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Whitmer extends water restoration order through Dec. 31 amid pandemic

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is extending protections through the end of the year for vulnerable residents in Michigan who have had water service turned off.

The governor's office on Wednesday announced the continuation of a March order requiring public water suppliers to restore service to occupied homes where it had been disconnected. The order, aimed at helping combat COVID-19, now runs through Dec. 31. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives a COVID-19 update.

“As Michigan families grapple with the impacts of COVID-19 on public health and our economy, our administration is taking proactive steps to ensure that no one has to worry about having access to clean drinking water or losing power during this unprecedented crisis," Whitmer said in a statement.

"Extending these protections is the right thing to do, and I remain committed to working with the legislature and our partners in the federal government to develop long-term policy solutions to make water affordable for every family in Michigan.” 

After Whitmer signed the initial order this spring, the state's Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy worked to create a Restart Grant Program to help cities comply with and pay for water reconnection programs, officials said. 

The effort began with a $500,000 grant to the city of Detroit, the state noted. 

Under the program, 2,477 Michigan residents have had their water restored during the pandemic, including more than 1,200 families in partnership with the city of Detroit.

In Detroit, Whitmer and Mayor Mike Duggan unveiled an interim policy in March to restore service to disconnected Detroit customers at a discounted rate.

The city's water department identified several thousand residential accounts that had been turned off for more than a year and launched an effort to enroll households in the relief plan. 

Detroit gained national attention during its financial crisis in 2014 when the city disconnected about 33,000 homes from water service over unpaid bills. 

Detroit Water Department Director Gary Brown said Wednesday that he's continuing to urge city officials, water advocates and the public to contact the water department if they know of residents who are living in a home without water. 

The extension of Whitmer's order, he said, buys time to come up with a more permanent solution. That's something the department is working with federal and state lobbyists to achieve.

"People are finally starting to realize that water shutoffs are a symptom of poverty. If you don't address that issue, you're not going to fix that problem. We need a permanent fix," he said. "I think we're finally going to get there."

Whitmer last week signed a supplement bill into law that includes $25 million for the Department of Health and Human Services to reimburse water utility providers for  forgiving past-due utility bills and fees incurred by residential water customers during the state of emergency.

The legislation, officials said, also provides a 25% rebate on total water bills for eligible customers while funding lasts. 

U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, said Wednesday she applauds Whitmer's work "to ensure that no Michigan family goes without water service" during the outbreak.

“Handwashing is our first line of defense against the spread of disease, and every person in our state needs access to running water to protect themselves, their families and their communities," Lawrence said. "I will continue to champion policies in Congress that will provide communities with access to safe and affordable water throughout and beyond this pandemic.” 

In Flint, a city still recovering from the effects of a lead-tainted water crisis, Mayor Sheldon Neeley has said the city had began working to restore accounts weeks before the Whitmer's order. 

Neeley has said that his administration had not been turning off delinquent accounts and has been focused on ways to ensure water is affordable. 

“For the health and safety of all, we fully understand the importance of having access to water in your home,” he said. “We commend Gov. Whitmer and we are fully supportive of these efforts. The city of Flint will continue to be a partner working for a healthy recovery in the state of Michigan.” 

Moving forward, Whitmer's office said she has required that the Legislature pass a law requiring local water utilities to report information to the state to ensure transparency around rates and practices.

She's also calling on Congress to pass the Heroes Act, which would provide $1.5 billion in financial assistance to low-income consumers to help with payments for drinking water and wastewater expenses, and supports work led by the Michigan congressional delegation to make water more accessible and affordable.

The governor's office said she's also working closely with the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice to review policy recommendations on water affordability.

Justin Onwenu, environmental justice organizer in Detroit for the Sierra Club and advisory council member, said people are coming together to make sure water is a human right, and Wednesday's executive order affirms it. 

But a long-term water affordability plan from Lansing still needs to be developed, he said. 

"I'm glad that there's a level of security that residents have now and I'm hopeful that after the pandemic we'll recognize that we can't go back to the way things were before," he said. "I don't think we can fully rest until there's a water affordability plan at the city level and at the state level. That's ultimately what we all need to be striving for."