Opinion: Whitmer’s 'below surface' infrastructure plan will pay off

Bonnifer Ballard
A worker from Lang Construction wrenches fittings in place for new copper pipe as they replace water lines on Arlene Street in Flint.

Just as good roads are crucial to Michigan’s economy, the invisible infrastructure that delivers water to residents and businesses is also vital, so it’s encouraging to hear our new governor pledge to make improvements in that sector as well.

While fixing the state’s roads has dominated most of the infrastructure discussions, ensuring the ongoing delivery of safe, clean water to homes and businesses not only impacts the economy, but the health of every Michigan resident and their quality of life.

The condition of Michigan’s roads and bridges has made headlines for years, while just below their surface, mostly unseen, our water and sewer infrastructure is quietly deteriorating. Our underground systems of mains, pipes and valves often exceed their expected life spans. Some systems are 50 to 100 years old and are being asked to continue to function without necessary upgrades and maintenance.

When water mains break, communities suffer while repairs are made.

The 21st Century Infrastructure Commission made good headway in identifying and prioritizing Michigan’s water system, road, bridge and other infrastructure needs. Now attention must turn to addressing those long-neglected upgrades before repair costs go ever higher as conditions continue to worsen.

More than 7.2 million Michigan residents get their water from the state’s lakes, rivers and aquifers that about 1,425 community water systems draw from. Customers in the Metro Detroit area pay, on average, slightly more than $1 a day for water services. While that may seem reasonable, it’s a fee structure that doesn’t support the long-term viability of our water systems.

Aging infrastructure and years of deferred maintenance is catching up, and the cost of inaction could be severe. It’s time for the state and federal government to step up and increase funding for the most basic and important commodity we use – clean, safe water.

Gov. Whitmer’s Rebuild Michigan Plan acknowledges that the state has underfunded its water and sewer systems by $800 million a year. She is calling for money to clean up contaminated groundwater, expedite replacement of old lead water lines in cities across the state and improve water delivery and sewer systems through a beefed-up Rebuild Michigan Bank.

Such investment would help avoid costly disruptions in service and ensure municipal water systems can deliver water as cost-efficiently as possible. From hotels to hospitals, shopping centers to schools, and restaurants to recreational facilities – the entire community is dependent on reliable water service. But we can no longer afford to take it for granted.

Our Great Lakes State is surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. It ought to lead the way to protect and deliver clean, safe water. We hope Gov. Whitmer and the new Legislature can agree on solutions to make Michigan that leader.

Bonnifer Ballard is executive director of Michigan Section/American Water Works Association,