In Uganda, national regulators are cracking down on the illegal destruction of wetlands in an attempt to reduce flood risk in the east African country. In September, the new head of the National Environment Authority indefinitely suspended new construction projects in wetlands. He also began prosecuting truck drivers who fill in wetlands to create new land for development. Until recently, truck drivers who poured the fill met little resistance. Now they face jail time. Regulators are keen to act because wetlands reduce flood risk by absorbing heavy rains. Uganda, however, has lost a large portion of this natural defense. In the past two decades about 40 percent of its wetlands have been destroyed.
In the United States, a new mapping project in California has identified a neglected threat from climate change. The Los Angeles Times reports that researchers identified 440 toxic sites in the state that are at risk of flooding by the end of the century due to rising seas and rising tides. The sites are not just along the Pacific Coast. Many are located along the San Francisco Bay, which is connected to the ocean via the Golden Gate. Not all communities in the state are equally in harm’s way, though. The researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA found that communities of color were five times as likely as the general public to live near a toxic site at risk of flooding. The concern is that flood waters could dislodge contaminants and expose people to hazardous chemicals from Superfund sites, landfills, oil and gas wells, and sewage treatment facilities.
In Virginia, state officials and conservation groups are celebrating a milestone in the massive effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. The Virginia Mercury reports that state officials marked the completion of a project to rehabilitate 438 acres of oyster reef in the Piankatank River. The Nature Conservancy’s Chesapeake Bay program director called the effort the world’s largest oyster reef restoration. Oysters, because they filter pollutants, are a vital part of a healthy bay ecosystem. Under a 2014 water quality agreement, Virginia and Maryland promised to restore oyster reefs in 10 bay tributaries, including the Piankatank. The program has proved popular with the public, and Virginia’s governor recently added an eleventh river to the list.
This week Circle of Blue reports on the growing water affordability problem in Michigan.
The rising cost of water and sewer service in Michigan is consuming a larger share of household income, leading to mounting financial burdens for both families and communities, particularly those with high poverty rates, a new report finds.
The growing affordability problem spreads beyond publicized examples in Detroit and Flint, according to the assessment. Rural areas, small towns, and suburbs have also seen costs rise, though at a slower pace than their urban counterparts. As Michigan agencies prepare to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years in federal infrastructure and pandemic relief funds, the report authors say that the time was ripe for a deeper understanding of who is hurt by unaffordable water.
“We’ve known for a while that particular communities in Michigan have challenges with water affordability,” Jen Read, director of the University of Michigan Water Center, told Circle of Blue. “And we’ve known nationally. But we haven’t, in Michigan, had a solid picture of water affordability across the state.”
The report from the University of Michigan Water Center, Michigan State University Extension, and the consulting firm Safe Water Engineering fills in some of those gaps. It found a sharp rise in the number of Michigan households paying more than 5 percent of income on water and sewer services. That number, when adjusting for inflation, grew from 1.6 percent of households in 1980 to 6.7 percent in 2018.
The report offers six recommendations for policymakers to consider. In broad terms they encompass regulatory measures such as prohibiting utilities from turning off water to economically vulnerable households and ordering utilities to report data on water shutoffs and customer debt. The recommendations also relate to government aid, including technical and financial assistance to low-income communities and utilities. Other considerations include forgiving customer debt and engaging communities in planning processes.
Some of these recommendations have been proposed in Michigan and rejected. House Bill 5093, introduced in 2015, would have required water and sewer utilities to report annually on water rates, average monthly bills, and the number of water shutoffs by ZIP code and census tract. It did not pass out of committee.
Utilities are in a pinch trying to balance needed rate increases with providing affordable service. They are raising rates to maintain their systems and meet regulatory requirements for preventing sewage spills and removing drinking water contaminants like PFAS chemicals. Still they are not planning to spend enough. The report estimates a 20-year funding gap of $19.8 billion. That is the difference between estimated needs and estimated spending. Read said those are conservative estimates, but they do not include anticipated federal funding from the recently passed infrastructure bill.
A state-funded assistance program could help customers with high bills while allowing utilities to make needed investments, but it would come with a cost. The report estimates that the annual cost to the state of reducing high-burden water bills to a more manageable level would be between $78.3 million and $146 million, depending on how an unaffordable water bill is defined.
The rising cost of water and sewer service is a problem that extends beyond Michigan. A national affordability study found that a four-person household in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution paid an average of 12.4 percent of disposable income on water and sewer in 2019, up from 10.9 percent two years earlier. Disposable income was defined as the money remaining after taxes, housing, health care, food, and home energy.
The concept of water affordability has broadened in recent years. Regulators and public-interest groups were initially concerned about community-level affordability — whether a town’s residents, in aggregate, could raise enough money to operate and maintain their systems while meeting all water quality standards. A community affordability analysis is mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency when utilities assess the cost of controlling sewage pollution.
Community-level affordability remains a challenge. The struggles of places like Benton Harbor, a low-income, majority Black community dealing with a declining population and high levels of lead in its drinking water, illustrate the health consequences of inadequate funding for system upkeep.
In addition to concerns about communities not being able to maintain their infrastructure, a new problem has emerged, which is whether individual households can afford their water and sewer bills.
For years, water rates were low enough that the cost of service was a negligible fraction of a household’s monthly budget. But in the last two decades water rate increases have outpaced rate increases for other essential services like broadband and energy as water utilities have been forced to confront a backlog of pipe repairs and treatment plant upgrades. At the same time, incomes for people at the bottom of the economic ladder have largely stagnated in purchasing power since the 1970s, adding financial strain along with the rising cost of housing, health care, and other necessities.
Despite growing attention to affordability, both in Michigan and nationally, there is no general agreement on how the term should be defined. Is a water and sewer bill equal to 3 percent of household income too much? Is 4 percent? How about 5 percent?
The threshold for an affordable water bill is something that each community needs to determine, argues Manny Teodoro, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who researches water policy. Economic conditions in Detroit are not the same as in Denver or Dallas.
As for defining the threshold for an affordable bill, Read of the University of Michigan said that the report authors did not feel it was their responsibility because financial circumstances vary significantly between households and communities. She said the definition needs to be a public process among community groups, utilities, and the state.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.