“Water is a basic need — yet people in Detroit and communities around the country are having their water shut off, seeing their water bills double or triple, and getting tap water contaminated by lead,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick, a Healing Our Waters committee member and president/CEO of We the People of Detroit.
The conference focused on water issues impacting eight states and two Canadian provinces, and called for federal support to protect the Great Lakes.
“We hope the conference is a catalyst for continued federal support for programs to protect our Great Lakes, drinking water and economy,” said Mike Shriberg, interim executive director of the Healing Our Waters Great Lakes Coalition.
The health of Michigan residents are still threatened by toxic pollutants. In order to make both drinking water and waste water safe, $16.1 billion over the next 20 years is needed for repair and to rebuild infrastructure, according to the coalition’s website. The coalition is fighting to find new, affordable solutions to drinking water issues.
In Flint, drinking water continues to be unsafe, as the crisis that brought national attention a few years ago continues. Lead pipes, combined with getting water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron, has caused dirty drinking water that contains lead. Being exposed to lead can cause multiple health problems in the heart, kidney and nerves, according to the National Institute of Health. Young children are particularly vulnerable to lead, as it can negatively affect the development of the body and the brain.
Meanwhile, Detroit relies on Lake Huron for drinking water. Thousands of Detroit citizens have had their water shut off, because they cannot afford to pay the increasingly expensive bills. According to the Detroit News, the city turned off the water for 17,689 people in 2017 alone, and though the number of homes whose water is getting shut off is decreasing thanks to the city’s Water Residential Assistance Program, there are still thousands who do not have water.
The United Nations defines access to clean drinking water as an essential human right.
“It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills,” Catarina de Albuquerque, the U.N. special rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, said in 2014. “I heard testimonies from poor, African American residents of Detroit who were forced to make impossible choices — to pay the water bill or to pay their rent.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that an affordable water bill should be no more than 4.5 percent of the household’s monthly income, but for many Detroit residents, it makes up at least 10 percent, NPR reports. This will only get worse: one 2017 MSU study found that with rapidly rising water costs — costs rose 41 percent between 2010 and 2017 — 36 percent of U.S. households will be unable to afford drinking water within five years.
Although Flint and Detroit are the most extreme cases, across the state cities are finding PFAS, or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in some water sources, including Grand Haven. Both lead and plastic are found in drinking water across the state. This is all despite the fact that Michigan is surrounded by the Great Lakes, which make up 84 percent of surface freshwater in North America, and 21 percent of the world’s surface freshwater, according to the EPA.
The poorest members of our community are routinely denied access to clean drinking water. Michigan residents need to ask ourselves if we agree with the U.N. in defining water as a basic human right: and if we do, we need to fight for it. We need to care for the most vulnerable among us, and that starts with access to water.
Access to safe, clean drinking water should be a priority, and Michigan residents need to make this clear. Contact Sen. Stabenow, Sen. Peters and your state representative, and tell them we can’t afford to stop protecting water. Tell them to continue projects like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which has worked to clean up toxic pollutants, reduce polluted runoff and more. Tell them you care about the well-being of the Great Lakes, the source of drinking water for Grand Haven residents and 30 million people in total.
About the writer: Madalyn Buursma is the eco-journalist intern for the West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC) and features editor for the Calvin College Chimes.