- The Consumer Price Index (CPI), an important indicator of inflation, is currently at 7% as of January 2022. The U.S. consumer prices have increased by the most in almost 40 years. (Source: https://www.reuters.com/world/us/us-consumer-prices-increase-strongly-december-2022-01-12/)
- Michigan’s affordability of water and sewer services is a concern. There are many ways to help.New report(Released December 20, 211) Funded by The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. With input from researchers at Michigan State University and Safe Water Engineering, the report examined the affordability of water in the state.
- Michigan households now spend more than 5 percent on water and sewer services, up from 1.6% in 1980 to 6.7% in 2018. According to the report, water rates have risen nearly 200% in just 40 years. This figure was adjusted to account for inflation and may rise in 2022.
- The highest increases were seen in urban areas and communities with higher concentrations of minorities, high-poverty communities. Washtenaw County is an example of this: Ann Arbor, in western Washtenaw, and Ann Arbor in central Washtenaw both spent 0% on water and sewer. Map from the reportYpsilanti residents spend 25% or more on their homes, while the average for the county’s southeast end is between 10-25%.
- Circleofblue.orgUtilities are trying to balance rising rates with affordable service. They are increasing rates to maintain their systems and comply with regulatory requirements for removing PFAS chemicals and preventing sewage spillages. They aren’t spending enough. The report estimates that there will be a gap in funding over the next 20 years of $19.8 trillion. This is the difference between spending and needs. While these are conservative estimates, Read stated that they do not reflect the federal funding expected from the recently passed Infrastructure Bill. Climate change could increase costs further, in addition to spending on aging infrastructure or water purity. As the intensity and taxation of droughts and floods increases, more upgrades will be necessary.
- The report also stated that the legislature has not defined an unaffordable bill for water and that there is no regulatory threshold. Jennifer Read, Water Center Director Michigan Water CenterThe UM Graham Sustainability Institute, which is the author of this study, points to the fact that utilities are not required by law to report information on shut-offs or affordability statistics in the communities they serve. The report recommends that regulatory measures be taken to prevent utilities from shutting off water to economically-vulnerable households, and to require utilities to report data on water shutoffs as well as customer debt. (Source: https://www.circleofblue.org/2021/world/rising-cost-of-water-in-michigan-leads-to-affordability-problems/)
David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU and we’re going today to discuss water access, affordability, and accessibility. This week’s Issues of the Environment edition is hosted by David Fair. Water is something most people take as a given, but access to that water and the issues surrounding its availability are complicated. We know that not being able afford water is becoming a greater burden for many people. The University of Michigan Water Center joined with Michigan State University Extension, Safe Water Engineering and the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering in an effort to study these complexities in a Charles Stewart Mott Foundation-funded study. All of this is geared towards finding equally complex solutions. Jennifer Read, director of the Michigan Water Center at U of M Graham Sustainability Institute is our guest today. Thank you so much.
Jennifer Reads: You are most welcome. It’s great to be there.
David Fair: Did I understand correctly, water rates have risen nearly 200 percent in the past 20 years?
Jennifer Reads: It’s been amazing. We have seen amazing changes. It’s a long period of time, I know. However, rates have risen sharply in the state on an average basis. We’ve also seen sharper increases in rates in older industrial cities like Flint, Detroit, and Benton Harbor.
David Fair: Over the past 40 years, prices have risen on all things. How much of a household’s income will go to water and sewer services now?
Jennifer Reads: That does vary slightly from one state to another. We were particularly interested in households that spent more of their disposable income than the average. We found that the lowest 10% of income, or the 90%, spends 25% or more of their disposable income in many places. This is after they have paid for other expenses such as housing, food, etc.
David Fair: Is it fair that families and individuals living at or near poverty level have almost reached the breaking point of affordability
Jennifer Reads: Yes, it is true in many communities. It’s difficult for people to live, check-to-check, whether it is a paycheck or state support.
David Fair: Jen Read (89 one WEMU) joins us for our Issues of the Environment Conversation. Jen is the director of the Water Center at University of Michigan Graham Sustainability Institute. Jen, in Washtenaw County we often speak about the U.S. 23 division that separates the wealthier part of the county from the West, including Ann Arbor, and the income gap experienced the east of 23 including Ypsilanti. Did you notice a significant imbalance along these dividing lines in your mapping?
Jennifer Reads: That’s a great query. David, it was a challenge to get the data that precise. We used a larger number of lumps and groups to access the data. If you look at the report, however, you’ll see that Ann Arbor residents are spending at most 25 percent of their income on their water services in Ypsilanti. The lowest five percent of households in Ypsilanti are also sorry, while the lowest 20th is.
David Fair: That’s okay.
Jennifer Reads: Sorry, I must do a little here. But in Ypsilanti, households with the lowest 20th%ile income or the fifth poorest, spend about 13 percent (or a little more than 13%) of their disposable income for water. Ypsilanti’s water costs may not be as high as Ann Arbor’s, so it might not be what you expected to find. Ann Arbor is an expensive place to live if you consider the 23 divide.
David Fair: We now know that labor costs are on the rise and that water systems are often old and need expensive maintenance. The costs of dealing with issues like lead and PFAS contamination are also very expensive. Will the federal infrastructure bill distribute the moneys to help offset some the burden on the most in need?
Jennifer Reads: That’s a great question. We hope that this is the approach that will be used. I know that many people are working hard to ensure that that happens. You brought up a very important point, perhaps inadvertently. We don’t think rates should be charged. However, we believe that it is important to support those in our community who cannot afford them. The utilities need the resources to continue providing the services they have been providing. We also need to address issues like lead in the water. We need to switch our lead service lines to non-lead lines, or PFAS. Water must be treated. We shouldn’t interfere with our utilities or their ability to do this work.
David Fair: They will continue to do their work, and we expect an influx of some funds. However, these are short-term infusions of money. That’s a temporary band-aid on a long-term gaping wound. When we look at the long term, what role will the climate crisis play in accessing safe and affordable drinking water?
Jennifer Reads: David, that’s a great question. This is a concern, even though it wasn’t the one our study was focused on. However, we are seeing water sources changing in quality and quantity. It’s becoming more expensive to treat the water going into the system. We also see storm events that overburden our sewer system, which is often combined sewer system. That’s the other side. Being able to drain the water that comes into your home. Climate will have an impact on our lives and will increase the burden. We need to find creative solutions that are both affordable and can be applied across a range of landscapes in our state as well as the Great Lakes region.
David Fair: That word “solutions” is a great idea. This is 89 of the WEMU’s issues of the environment. Jen Read, director of University of Michigan Water Center, is our guest. She has highlighted several of the complex reasons that water affordability and access continues to be a problem. Jen, how do you navigate the complexities and long-term solutions?
Jennifer Reads: Well, that’s the…I don’t know what the inflation means.
David Fair: This is the million-dollar question, right?
Jennifer Reads: Million dollar question. I was going to answer that $50,000 is not enough. It’s a great question. Our report was intended to show the potential solutions. It’s clear that helping households is essential. We identified many different challenges that households face, which need to be addressed. However, utilities needs must also be addressed. These can include financial needs, infrastructure requirements, managerial capacities, and many other things. The key to all this is that we must be developing solutions that work in the communities where they are being deployed. It also means including the community members in the conversations. Sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sometimes, technical experts come up with a solution but may not consider the real challenges in the community that community members can help to solve.
David Fair: We often talk about how communities deal with these issues on their terms. Then, we move onto the federal level. It is essential that there be agreement at all levels on how to solve the problem. If I were to call you today, who would you ask to be the national water czar? What steps would your take to ease the immediate burden, and to create a long-term, viable plan?
Jennifer Reads: As national water czar, I –
David Fair: It sounds great, doesn’t it?
Jennifer Reads: It’s good, but there is a lot of pressure. It is clear that we need to have a lot of technical capability down to the local level. So, we need to make resources available to the communities most in dire need. Not the communities that have the most access to the resources, which is often the case, but the communities that are least able. Making sure that federal resources are available to support this. This includes the long-term planning capacity of those communities to plan and to plan their infrastructure renewal process. They need to charge the rates they need over time to renew their assets. A program that actively supports those in our communities, those households that don’t have the financial means to pay.
David Fair: I’ve been having this conversation for some time, and I’m curious about your perspective. Is safe and affordable water access a right or a privilege for you?
Jennifer Reads: It is a right. It’s a right.
David Fair: It’s a political issue to get to a policy that recognizes water as a human right. Do you feel that there is enough will to get there?
Jennifer Reads: I would like to see it. Although it is a political issue, I believe that the one thing our report revealed was that everyone wanted the same thing. We spoke to people from different sectors, different sectors and public and private utilities. The challenge is in figuring out how to get there. Our goal was to ensure safe and affordable drinking water for everyone.
David Fair: I want to thank you for taking time to share your perspective. I appreciate it.
Jennifer Reads: Thank you so much for inviting me.
David Fair: Jennifer Read is the author. You can find more information on the full report and a link to it at our WEMU dot.org website. We’ll help you get connected. Issues of the environment is produced in partnership by the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. You can hear it every Wednesday. This is David Fair, and it’s 89 one WEMU FM.
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