Can You Imagine a Million People in the Great Lakes Region Without Water? While Water Is So Needed for the Pandemic, This is the Reality.

Posted on March 25, 2020 by

Can You Imagine a Million People in the Great Lakes Region Without Water?

While Water Is So Needed for the Pandemic, This is the Reality.

Now more than ever, people need access to clean and safe water to protect themselves and stop the spread of the Coronavirus. The number one recommendation from medical experts in infectious diseases and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is to “wash your hands”. Unfortunately, for many residents in the Great Lakes Region, this isn’t possible due to water shut-offs and lack of safe water sources. 

From urging officials to turn water back on for all residents to ensuring people know how to flush their water systems for safety after water is reconnected, Freshwater Future has been working with our community partners to provide resources and outreach so they can better inform the public and help those in need during this crisis. 

Freshwater Future staff has been on the phone with partners and cities urging them to restore residential water services and halt future shutoffs until this crisis is over. Most people have no knowledge that many people simply can’t afford increasingly high water rates that far exceed average water bills nationwide. For some locations, water bills are more than 4 times higher than comparable cities across the nation. As water bills have increased in major cities due to budget mandates and the high cost of water infrastructure upgrades, more and more people are unable to pay for water. In a 2019 American Public Media in-depth investigative report, the rising cost of water has hit disadvantaged families the hardest with water shut-offs. Municipal water utilities in six of the largest Great Lakes cities have issued close to 400,000 shutoff notices alone in the past decade. Experts believe that for the entire Great Lakes region, the number is closer to 1 million without water in a populace of 40 million.

We quickly learned some cities like Cincinnati were proactive and responded to the need to restore residential services. While Detroit took a proactive approach initially, the city has been very slow to actually accomplish turn-ons, with only 435 reconnections as of last week.  Freshwater Future encouraged cities of Columbus, Toledo, Marysville, Bellefontaine, Benton Harbor, Flint and others to put into place moratoriums on water shut-offs and to restore residential water services. In Chicago, a moratorium has been in place, but reconnections look to be a difficult process to manage. We know Wisconsin has halted new shut-offs, but the status of reconnections is unclear so we are conducting additional calls. We are continuing outreach to hundreds of municipalities across the region, determining whether they are still shutting off water, or are turning water back on, checking on the status of reconnections, and ensuring that proper water system flushing information is reaching those with reconnections. 

Due to local and state-level pressure, we also managed to stop partial lead line replacements that were happening in Toledo, at least until the crisis is over. Full lead line replacements are recommended to lessen exposure to lead and contaminants and any kind of replacements are difficult during a health crisis. Last week the City halted the partial lead line replacements.

With our partners including We the People of Detroit and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center we have asked the Michigan Director of Health and Human Services and the Governor for a Declaratory Judgment to turn on all water in Michigan and are now fielding a mass email and social media campaign to create pressure for this action. 

We called on the Ohio Governor, with our partner Alliance for the Great Lakes, to ensure all utilities across the state would restore residential water services and halt future shutoffs. As a result, the Governor called on the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to work with the private water companies to restore residential water services and halt future water shutoffs, which they did on Monday, March 16th. We are now waiting for the Governor’s office to share their legislation they are working on to require all utilities in Ohio to restore residential water services.

Freshwater Future has been supporting community members in obtaining a seat at the decision-making table to discuss water rates and programs, like emergency assistance and conservation. While moratoriums are being put in place on water shutoffs during this crisis, Freshwater Future is working to ensure that these moratoriums stay in place after the crisis. 

We are looking forward to our upcoming regional gathering of community leaders at the All About Water conference planned for early summer 2020 to share and discuss challenges faced in trying to improve water access, affordability, and safety and planning future opportunities to take these vital conversations and strategies to the next step. We are pushing municipalities for full lead line replacement infrastructure projects, turning water on for all, and water affordability planning.

This is clearly a work in progress, but our goal is to ensure that water and environmental efforts are community centered, and that leadership roles are deliberately created for local and underrepresented communities.


© 2021 Freshwater Future. All Rights Reserved.

Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.