Reps. Tlaib, Dingell press Biden officials to release water aid

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Democratic U.S. Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell are urging the Biden administration to allocate $1 billion in emergency funds for water assistance as pandemic bans on water shutoffs begin to expire across the states. 

The two Michigan congresswomen said they held a call with senior White House officials on Friday, urging them to prioritize getting that aid "out the door" and to boost water infrastructure upgrades more broadly.

Their campaign comes as President Joe Biden this week unveiled his $2 trillion infrastructure and jobs package, which includes money for the replacement of lead water pipes, like those that devastated the community of Flint. Almost all of Flint's lead water service lines have been replaced with mostly federal money.

Detroit protesters have asked government officials to stop future water shutoffs in the city. Mayor Mike Duggan's administration has pledged to ban water shutoffs through the end of 2022.

But Biden's proposal excluded the national moratorium on water shutoffs that Tlaib and Dingell have sought. 

"We want to make sure we are crushing this virus and ensuring no water shutoffs," Tlaib said. "I know the administration wants to make sure people have access to clean water."

She said the White House officials on Friday heard out both her and Dingell — something she said was "very different" than the White House under President Donald Trump.

"I’m hopeful they are listening and understanding that front-line communities like mine are fearful that a large infrastructure bill like this still has them at the back of the line in terms of timeline and what is invested," said Tlaib, a Detroit Democrat.

"I can’t wait another 20 years for my schools to get clean drinking water."

Tlaib described the call as a "really great working meeting." She said the White House officials promised to follow up with the lawmakers on whether a federal moratorium on water shutoffs is possible and what that might look like.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Communities in Michigan were free to resume water shutoffs for non-payment starting Thursday after a statewide moratorium expired March 21; however, Wayne and Oakland counties and several water providers said they won't resume shutoffs anytime soon. Detroit has banned water shutoffs through the end of 2022.

For the last year, Tlaib and Dingell have urged relief for communities struggling with high water bills to prevent shutoffs at a time when hand washing and hygiene is crucial to preventing COVID-19.

They point to Detroit as an example, noting that 112,000 households in the city had their water turned off between 2014 and 2018. When the pandemic began, Detroit estimated there were about 2,800 occupied households with no water service.

Dingell and Tlaib have introduced legislation that would bar water service providers from disconnecting a household’s water services during the COVID health emergency.

"I am focused on, in the very short term, that nobody’s water be turned off. But I also feel very strongly that water is life, and we need to deal with water infrastructure," said Dingell, a Dearborn Democrat.

"Also, cities are worried that, if there is a moratorium, how are they going to pay for it."

The pair heard an update from the White House on the status of millions of dollars in funding for water assistance that they pushed to be included in recent COVID-19 relief packages  — $638 million in December's omnibus and $500 million in last month's stimulus package. 

"It’s been a few months, but funds haven’t been released," Tlaib said. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is going through a "listening process," she said.

The department did not respond to questions Friday but has said it's working to set up a program quickly.

Tlaib urged the Biden administration to make the water assistance program permanent, similar to the federal program that helps eligible low-income households with their heating and cooling energy costs.