The conclusion of our three‐​part series looks at the utility cliff looming ahead for many Michiganders and addresses the rising cost of water bills and how to keep residents from falling over the edge.

There’s no denying it. Affordable access to safe, clean running water and energy to keep your home warm is essential to human life. Through our utility cliff series, we have seen a growing number of households struggling to cover basic needs and suffering the effects of service shutoffs. In part one, we examined energy affordability and financial assistance from state and federal sources, finding that these programs largely maintain an inadequate system. In part two, we investigated overdue water bills, finding more questions than answers and zero long‐​term solutions. Our takeaway? The growing water crisis and access to affordable water have pushed Michigan’s residents to the edge of a utility cliff — with no alternative path to safety.

While the novel coronavirus (COVID‐​19) pandemic revealed a significant number of people experiencing water shutoffs nationwide, the City of Detroit — in partnership with the State of Michigan — was the first to respond, announcing early plans to suspend shutoffs and reconnect households that had been previously disconnected. But what if such extraordinary action wasn’t necessary in times of unexpected trouble? What if everyone could afford their water bill and not have to choose between one life‐​sustaining resource and another, like food?

Woman reviewing a bill from her utilities

The growing water crisis

Before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued the moratorium on shutoffs for the remainder of 2020, many Michigan residents were already facing crushing barriers to affordable water. In most cases, these increased rates have been tied to demands on local municipalities to find money for infrastructure upgrades, comply with drinking water safety standards for contaminants — like lead and PFAS — and adapt to extreme weather conditions as a result of climate change. Yet raising consumption‐​based user charges is often financially infeasible for communities with low incomes, placing additional pressure on families whose bills were already unaffordable.

Cre' Baker

“Why should I have to pay for the pipes and things like that when I’m on struggle mode? If you want me to pay for the pipes … then explain it to me in a way that’s attractive to me and not putting me down to size.”

— Cre’ Baker, Detroit resident

Cre' Baker

“Why should I have to pay for the pipes and things like that when I’m on struggle mode? If you want me to pay for the pipes … then explain it to me in a way that’s attractive to me and not putting me down to size.”

— Cre’ Baker, Detroit resident

However, this dilemma cannot be placed entirely at the feet of local entities. Federal investment in water infrastructure has been slashed by 77% in real dollars since its peak in 1977, forcing water utilities to rely on low‐​interest loans from the State or raise their rates — a politically unpopular choice in many communities. But without critical funding, utility companies have deferred maintenance and cleanup projects for years, exacerbating crumbling infrastructure issues that waste resources and erode public health and safety. This makes dramatic rate hikes unavoidable without support from the state or federal government. Cities are forced to borrow money or raise prices in order to deliver safe, clean water to customers. Michigan’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission estimated communities in the state are facing an $800 million gap in water and sewerage needs.

“I was devastated more so than anything. I was like, I can’t believe this. Is it really happening to us?”

— Cre’ Baker

“I was devastated more so than anything. I was like, I can’t believe this. Is it really happening to us?”

— Cre’ Baker

The greatest fallout from this rate increase conundrum is happening in our own towns and neighborhoods. Many Michiganders have already experienced the destructive effects of being unable to afford their water bill. “What if I don’t have the money and my kids suffer?” asked Cre’ Baker when we talked about her water shutoff experience. Due to the pandemic, Baker lost her job and had to prioritize the needs and well‐​being of her children. She described the increasing pressures of being a “positive parent” and ensuring her children’s “success and education” were cared for, so Baker turned to The Heat and Water Fund, a local organization, for assistance.

Watch the interview

Solving for water affordability

While THAW and other organizations provide a crucial safety net for Michigan utility customers in need of energy and water affordability assistance, research demonstrates that this patchwork approach is a frustratingly inadequate fix for a much larger problem. Making progress on this issue requires lawmakers to advance policy solutions that disrupt predictable outcomes of compounding, life‐​threatening problems caused by a household’s inability to pay for a system that isn’t designed to serve them. A system that isn’t serving people like Cre’. A system that isn’t serving people who lose their jobs or who experience an unexpected life event. People like us.

If our drinking water system is not designed to serve everyone, what does a system that is designed to serve everyone look like? While we do not know the answer yet, we do know that to solve for affordable water, we must dare to ask the question.

To our friends at THAW, thank you for being a lifeline to so many, including Cre’ Baker. We support your mission and your dedication to the people you serve. 

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