Welfare rights groups want transparent, swifter action in water restorations

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Welfare rights groups are calling for transparency and swift action from communities across Michigan working to restore water for residents living without it amid the pandemic. 

Freshwater Future and We The People of Detroit are advocating for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to have the state's new environmental justice council to keep tabs on compliance with an executive order she issued Saturday that requires water to be restored for accounts that have been cut off for nonpayment. They also want a long-term moratorium on shutoffs and an affordability plan.

"We know many municipalities are trying to move forward with turning people's water back on, but it is a difficult process," said Jill Ryan, executive director of Freshwater Future during a teleconference Thursday. Ryan noted some communities don't have good historical records on whose water has been or whose might be turned off. 

Demonstrators hold up a display reading "Water is a Human Right" outside Central United Methodist Church in Detroit on Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. A coalition of groups protesting residential water shutoffs in Detroit came together for the 20-minute action.

"We think water is a human right, it should be on at all times," she said. "... Having municipalities trying to figure out after a pandemic has started how to turn water on and where, is way too late."

Whitmer's order requires public water suppliers to restore service to occupied homes as a way to combat spread of the virus. Confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Michigan climbed to 10,791 on Thursday and there have been 417 deaths.

Public water suppliers that have used shutoffs as a consequence for nonpayment must file a report with the state on their efforts to restore service by April 12. 

In Flint, a city still recovering from the effects of a lead-tainted water crisis, the approach been proactive, said Mayor Sheldon Neeley.

No water has been shutoff since his administration stepped in five months ago. 

On March 12, two weeks before the governor's order, he said, the city had already begun working to restore water accounts that had been turned off before his tenure to offset spread of the disease.

"We can overcome a financial deficit, but we can never overcome a death deficit," Neeley said. "Whatever the financial impact may be, We'll work through it. I just want to preserve life."

So far, Flint has reconnected 150 homes and continues to do connections.

"I am very confident that we are going to come through this successfully as it relates to making sure residents are not in harm's way because they didn't have water," he said. "We're ahead of the curve and moving along quickly."

The 96,000-resident city had 27,997 active residential water accounts as of April 1. 

Neeley said his administration has and will be working on ways, including the potential for a tiered or flat rate system, to ensure water is affordable. 

Whitmer and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan earlier this month unveiled the Water Restart Program, an interim policy to restore water service to Detroit customers at a discounted rate. The city gained national attention in 2014 when about 33,000 homes lost water access over unpaid bills. The crackdown on widespread delinquencies happened during Detroit's financial crisis.

Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department in early March identified several thousand accounts that it believed had been without water for more than a year.

The water department has crews dedicated to restoring service and fixing plumbing, and it hired a firm to knock on doors to distribute fliers to 5,000 more houses that may be occupied and without water service. 

As of Thursday morning, 1,050 houses in the city had water restored, with 50 more in need of plumbing fixes and scheduled to be turned on in the coming days, said Bryan Peckinpaugh, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department spokesman.

"Our Water Restart Plan, including the related restoration work and flushing procedures, meet Governor Whitmer’s order," Peckinpaugh said in an email. 

Detroit Water Department director Gary Brown, in an opinion piece published in The News, said that Detroit-based data collectors Human Fliers visited 9,000 houses where service had once been interrupted to determine if the properties were occupied and without service. 

"So far, they found 68%, nearly 7 in 10, were abandoned or unoccupied houses; 15% were occupied and had water; 12% appeared to have occupants who did not answer the door; and 5% were confirmed to be occupied and living without water," he wrote.

Whitmer's order is effective for the duration of the emergency and does not absolve anyone from responsibility for past-due bills. That's problematic for water advocates.

"We're very concerned that water systems are going to keep sending people bills; people won't be able to afford them because they are losing their jobs and come the end of the emergency, there will be a second crisis of people now having to deal with those bills once again and prompting shutoffs," said Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, on Thursday. 

Added Wendy Johnson, clinical assistant professor of Global Health at the University of Washington: "It’s not enough to just turn on the water for a few months. The water has to be turned on permanently and people's bills have to be forgiven."

In a Friday statement to The News, the governor's office said discussions on water policy will be had when conditions improve.

“Governor Whitmer remains focused on reconnections during COVID-19 and does plan on addressing long term policy issues once this crisis has passed," the statement reads. 

The administration, it adds, "is working closely with local public water supplies to try to ensure they can comply with the order through our Restart Grant Program and other state assistance."

Justin Onwenu, an environmental justice organizer in Detroit for the Sierra Club, is among the members of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice who signed a letter urging Whitmer to put the water order in place. 

The council was established in January as part of Whitmer's overall effort to address ongoing environmental justice issues and build trust in state government and it's ready and willing to head up oversight, he said.

"The reporting requirements (under Whitmer's water restoration order) are strong," he said. "There certainly is a need to make sure things are moving with urgency and transparency."

The governor's office on Friday noted the emergency order mandates reporting is made to the State Emergency Operations Center "to ensure transparency and accountability."