford clean water.
A coalition of activists and conservation groups is proposing that state officials adopt a water-affordability strategy that supports low-income Michiganders and does not harm residents who can afford their utilities.
An analysis released Wednesday finds that high water rates force many families to live in unsafe conditions, putting elders and children at risk.
Mike Shriberg — executive director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes Regional Center, one of the study's sponsors — said that with the right plan, the problem is solvable.
"We can make water affordable," said Shriberg. "And by affordable, what we mean is no more than 2% of household income going towards water without impacting the rates of others. Because right now, we have a system that doesn't make a lot of sense."
Other sponsors of the study include We The People of Detroit and Freshwater Future. The study examined the impact of water rates on low-income households in six Michigan communities.
It found some families paying 20% or more of their income for water.
The study proposes reducing disadvantaged homes' bills to the 2% threshold while utilizing cost-reduction strategies to reduce overall revenue requirements.
Shriberg said funds from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill could be used to implement the program and upgrade substandard water systems.
"We've got billions of dollars coming in at levels we haven't seen since the '60s and '70s," said Shriberg. "These dollars are desperately needed because our water infrastructure has suffered along with some of the more visible infrastructure suffering that we've seen. It may be less visible, but there's been just as much neglect."
The inflation-adjusted average cost of water across Michigan has increased by 188% since 1980 and up to 320% in individual cities.
Shriberg said that has to change.
"We believe that water is a fundamental human right," said Shriberg. "Access to clean water is a fundamental human right. And if that's so, then no Michigander should be denied that. That's something that you need to codify in the state law to make sure it happens. You can't just rely on the goodwill of a lot of utilities."
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