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1st Friday Focus On The Environment: Prioritizing Water Access And Affordability In Govt. Budgets

Mary Grant
Food & Water Watch

October 1st kicks off a new fiscal year for both the state and federal governments. As with any new budget, there are many concerns. Among them is access affordability of clean and safe water. Mary Grant is the Public Water for All campaign director for Food and Water Watch. She addresses the issues with WEMU's David Fair and Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak.

Lisa Wozniak
Credit Michigan League of Conservation Voters / michiganlcv.org
Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a Bachelors Degree and two ensuing Masters Degrees in Social Work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU's '1st Friday Focus on the Environment.'


Food and Water Watch

Food and Water Watch - Clean Water

Mary Grant

American Rescue Plan

Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability (WATER) Act of 2017


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU and I'm David Fair, and I'd like to welcome you to the October edition of First Friday Focus on the Environment. On the first Friday of each month, we spend time with Lisa Wozniak and a special guest. Now, Lisa is the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And, Lisa, it's always good to have you join me. 

Lisa Wozniak: Thank you, David. And it's always a pleasure to be here. Today, we get to talk budget priorities at the state level and what may come as more and more federal dollars seem to be rolling into Michigan from Washington, D.C., and our particular focus is on water. 

David Fair: And with that in mind, our guest today is Mary Grant. Mary is Public Water for All campaign director for Food and Water Watch. Food and Water Watch is a Washington, D.C. based nongovernmental organization focused on corporate and government accountability relating to food, water, and corporate overreach. And welcome to the show, Mary. We appreciate the time. 

Mary Grant: Oh, thank you for having me. 

Lisa Wozniak: Mary, I know that you're not scrutinizing state budgets as I am, but I do see some wins when it comes to water priorities in the new Michigan budget. And a number of things stood out to me like fourteen point three dollars for high water infrastructure and climate resiliency for local governments, 25 million dollars for cleanup in the western Lake Erie Basin, ten million dollars to start replacing lead service lines and doing emergency response in cities like Benton Harbor. But I didn't see things that were specifically tied to water affordability. Mary, your thoughts on state investments in water.

Mary Grant: Sure. This is a great time to talk about water investments. Right now at the congressional level, there is an infrastructure bill moving. There's a lot of money out there that might be coming toward states. So, it's a good time for states to prioritize funding, water infrastructure, and water affordability for people. The federal government has already appropriated or spent one point one billion dollars to a new low-income water assistance program. This is the first time ever the federal government has spent funding for low-income water assistance. So, it's surprising that the state hasn't identified how to spend that money yet. What we're calling for is a lot of states to use that funding to help wipe away household water debts. People have accrued water debts under a statewide moratorium. I know Michigan's expired in March. So, folks have a lot of debt on their books, and a lot of utilities have a lot of debt. So, wipe away that debt, but also add some strings. Unfortunately, the federal dollars don't have strings attached for utilities. So, we also want shut-off protections still in place. I mean, it's clear across the country that what the new Delta wave that the pandemic is not over, and people still need to have water to wash their hands. We actually recently worked on a study with Cornell University that was just published last week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Water shut-off moratoria, like Michigan had, helped prevent COVID deaths and infections. We have the science to back that up. Right now is a crucial moment for the state to spend money to provide the support the households need to keep the water flowing. 

David Fair: As we assess where we are when it comes to accessibility and affordability, it's not just a huge issue in Michigan, but it is around the country as well. In your studies, where does Michigan stand as compared to the rest of the nation? 

Mary Grant: We did a shutoff study, the first one nationally, looking at water shutoffs across the country. We found that water shutoffs disproportionately occur in majority Black cities. They also disproportionately occur in the South and the Midwest. So, states like Michigan had higher rates of water shutoff. But for water affordability, there's not a lot of information out there nationally. We don't have a lot of good information about water prices across the country. But there was a good study that came out of Michigan State University. There's a lot of research from Michigan about water. 

David Fair: We have to.

Mary Grant: Most of the research we reference, it's Michigan State. So, Michigan State University researchers looked at water affordability nationally, and it found that as many as one in three households could be unable to afford their water bills this year. 

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. My co-host is Lisa Wozniak, and we were talking with Mary Grant. Mary is Public Water for All campaign director for Food and Water Watch.

Lisa Wozniak: Mary, I know the reference you're making to MSU and the professor, Jan Beecher, I think is one of the primary authors of some of those studies. And just to make sure we're clear, the state Legislature has not yet allocated the American Rescue Plan dollars. So, we have a lot more that the Legislature needs to do. And as we think about cities across our state that rely on municipal water systems, as we've seen in Flint and as we're experiencing in Benton Harbor, these systems can't always be trusted to provide safe drinking water. And these are, as you have already pointed out, also low-income areas largely populated by people of color. As we dig into the American Rescue Plan dollars and the dollars that will then be coming, in addition from Washington, D.C. What would you suggest that Michigan do to begin addressing the inequities and injustices we see in access and affordability? 

Mary Grant: I think a key piece needs to be that funding and support needs to be prioritized first to disadvantaged communities. Communities most in need, most out of compliance with water quality regulations, should be receiving assistance first. It seems kind of common sense, but there was a study recently that found that states aren't always doing that, particularly not to small systems and disadvantaged systems aren't being able to access what's known as the state revolving loan program dollars easily. So, making sure that low-income communities and disadvantaged communities can access that funding, that it's prioritized to them first, and that there's more grant assistance. A lot of the federal support that's coming in, it's going to be loans. What communities really need is grants. 

David Fair: When we have these conversations about accessibility, affordability, at the center of it is whether or not water should be considered a right or a privilege. Where does Food and Water Watch land in that debate?

Mary Grant: Access to water is a basic human right. Access to sanitation is a basic human right. The United Nations has recognized this. It's in everyone's interest for people in your community to have access to running water. It's about flushing toilets, washing your hands, keeping yourself safe, keeping your kids safe. So, I think it's a basic human right. Everyone deserves access to safe water and sanitation. 

Lisa Wozniak: Mary, one of the things I'm very aware of because I work in the space of water and energy, is that there is not the kind of oversight in the water arena that there is in the energy sector. Here in Michigan, we have the Michigan Public Service Commission, which oversees and holds accountable our public electric utilities. There's no equivalent in the water utility world, at least not here in Michigan. And so, from your perspective, what needs to be done to create more uniform and standard oversight to ensure the health and safety of water for everybody? 

Mary Grant: Sure. So, the water systems are all regulated at the federal level for water quality and at the state level, they're regulated for water quality. Every water system is regulated for water quality. What's not regulated in Michigan, in particular, are water rates. Often, state regulation and these regulatory agencies come into effect for an investor-owned or privately-owned systems to try to replace some of that ballot box accountability you have over local governments who set rates. For investor-owned utilities, you don't have access to the boardrooms where decisions are being made. You don't have any choice, of course, and who your water provider is. So, there is no, like, market for water prices or where you get your water. That's why there is usually regulatory oversight of your water prices. Michigan is an outlier in that you don't have that state regulation of your privately-owned water system. There's only a tiny portion of the state that has privately owned water. I think American Water is serves about 10,000 homes in the state or 10,000 people in the state. So, it's only a small portion of the state. But still, there's no regulatory oversight of the prices that they charge. 

David Fair: Once again, you're listening to WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment with my co-host, Lisa Wozniak and our guest, Mary Grant, who is Public Water for All campaign director for Food and Water Watch. 

Lisa Wozniak: When we consider the infrastructure needs here in Michigan and around the country, we're starting to see a serious investment. But added up, it's simply and, pun intended, a drop in the bucket to what's needed. And as I think about my kids and kids all over the country, this is a major investment arena. What are you recommending that we do both in the here and now and in the long term to take care of our water and make sure it's accessible and affordable? 

Mary Grant: That's a great question. And I just saw a journal article that came out this week in the American Journal of Pediatrics. They found that more than half of young children have detectable levels of lead in their blood. A huge environmental justice victory happened earlier this year when President Biden promised to replace and eliminate all lead service lines. Unfortunately, the bipartisan compromise bill only provided a third of the funding that was promised--only 15 billion dollars. And we need 45 billion or even 60 billion dollars, to eliminate all that service line. So, especially as we're thinking about the health of our children, eliminating lead in the water is critically important and also to fully fund our water system. That's why Food and Water Watch is very supportive of federal legislation called the WATER Act. The Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act, introduced by Michigan Representative Brenda Lawrence in the House, along with Ro Khanna and Senator Sanders. And the Senate has more than 90 co-sponsors right now, and it would fully fund our water infrastructure. The U.S. EPA says we need to spend more than 35 billion dollars each and every year just to comply with existing standards. The WATER Act would meet that need. It would fully fund our water system, prioritizing funding first to disadvantaged communities in the form of grants.

David Fair: So, that stands as a proposal. And, Mary, it has been said, show me your budget and I'll show you what you value. So, based on current spending and what has already been passed, where does safe, healthy, accessible, and affordable water stand in our nation's values? 

Mary Grant: It stands pretty far off. Water is too often the first thing on the chopping block during federal budget battles. I think that, as a sense of the value of our country, that we need to prioritize water more, prioritize the health and the safety of our children more. 

David Fair: Mary, thank you so much for the time and for the insights today. I do appreciate it. 

Mary Grant: Thank you so much for having me. 

David Fair: That is Mary Grant from the Food and Water Watches Public Water for All campaign. Lisa Wozniak is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, and she serves as my co-host for WEMU's First Friday Focus on the Environment. I'm David Fair, and this is 891 WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti. Your community NPR station. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
Lisa Wozniak is Executive Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
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