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Opinion: Water access urgent in Detroit during outbreak

Elin Betanzo and Sylvia Orduño

You can’t wash your hands if your water has been shut off. Detroiters who have been fighting for a moratorium on water shutoffs for years finally received good news when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced a plan to stop shutoffs and directed the City of Detroit to reconnect water service for all residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While over 350 US cities and states have pledged to stop new shutoffs nationwide, far fewer have committed to restoring water service. But announcing that water restorations are available does not mean the public health crisis has been fixed. Thousands of affected residents in Detroit and across the country need emergency water today.

The promise of water shutoffs has always been that you will get your water back on when you pay your bill. But when days turn into months and then years without water service, it’s not so simple.

Long-term shutoffs cause water quality problems in household plumbing. Water sitting for long periods in pipes and hot water tanks grows bacteria. Pipes freeze, pipes break, pipes fail. Stagnant water and air in unused plumbing corrode the pipe surfaces, allowing lead and other metals to dissolve and flake into the water. Lead pipe surfaces will leach lead until regular water use allows corrosion control treatment to start working again. Each house faces different risks: different materials, ages, conditions and duration of shutoff.  

Every home with an extended shutoff is like its own Flint water crisis waiting to happen.

Water restorations require plumbing repairs, new meters, a thorough regimen of flushing, hot water tank service, aerator cleaning and filter installation. Even with extensive restoration assistance, the water won’t always be safe to drink right out of the tap. Even if every Detroiter without water won the lottery today, the magnified water quality risks after restoration will continue to punish them for not being able to afford their water bills in the past. 

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan speaks during a press conference at the Water and Sewerage department, March 8, 2020. Duggan announced an affordable program to keep residents’ water turned on during the corona virus outbreak.

The urgency of getting water to these homes cannot be exaggerated. Although Detroit recognizes around 2,800 shutoffs within the last year that require water restoration, activists estimate there are closer to 9,500 affected homes when long-term shutoffs are included. As of March 23, Detroit had restored water service at 679 homes. It will take months to get the water back on at this pace, but this public health crisis demands immediate emergency water at every occupied home. This problem is not limited to Detroit by any means. There may be as many as 5,000 such homes in Flint, and every day more communities are announcing shutoff moratoriums and water restorations.

When the water cannot be restored quickly and safely, the emergency solution is public water stations and delivery. Affected residents need cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer and bulk water right now until their household water is back up and functional. Unfortunately, Michigan knows how to roll out emergency water delivery to a city in a crisis.

Turning the water on requires much more than the turn of a valve. Announcements of water restorations are meaningless if the necessary resources are not provided. This pandemic demonstrates that water shutoffs create a health risk for the affected households and the entire community.

Our pandemic response means nothing if thousands of people cannot wash their hands. It is time to provide emergency water and turn the water back on with the same urgency we are calling for COVID-19 testing and economic relief. We need to mobilize the professionals and community support to do it safely. And we need a national water affordability plan to prevent this from happening again.

Elin Betanzo is a national drinking water expert and former EPA Office of Water engineer who helped uncover the Flint water crisis. 

Sylvia Orduño is a national water and sanitation rights activist, community organizer with Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and People’s Water Board and co-chair of the EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.