In August of this year, a water main break in the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) system caused a loss of pressure that had massive repercussions for the water safety of hundreds of thousands of Michigan residents. Ultimately, the water main break resulted in Governor Whitmer declaring a state of emergency for Lapeer, Macomb, Oakland, and St. Clair counties to mobilize resources toward the repairs and affected families. On August 14th, nearly a million people awoke to find they were under a boil water advisory. In subsequent days, the number of communities under this boil water advisory fell from 23 to 7, but water quality test results revealed new consequences. Lapeer and Imlay City, two communities that were affected by the main break and had to use back-up community water systems, were found to have pervasive lead contamination.
According to Michigan’s Department of Health and Human Services, “lead was detected in 89 of 116 samples collected in Lapeer with 38 of those samples exceeding the federal action level of 15 parts per billion of lead.” The cities activated back-up well systems to provide water during this emergency, but they are not treated with any corrosion control to protect lead service lines or home plumbing. Thus, the toxicity of water in Lapeer homes remains in question until regular service is restored and long-term impacts on pipes can be assessed, which has been continuously delayed. At the time of this article, the GLWA repair timeline has been pushed back twice and it anticipates restoration of normal operations on October 5th, nearly two months after the break.
Water system regionalization generally involves three or more water providers and is often characterized by the preservation of local water jurisdictions to provide direct retail water service, with one agency providing wholesale water to two or more of these local water utilities. The wholesale water entity could also provide retail water service directly to customers outside the jurisdiction of the other local agencies. GLWA is an extreme case of regionalization where the authority sells pre-treated, potable water from Lake Huron, the Detroit River and wells in Detroit to nearly 40 percent of all households in Michigan, making GLWA the largest water wholesaler in the state. This immense geographical span through Southeast Michigan includes approximately 127 local water agencies and 4.2 million residents. Thus, when failures in such a large system arise, such as the main break, we see large-scale and long-term impacts to public health with social justice implications. This event points out one of the huge risks inherent in huge regionalized systems and should be a cautionary lesson. In future weeks we will continue this series about more of the risks of regionalization of water systems such as inequitable governance of the water system, inequitable pricing and regulatory enforcement differences.
Many Michigan state representatives and civil servants seek one-size fits all solutions, like regionalization, to address the growing challenges of aging infrastructure, water quality, and affordability. However, the injustices created by regional entities such as GLWA have caused Michigan water advocates to demand a different way forward. Freshwater Future, in coalition with Michigan water justice advocates and organizations, crafted an Water Affordability Platform and Pledge, seeking to address this same challenge from the perspective of those who have suffered under false solutions. The first point of this plan crucially states: “[a]ny water affordability plan must acknowledge that water is a public trust, the provision of water is a public good and water is not a commodity subject to privatization.” Sign on to the pledge at the link above and stay tuned for more materials on regionalization from Freshwater Future!