Standpoint Series

From Source to Tap: Protecting Our Water

By Khalil Ligon

November 17, 2017

This is the fourth of eight articles in the Standpoint Series, a set of short essays meant to articulate our perspective and spark conversation.

Khalil Ligon, Community Sustainability Planner, Alliance for the Great Lakes

Flint, Michigan has become a national symbol for drinking water crises and dereliction of water leadership. While the confluence of failures in Flint made the town’s water story exceptionally appalling, a number of the problems that contributed to the crisis are systemic across the Great Lakes region. In terms of water infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded America’s wastewater and drinking water systems each a D, noting that most of the country’s pipes are reaching the end of their useful life. From ballooning water shutoffs in Detroit, to lead contamination in Chicago, Illinois, East Chicago, Indiana, Flint, Michigan, Sebring, Ohio and others, to outrageous disparities in water rates in the Chicagoland area and around the region—Great Lakes residents are feeling water stresses that are impacting their health and quality of life.

More water crises will follow if there is not adequate funding, early intervention and leadership at all levels—from the grassroots to the halls of Congress. Failing water infrastructure is causing expensive damage to property as increasingly intense rains flood Great Lakes communities. Families are being forced to make difficult choices about basic needs in order to pay high water bills and avoid shutoffs. Public trust in the safety of our historically revered Great Lakes’ water quality is eroding as lead and other contaminants continue to be found in parks, schools and homes around the Great Lakes region.

The Great Lakes combined make up the largest body of fresh surface water in the world. Everyone in the region should have access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water. For that expectation to become a reality, our water must be protected from source to tap.

Building Trust at the Tap

When people turn on their taps, they expect water that is clean, safe, and drinkable. But more and more people in communities across the region are relying on bottled water and filters on their taps to feel safe about the water they consume. People served by Toledo water check a website each day to assure that their drinking water intake is not being fouled by toxins. As more contamination issues are revealed and rates continue to rise across the region, we face a future where many Great Lakes residents can no longer take for granted that they will be able to access—and afford—safe, clean water.

But that’s not the only problem. These water stresses are not shared equally. People of color and low-income residents are disproportionately impacted.  We know that this is not coincidental. When we talk about these water issues, we’re really talking about the intersection of several forces that result in black, brown and low-income communities being most likely to struggle with water stress.

So the question becomes twofold: How do we make sure Great Lakes water is safe, clean and affordable from the source to the tap, and how do we ensure that the solutions we put forward equitably serve all Great Lakes communities?

Water Leadership From the Ground Up

People’s experiences matter. We all need water to live and should each have a voice in shaping how we take on our region’s water challenges. Yet, there are gaps between the people who pay for and depend on water, the utility providers, and the policymakers who make critical decisions about our water and water infrastructure.  

Much of the work to fill those gaps happens at the local level—not in Washington, D.C. or in a boardroom—but in cities and towns where residents and community groups take action. And it adds up to a huge, region-wide impact in the Great Lakes states. Grassroots efforts are drawing global attention to the water crises happening throughout the region. Coalitions of residents, businesses, and health and academic institutions convene to gather critical research and public perspectives that drive new policy agendas around water, resilience, and sustainability. As these efforts grow in scope and force, there has to be an intentional and purposeful effort to connect policymakers at the local, regional, and federal levels to ensure that these initiatives bear fruit. As cities and towns work to ease water stress,  residents have to be directly involved in creating the solutions. When that happens, those same residents can become the strongest advocates for policies that equitably protect and pay for safe drinking water.

When the Water Bill Comes Due

Fixing, updating and maintaining water infrastructure systems is going to be expensive. The American Water Works Association estimates that it could cost more than $1 trillion over the coming decades to replace our nation’s failing drinking water pipes. We need to fix our drinking water and sewer infrastructure, and make sure families can afford the safe and clean water that they rely on every day.

First and foremost, Great Lakes leaders need to find a way to drive massive investment into drinking water infrastructure. The federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, for example, provides low-interest loan support to communities to improve outdated and failing drinking water infrastructure. Significantly more federal funding is needed to ensure this program can adequately serve vital infrastructure needs.  Before President Trump took office, he made a commitment to triple the program’s funding. That commitment has failed to materialize. But, by protecting the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, Congress has shown that it can do the right thing, regardless of leadership from the White House. The Great Lakes states also need to get serious about the urgency and cost of delivering clean water to residents and invest more of their own dollars in water infrastructure.

We need to create progressive payment options that allow for long-term infrastructure investments by municipalities that don’t cripple low-income households. States, for example, have options to target helpful tools with water infrastructure funds such as loan principal forgiveness and grants to low-income communities.  Congress has also come up with a proposal to ensure water delivery to low-income residents as communities raise rates to pay for necessary water infrastructure updates. The Low-Income Sewer and Water Assistance Program Act introduced by Congresswoman Fudge of Ohio would start a pilot program to provide assistance to help low-income families pay their water and sewer bills. The new bill is modeled after a successful federal program that has been helping low-income families pay energy and heating costs since 1977. Water bills are even higher than heating costs for many families living at the poverty line. There are great examples of creative state and local programs that help with utilities and affordability that could serve as models for this, but it’s going to take a lot more to fix the problem. It’s going to cost communities a lot of money to make the water infrastructure improvements they need. For the health of our communities, the bill should not and cannot fall on people who cannot afford it. But no federal assistance programs currently exist to defray those costs.

We live next to the freshest water in the world. Everyone in our region should  benefit from that and be able to drink their water. But today, not everyone does. While the ideas are out there, effective and visionary leadership, better collaboration, and more funding is needed. The failures in our water system are unacceptable, but we have an opportunity in front of us to do things differently, in a way that benefits everyone.

Khalil Ligon, Community Sustainability Planner, leads the Alliance’s community planning and coalition building work in Detroit. She is currently working to implement local water infrastructure projects that incorporate community-centered design and nature. Connect with her on Twitter, LinkedIn, or email.