Only a Few Cities are Taking Steps to Avoid a Flint-like Water Disaster
Water safety issues, sadly, have become synonymous with Flint, Mich. The crisis in Flint is exceptional and possibly even criminal, but the cost-cutting pressures that fed the crisis are being felt in other towns and cities across the nation.
The larger issue: It is increasingly expensive to provide safe and affordable water and only a few places are willing to confront these pressures head on.
“My water bill is extremely high,” said Flint resident Tia Simpson. “Is it fair? I don’t think so. I work, and I can’t get assistance to even help pay for water that I can’t even really use. I’m not saying I’m any better than anyone else but I go to work every day. There is no help for people like me.”
When state officials decided to switch the city’s water supply from Detroit’s water to the Flint River in 2014 while they waited for a water line coming from Lake Huron to be completed, they brought lasting public health damage, with nearly 100,000 people exposed to lead, and only temporary cost savings.
Simpson and other Flint residents still pay disproportionately high water bills – about $140 a month, including sewer fees at about $60 a month – given that the city is also one of the nation’s poorest, with the U.S. census putting average income at around $26,000 a year. Flint is using Detroit water again even as surrounding towns that waited for the Lake Huron pipeline are paying less for water for the first time in years.
The costs of cleaning and delivering water are fixed so if fewer people use the system or use the system less those costs have to be spread among a smaller group of people meaning that bills usually go up. To band-aid this problem in Flint the regional water authority recently earmarked $425,000 to help some residents pay their bills or replace fixtures.
“That doesn’t help people like me,” said Simpson, 34. “I’m the working poor. We have high water rates, high insurances, high utilities in general in Flint. We are barely making it. Programs are for people in severe poverty. They are not for people who are going to work every day.” Simpson does not qualify for assistance.
Roger Colton is a utilities lawyer in Massachusetts who since the early 1990’s has been studying the market failures of America’s public utilities. For at least the past decade, public officials have been calling Colton asking if it’s impossible for them to achieve two goals that seem opposed; making water affordable for even the lowest income residents and covering the ever-increasing costs of maintaining and replacing municipal water systems. The costs of those upgrades are so poorly understood, that estimates range from $35 million to $1 billion over the next 20 years. “My phone is always ringing,” laughed Colton.
Most of the cities trying to get out in front of water affordability issues are on the east coast or in the industrial Midwest. “It’s geographic because it revolves around the age of the infrastructure,” said Colton. He also said part of the dynamic that starved money from city water systems is that as population patterns change they have to spread costs over a smaller customer base. “If you built a system for 150 thousand and suddenly you have 90K, you’re going to have a problem.”
Colton says Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Chicago are in the early stages of designing water affordability plans, but Baltimore and Philadelphia are furthest along. Ultimately these two cities embraced the idea, according to Colton, because of a willingness to accept that cities will always have many low-income households. “You can’t run a business by sending bills that people can’t afford to pay,” he said.
Public water systems aren’t exactly businesses however, so in both cities another impetus for water affordability was trying to stabilize neighborhoods and find a solution for the thousands of homes heading for tax foreclosure because of unpaid water bills. Philadelphia is now one year into a Colton-designed water affordability plan pushed by city council member Maria Quiñones-Sanchez that caps water bills at no more than 3 percent for low-income households.
In Baltimore, city council members have rallied around a Colton analysis of their city’s water system and are working with local advocates to draft a similar bill.
First year costs for the Philadelphia’s program were expected to be $16 million but have only been $4 million. In Baltimore, Mary Grant of Food and Water Watch says their plan has the chance the be “revenue neutral.”
Only 70 miles south of Flint, the answers are not so easy in Detroit, which has been unable to make the economics of its water system work because the city continues to be responsible for $3.8 billion in water debt even after its bankruptcy. Ironically, the city asked Colton to investigate the possibility of an income-based system in Detroit almost two decades ago. Those components are now being implemented in Baltimore and Philadelphia but were abandoned in Detroit where the city instead shut off the water service to over 112,00 homes over the past four years. Detroit’s city council president, Mary Sheffield, says water affordability is a priority as the water department puts the average Detroit resident bill at $900. Even so, there seems to be little momentum towards a systemic change amongst city officials.
Colton places the blame on the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. “DWSD had an ideological opposition to addressing low income issues,” he says. “There are staff people at DWSD that believe that the appropriate response to non payment is to use increasingly stringent collections techniques because they seem to think if you pound on people enough they will pay but of course that is not only ineffective, it’s expensive.”
A recent report by Bridge Magazine found nearly 1 in 7 of the 11,422 residents shutoff this year did not end up getting reconnected.
Bryan Peckinpaugh, a spokesperson for DWSD said the department has helped 9,000 low-income customers over the last two years with subsidized payment plans. He also said, “DWSD has done a pilot study of an income-based rate, which showed that it would simply move the cost of water service to the working poor in Detroit.” Peckinpaugh said they are looking forward to working with the incoming Michigan governor on “options that would authorize water utilities in Michigan to use rate dollars on affordability programs.”
Sylvia Orduño has been working on water issues in Detroit for 22 years as part of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization. This summer, at a public meeting about higher sewer fees in Detroit, security officials physically restrained Orduño as she demanded to be heard during the public comment period on how to provide more responsive service. In her office recently, phones rang constantly in the background as Detroiters asked for help with bills they can’t afford. “Everyone wants to make sure that we can continue to have affordable water and that the system’s infrastructure needs are met,” she said. “But in the end we don’t get at the heart of the issue which is, no matter how you shape it, people can’t afford their bills, unless we build in something intentional that addresses the water bills based on people’s income.”
Jiquanda Johnson is founder and publisher of the digital news site Flint Beat. Joey Horan is a freelance journalist and production assistant for Michigan Radio’s Stateside.
This article was reported and written through a partnership with Outlier Media, a news and information service for low-income Detroiters.