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Issues of the Environment: Ongoing work for safe and affordable water in Michigan

University of Michigan Water Center director Jennifer Read
University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute
Jennifer Read, University of Michigan Water Center director


  • As of January 2022, the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a key indicator of inflation, stands at 7% year-on-year. U. S. Consumer prices have risen by the most in nearly 40 years. (Source: https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-consumer-prices-increase-strongly-december-2022-01-12/)
  • The affordability of water and sewer service is a concern across the state of Michigan. Anew report (released, December 2021) funded by The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and including input from researchers at the University of Michigan, Michigan State and consulting firm Safe Water Engineering examined the affordability of water across the state. 
  • The number of Michigan households paying more than 5 percent of income on water and sewer services grew from 1.6 percent of households in 1980 to 6.7 percent in 2018. According to the report water rates have jumped nearly 200% in 40 years. This figure was adjusted for inflation and may be higher in 2022.
  • The sharpest increases were found in high-poverty communities, urban areas, and communities with greater concentrations of minorities. For example, the disparities in Washtenaw County are stark: western and central Washtenaw, including Ann Arbor, spent a very low percentage of household income on sewer and water (0%, according to a map from the report), while residents of Ypsilanti spent 25% or more, and the southeastern end of the county averaged 10-25%, 
  • Circleofblue.org reports that, “Utilities are in a pinch trying to balance needed rate increases with providing affordable service. They are raising rates to maintain their systems and meet regulatory requirements for preventing sewage spills and removing drinking water contaminants like PFAS chemicals. Still they are not planning to spend enough. The report estimates a 20-year funding gap of $19.8 billion. That is the difference between estimated needs and estimated spending. Read said those are conservative estimates, but they do not include anticipated federal funding from the recently passed infrastructure bill.” In addition to needed spending for aging infrastructure and water purity, climate change could drive costs up even further; as the intensity of floods and droughts taxes water systems, more upgrades will become necessary. 
  • The report also noted that an “unaffordable water bill” has not been defined by the legislature and there is no regulatory threshold. Jennifer Read, Water Center Director Michigan Water Center, UM Graham Sustainability Institute, and the lead of this study, points out that utilities are not required to report shut-off data or affordability statistics for the communities they service. The report recommends, “regulatory measures such as prohibiting utilities from turning off water to economically vulnerable households and ordering utilities to report data on water shutoffs and customer debt.” (Source: https://www.circleofblue.org/2021/world/rising-cost-of-water-in-michigan-leads-to-affordability-problems/)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and today we're going to spend some time discussing water access and affordability. I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. Water is something that most of us take for granted, but access and the safety of that water and the issues that play into true availability are complex. We know with certainty being able to afford water is becoming an increasing burden for a growing number of people. Recently, the University of Michigan Water Center partnered with Michigan State University Extension and the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering to research these complexities in a study funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. It all has an eye toward finding the equally complex solutions. Our guest today is director of the Michigan Water Center at the U of M Graham Sustainability Institute, Jennifer Read. Thank you so much for the time.

Jennifer Read: Oh, you're very welcome. It's great to be with you.

David Fair: Now in perusing, did I read correctly that water rates have jumped nearly 200 percent between 1980 and 2018?

Jennifer Read: Yeah, it's been incredible. The changes we've seen. I mean, that's also a long stretch of time. But, yes, rates have gone up sharply across the state, on average across the state. But also we've seen even sharper jumps in some of our older industrial cities, such as Flint and Detroit and Benton Harbor.

David Fair: The prices on everything have gone up over the past four decades. When it comes to water, how much of household income is now going to paying for water and sewer services?

Jennifer Read: Well, that does vary a bit across the state. One of the things that we were looking for were households that were spending more of their disposable income than average. And, in a lot of places, we're seeing the lowest 10 percent of income, or the 90th percentile, spending 25 percent or more of their disposable income. That's income that's after they've spent on other necessary expenses, such as housing or food, et cetera.

David Fair: Is it fair to say that for families or individuals living at or near the poverty line, we've about reached the breaking point of affordability?

Jennifer Read: Yeah, in a lot of communities, that is a definitely a fair statement to say. It's very challenging for folks living, you know, check to check, whether it's a paycheck or perhaps state support.

David Fair: We continue our Issues of the Environment conversation with Jen Read on 89 one WEMU. Jen is director of the Water Center at the University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute. Now, Jen, here in Washtenaw County, we often talk about the U.S. 23 divide that separates the more affluent part of the county to the West, including Ann Arbor and the income gap experienced by those living to the east of 23, including Ypsilanti. In your mapping, did you find that the significant imbalance is along those dividing lines?

Jennifer Read: Well, that's a great question. One of the challenges we had was getting it that precise, David, was the data. We accessed lumps and groups together in a little bit larger fashion. But, if folks are looking at the report, you'll notice that the Ann Arbor area, actually for the folks living, again, in the 90th percentile or the lowest 10 percent of income, folks there are spending at least 25 percent of their income--and sometimes more--on their water services in Ypsilanti. So the lowest five percent of households are sorry in Ypsilanti, the lowest 20th.

David Fair: Oh, that's all right.

Jennifer Read: Sorry, I have to do a little thing here, but it's so in Ypsilanti, the lowest 20th percentile income, or poorest fifth of households, are spending about 13 percent, or a little bit more than 13 percent, of their disposable income on water. So, the water costs in Ypsilanti may not be quite as high as they are in Ann Arbor, and, therefore, it's kind of not what you're expecting to find. When we think about the 23 divide, but Ann Arbor is a very expensive community to live in.

David Fair: Now we understand that there are rising labor costs, and most water systems are old and require a lot of expensive maintenance. When we learn about things like lead and PFAS contamination, the expenses of dealing with those issues also cost a lot of money. Will distribution of the moneys included in the federal infrastructure bill help offset some of the burden on those most in need?

Jennifer Read: Well, that's a great question, and we certainly hope that that's the approach that will be taken, and I know there are lots of people who are working really hard to make sure that's the case. I think you raised a really good point, maybe inadvertently. But the point we want to make is that we don't want to say that the rates shouldn't be charged, but in fact, we should be supporting those members of our community who can't afford them. The utilities themselves need the resources to continue to provide the services they've been providing and the issues, such as lead in the water, where we need to change our lead service lines for non-lead lines or PFAS. And we need to treat our water. We shouldn't be hampering our utilities and their ability to do this work.

David Fair: As they continue to do that work and with an expected influx of some money, we still know that these are kind of short term infusions of cash, and that's a short term Band-Aid on the long term gaping wound. As we assess the longer term, what role is and will the climate crisis play in access to safe and affordable water?

Jennifer Read: Wow, that's a great question, David. And not necessarily one that our study focused on, but definitely a concern as we're seeing source water supplies changing the amount and quality of those. That means it's costing more to treat the water that's going into the system. And then we're seeing these storm events that are overburdening our sewer system, which is often a combined sewer system. That's the other side of the drinking water story, right? Having the capacity to take the water coming into your house away. And so, climate is going to have an impact, and it's going to increase the burden. And we need to come up with creative solutions that are affordable and apply across a variety of landscapes in our state and the Great Lakes region.

David Fair: I'm glad you brought up that word "solutions." This is 89 one WEMU's Issues of the Environment. We're talking with Jen Read, the director of the University of Michigan Water Center, and we've highlighted a few of the myriad of complex reasons that water access and affordability continues to be a problem. Jen, how do we navigate the complexities of both short and longer term solutions?

Jennifer Read: Well, well, isn't that the...I don't know what the inflation is.

David Fair: That's the million dollar question, isn't it?

Jennifer Read: Million dollar question. I was going to say $50,000 isn't quite enough anymore. That's just a great question. And, really, our report was designed to kind of show the pots of potential solutions. So, helping households, definitely. And we identified a whole range of different challenges that households face that all need to be addressed, but also ensuring that utilities needs are addressed and those can be financial needs, infrastructure needs, managerial capacities, a whole range. I think the key to all of this is that we need to be developing the solutions that work on the ground for the communities in which they're being deployed. And that means involving the members of the community in conversations early on as well. Sometimes that doesn't happen. You know, the technical experts develop a solution and maybe haven't considered some of the real challenges on the ground in the community that community members can bring to light as well.

David Fair: We talk a lot about communities dealing with these issues on their own. Then we move to the state level and onto the federal level. And there needs to be some agreement on solution at all levels of government. If I were to deign you national water czar today, what steps would you take to alleviate immediate burden and create a long term, workable plan?

Jennifer Read: Well, as national water czar, I--

David Fair: Sounds good doesn't it?

Jennifer Read: Yeah, I like it, although there's a lot of pressure there too. So, definitely we need a lot of technical capacity right down to the local level. And so, to make the resources available to those communities that are most in need, not those communities that are most able to access the resources which often happen, but those communities that are least able to access them. So, making sure there are federal resources to support that. And that includes those communities' long term capacities to plan, to plan their infrastructure renewal process, so that they're charging the rates they need to over time, to renew their assets, and keep rates at a manageable level, as well as a program that actively supports those within our communities, those households, that don't have capacity to pay.

David Fair: I've been having a component of this conversation for quite some time now, and I'm interested in your perspective. Do you view access to safe and affordable water as a right or a privilege?

Jennifer Read: Well, it's a right. I mean, we're all human beings together, and to deny someone access to water because of a perception that they don't deserve it is just an inappropriate way to treat another human being.

David Fair: To get to a policy that acknowledges water as a right, it's a political issue. And do you have a sense that there is enough will to get to that place?

Jennifer Read: I hope there is. It is definitely a political issue, but I think, at the end of the day, one of the things our report found in all the people we talked to from all different perspectives, different sectors, public private utilities, everybody wanted the same thing. I think the challenge is figuring out how to get there, and the thing we wanted was to make sure there was safe and affordable drinking water for all.

David Fair: I would like to thank you for taking the time today and sharing your perspective. I appreciate it.

Jennifer Read: Oh, thank you for inviting me.

David Fair: That is Jennifer Read. And for more information and a link to the full report, the water centered conducted in partnership with MSU Extension and Safe Water Engineering, check out our website at WEMU dot org and we'll get you linked up. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD-1 Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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