Thinking for ourselves
By Shea Howell
September 13, 2015
This week officials in Ann Arbor Michigan issued a boil water advisory. It seems there was a problem in the instrument system of their pump stations, indicating a loss of pressure, creating a potential problem of bacteria entering the water supply. This is the latest in the growing number of communities experiencing problems with water quality.
The newly emerging Great Lakes Water Authority as well as the State Legislature needs to pay attention to these signals. Across the country water systems are in trouble. A recent report from the Johnson Foundation suggests that cities will face far more problems than a day or two of boiling water.
Most of the infrastructure of our water delivery systems are nearly a century old. All are in need of repair. Further, the last two decades have seen important new challenges in delivering safe, clean water to people. Some parts of the nation are facing sever droughts while others are experiencing unprecedented rain and snow falls. New pharmaceuticals and chemicals of all kinds, including those used in industrial agriculture, are entering the water supply daily. Our water systems are simply not prepared for these new challenges.
The Johnson Foundation report estimates that the US needs to spend $633 billion over the next two decades to meet these challenges and protect the public health and commons. Yet the trends for this kind of financial commitment are not reassuring.
Since the early 1980s the federal government has been retreating from this responsibility. In 1977 more than 70% of all capital spending for safe drinking water came from the Federal Government. By 2010 less than one sixth of the total investment, $8 billion, came from federal level. Roughly 95% of the spending on infrastructure came from state and local governments. We all know that neither our state nor our cities have been able to provide the kind of investments required to keep infrastructure updated.
Nationally only a third of water utilities are earing enough revenue to operate in a sustainable way. Twenty percent of these predict a doubling of rates over the next seven years will be necessary to keep clean water flowing.
Understanding this national picture is important in looking at the water shut offs in Detroit. The fact that 40,000 people have been cut off from water in Detroit is anindication of a broken system crying for attention. The fact that Flint citizens are surveying their own water to demonstrate toxic levels of lead is a sign of a broken system. The fact that winter is now the season of burst water pipes and flooded streets are signs of a broken system.
Our political leaders, blinded by racism and twisted by their own unwillingness to look deeply at the challenges and responsibilities of providing safe, clean, affordable water to all are evading their public responsibility. No one thinks water should be free. In fact Detroit sewer charges in 2012 were $728 a year, compared with the national average of $221.
The idea that we can create a new water authority by continually raising the rates on the poorest people in our region is foolish and inhumane. It is doomed to failure. It is time for the Mayor, Governor and Legislature to face up to their responsibilities to all people in our state and to our future.