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 yesterday 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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By Zachary Shepherd and Kelsey Paulus for Kent State News Lab.
Broadcast version by Nadia Ramlagan reporting for the Kent State-Ohio News Connection Collaboration.
In summer 2022, Garrett, Jenny and their young daughter Katie Betts had no potable water in their home in Vinton County, Ohio. The Betts family's house was on the community water line, but they lived about 250 feet up a hill, which is too far for the system's pumps to successfully push the water.
So several times a week, they made a two-hour-long trip to a local water pump to fill the tank in their trunk, which they used to fill a larger, underground storage tank. They've hauled water for more than a decade.
They're far from the only Ohioans struggling to get clean, potable drinking water, says Terri Fetherolf, who runs the department of development in Vinton County. "Some people have to ration water, have to go elsewhere to get water," Fetherolf said. "They haul it in tanks in the back of their pickup trucks and use [it] out of a 300-gallon tank. Depending on the size of their family, it may last them a few days or a week, and then they have to go haul it again."
Fetherolf said approximately 1,700 of about 5,000 households in Vinton County depend on wells or water from elsewhere for basic household tasks.
Getting water to Appalachian communities is challenging and expensive, said Joe Pheil, the executive director at the Ohio Rural Water Association. Residents are spread out in small communities among the hills and it's difficult to pump water up and down. The reason these people and communities are left without reliable drinking water? The cost.
"I've been to pretty large systems over on the western side of Ohio, where everything's really flat ... The whole system has one pressure [zone]," Pheil said. "I've been to other systems down in the Appalachian area that have 19 different pressure zones in order to pump through the hilly terrain."
Water providers "would love for everybody to have access to water," Pheil said, but the logistical challenges would probably lead to high water bills that aren't affordable for the average household. The median household income in Vinton County was about $45,000 in 2020, compared to about $58,000 statewide.
"They're having a hard time maintaining the infrastructure in those communities because the costs are going up," Pheil said. "The residents in those communities can't afford to pay more money." There's one other option - where the federal and state governments step in with funding for water infrastructure, he said.
Since 1987, the Ohio EPA has offered low or zero-interest loans to community water systems to help fund the development of drinking water infrastructure. The state spent $250 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects.
But broadly speaking, Pheil said it can be hard to drum up support for grants like this since it can seem like a lot of money for infrastructure that helps relatively few people.
In the meantime, people haul water. The Betts family used a water tank, held down on their flatbed trailer with parallel winch straps. Their storage tank, located on a short but steep gravel drive behind their house, has seen its fair share of problems. They were once left without water during winter for a month.
"It was the middle of winter and I ran out," Garrett said in 2022. "While I was trying to reprime the pump, my line ended up freezing right at the tank." After that winter, Garrett buried the tank underground and hasn't had any issues since, except a few times when the water tank emptied. In those situations, he has to reprime the pump, which takes a few hours.
By summer 2022, hauling water had become a normal part of everyday life, so much so they find themselves not having to keep track of the amount in the tank. Garrett said he typically hauls two to three loads of water every Saturday, which lasts the family a week.
"It's so close, yet so far" to the community water system down the hill in MacArthur, Garrett said. "They talked about [needing] a pump station or a water tower, and we've already offered to donate property to help with that."
In August, Ohio announced a $799,000 grant to connect 52 households in Garrett Ridge, a region of Vinton County near MacArthur, to drinking water. The project aims to extend Jackson County Water Company's service lines into Garrett Ridge.
Keith Solomon, deputy manager of Jackson County Water Company, said this grant money is reserved for the engineering and designing of the project, and any remaining funds afterward will be reserved for the actual construction of the project if it moves forward.
"When the engineering and design work is completed we will be able to present a complete project to the funding agencies," Solomon said via email. "This is a step in the right direction." The Bettses are holding off on making any permanent, expensive changes to their water system in the hopes these grants will soon lead to potable water in their homes.
Garrett said he heard about efforts to fix local water infrastructure over the years - but he's "not going to believe it until it's running through my faucet."
Zachary Shepherd and Kelsey Paulus wrote this article for Kent State News Lab. This collaboration is produced in association with Media in the Public Interest and funded in part by the George Gund Foundation.
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The annual cleaning of acequias in northern New Mexico gets underway in earnest next week, just as a filmmaker debuts a documentary about their past, present and future.
Arcie Chapa, manager, Multi-Media Services, University of New Mexico Center for Regional Studies and a filmmaker, has created the hour-long documentary: "Acequias: The Legacy Lives On." She said the hand-built irrigation ditches have enriched the Land of Enchantment since 16th-century Spanish settlers arrived, with many established by the Pueblo Tribes long before. While some stretches are drying up, prompting fears of their extinction, Chapa believes unified communities can help protect the waterways for future generations.
"My dream is that this film somehow brings communities together - because climate change, if we don't start now, climate change is going to force us to become more mutualistic," she said.
The Taos Valley Acequia Association has multiple events starting this Friday in which farmers and volunteers will conduct spring cleaning prior to water being released. Two free screenings of the documentary will be held at Santa Fe's Jean Cocteau theater today and tomorrow (3/21 and 3/22) with additional screenings in Albuquerque next month.
Chapa believes it has been standing-room only for early showings of the documentary because people are hungry to learn more about the acequias and their self-governed history.
"If you are part of an acequia, you have to be a part of that community whether you like each other or not. When it's cleaning day, you go out and clean it. You go out and take care of your section of the acequia that runs through your property," she said.
Most of New Mexico's acequias are concentrated in the upper valleys around smaller rivers and watersheds but some stem from larger rivers, not only providing water for agriculture but also miles of adjacent recreational trails. Chapa hopes the film serves as an inspiration to people to keep them flowing.
"If there's water in the San Luis Mountains at the headwaters of the Rio Grande, then there will be water in the acequias, so we need to protect this infrastructure. It's like one of the people said, 'It's the most important infrastructure that we have in New Mexico,' " she said.
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Groups advocating for clean water in Arizona are applauding an Environmental Protection Agency plan to limit toxic per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS in drinking water.
The agency said its proposal will prevent thousands of deaths, as well as serious health impacts.
John Rumpler, senior clean water director for the group Environment Arizona, called the proposal a "crucial step" to begin the process of cleaning up the nation's drinking water and preventing further contamination.
He added PFAS chemicals are used in various industry and consumer products and said the country should not be trading "convenience for cancer."
"There are safer alternatives and that's really where the solution needs to go," Rumpler contended. "Not just setting these limits on these chemicals in our drinking water, but getting to the root cause of the problem, which is the ubiquitous use of these toxic chemicals in the first place."
The proposal would require public water systems to monitor the levels of six kinds of PFAS. Rumpler noted the aim is to protect drinking water from all of them, but the EPA is acting on the science to limit two of the chemicals at four nanograms per liter of water, and regulate the combined amount of the other four.
Rumpler stressed setting a strong, health-based limit on these chemicals will also send a message to chemical manufacturers and users to move to safer alternatives. He added last year, 3M announced it is moving away from using and producing the so-called "forever chemicals," and suggested other companies follow suit.
Rumpler acknowledged some states have or are considering laws to limit PFAS in water, but thinks more national leadership is needed.
"We saw it under President Biden's leadership with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, $9 billion going to help communities," Rumpler pointed out. "But of course, this step that we just saw this week is the critical other half of that puzzle."
The EPA will hold a public hearing on the proposal May 4. Registration is required and the last day to do so is April 28. The agency expects to finalize its plan by the end of this year. Water utilities would then have three years to comply.
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