Low-income households in Detroit spend at least a quarter of their disposable incomes on water and sewer bills, putting the city’s poorest residents among the hardest hit by rising water costs in Michigan, a team of analysts revealed in a report released Thursday.
Compared with other household costs, water and sewer bills have skyrocketed since the mid-1980s, rising twice as fast as wages for low-income workers and faster than any other basic need except health care, they found. Water costs doubled in Michigan and roughly tripled in Flint and Detroit between 1980 and 2018 when costs are adjusted for inflation.
“If we continue on this trajectory, more people are going to have challenges affording their water and more communities are going to run into problems,” said Jennifer Read, director of the University of Michigan Water Center.
Read was the lead author of Thursday’s study, “Water Service Affordability in Michigan: A Statewide Assessment,” conducted by analysts from the Water Center, Michigan State University Extension and Safe Water Engineering, a Metro Detroit-based drinking water consulting firm.
Analysts reviewed public Census data and conducted interviews with water utility employees, state workers and people in communities hit hard by unaffordable bills to understand the current state of water affordability in Michigan. They found unaffordable water rates to be “a widespread and growing problem across Michigan.”
A number of issues converged to create the affordability problem, said Elin Betanzo, Safe Water Engineering founder and study co-author.
Federal spending on infrastructure dropped after the 1970s, she said, when many of the country’s water systems were new and did not require much maintenance. Federal and state investment didn’t match rising maintenance costs over time, putting more pressure on utilities to rely on customer payments and leading some to do without money for planning, renovations or updates, Betanzo said.
Utilities also are grappling with the prospect of detecting and mitigating emerging contaminants, like per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a family of man-made chemicals that don’t break down in the environment.
“All of those things are coming together to create this really harmful situation,” Betanzo said.
Analysts developed a slate of policy recommendations they said could limit burdensome water costs and improve service.
Among their recommendations: Permanently prohibit water shutoffs for poor households.
Michigan communities were ordered to stop water shutoffs when the coronavirus pandemic hit last year. Detroit — where years ago the water department conducted a controversial shutoff campaign amid its financial crisis — will continue its moratorium through 2022.
A shutoff can be the last straw for families facing expenses they can’t afford, creating problems ranging from stress to poor hygiene to lost parental rights, Read said.
As well as banning shutoffs, analysts recommended utilities and state policymakers find ways to help households struggling to pay for water services, including forgiving existing debts, discounting services or providing well and septic system repair grants to needy families.
They also recommended:
— Addressing gaps in technical and financial capacity among Michigan water and sewer utilities by providing funding and expertise to cash-strapped utilities.
— Improving data collection by requiring Michigan utilities to report on their finances, infrastructure and maintenance plans.
— Requiring utilities to seek input from the communities they serve before making infrastructure and planning decisions.
— Have the state take a larger role in utility oversight to ensure public health protection, water quality and appropriate water rates.
While water affordability is an acute problem in Detroit and other Michigan cities, it is not solely an urban problem, the analysts cautioned. Low-income residents of the Thumb spend 20-25% of their incomes on water and sewer bills; low-income residents in portions of central Michigan and the western Upper Peninsula spend 15-20%.
Michigan residents who have private water supplies, such as septic systems and wells, also face challenges. Analysts found about 20% of wells and 27% of septic systems in Michigan are in need of repair and replacement.
“These issues are not just experienced in vulnerable households in Flint, Detroit or Benton Harbor, they are also experienced in economically challenged parts of rural Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, including households on private wells, septic systems and those in mobile homes,” said Ritchie Harrison, an extension specialist at MSU Extension’s Community, Food and Environment Institute and study co-author. “It is important to recognize the similarities in these economic challenges and how they impact communities across the state.”