A new water pipe, left, and an old pipe taken from 14 Mile and Porter roads in Royal Oak in 2017 were on display during a press conference last fall.

A new water pipe, left, and an old pipe taken from 14 Mile and Porter roads in Royal Oak in 2017 were on display during a press conference last fall.

File photo by Deb Jacques

State lawmakers make water their priority

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published February 11, 2019

LANSING — Michigan legislators can, for the most part, agree on a few things. Making sure residents have safe, accessible water is likely one of them.

But how to accomplish that goal in the midst of a decaying infrastructure and a constant struggle for funding makes the task a bit more complicated than some nicely worded legislation.

State Sen. Rosemary Bayer, D-Beverly Hills, and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-District 14, proposed efforts last month that they said would provide clean water for residents and students. They addressed different issues, including clean water as a state constitutional right and guaranteed clean water in Michigan schools, but the goal is the same — keep chemicals out of water, and make sure even low-income communities can afford it.

Water as a right
Bayer’s Senate Bill 49, the Human Right to Water Act — a reintroduction of SB 466 from 2017 — states that every constituent has a right to clean, safe, affordable and accessible water. If passed, the state would be required to establish affordable water criteria and safeguards to protect water used for drinking, cooking and sanitary purposes.

Sound vague? That’s because it’s meant to be, according to Kristen Simmons, a communications strategist for the Michigan Senate Democrats.

“This means that Michigan individuals would have a right to clean, safe, affordable and accessible water, and that the state government has an obligation to create the regulations, process and financial mechanisms to make that happen,” Simmons explained in an email. “This bill does not specify the actual regulations, processes and financial mechanisms to do this, except that those cannot affect eligibility for federal funds.”

The bill was prompted by headlines from low-income areas like Flint and Detroit, where water has been found to have dangerous levels of pollutants, including lead and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
“There’s no excuse for people in Michigan, the state with 20 percent of the world’s freshwater, to be drinking water polluted with lead, PFAS and other deadly toxins,” Simmons said.

According to the state of Michigan’s website, PFAS are part of a group of chemicals that have been used globally during the past century in manufacturing and firefighting, and in thousands of common household and consumer products.

PFAS came on the scene around the 1960s and have been considered useful for their resistance to heat, water and oil.

Recently, however, experts have become increasingly concerned by the negative effects of high PFAS levels on human health, especially in drinking water. Studies in animals that were exposed to PFAS found links between the chemicals and increased cholesterol, changes in the body’s hormones and immune system, decreased fertility, and increased risks of certain cancers.

Water to learn
Lawrence’s bill is similar, but more focused. Penned with U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, the Get the Lead Out of Schools Act would require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish a lead contamination program for all schools, and would create a grant program to help school districts conduct lead testing and assist with remediations efforts.

“Our children deserve to learn in a safe and healthy learning environment. However, too many of our children are faced with the threat of damaging and irreversible health problems caused by contaminated drinking water in their schools. This is simply unacceptable,” said Lawrence in a statement. “We must do all we can to prioritize clean, safe drinking water for the future of our nation, our children in America. I’m glad to join Congressman Quigley in reintroducing the Get the Lead Out of Schools Act to help address the water infrastructure crisis that is plaguing our communities.”

There is currently no law requiring schools to test water for lead or other contaminants. Besides the infamous Flint water crisis, lead has been found in the drinking water of other schools, including more than a dozen school buildings in Detroit and four Southfield Public Schools facilities, among others.

Water needs work
Asked whether the aims of these two bills are feasible given the region’s notoriously old water and sewer infrastructure, OHM Advisors’ Chuck Hersey  — a legislative aide who works primarily with the Oakland County Water Resources Commission — said the lawmakers need to take several steps back.

“We’ve worked on a bill extensively that would help communities see how they can legally charge for water and sewer rates. We’re trying to get a statute passed to clarify a judge’s order on that,” Hersey said.
Since the flooding that occurred in the summer of 2011 after record-setting rains drenched metro Detroit, municipalities have been served one by one with class-action lawsuits alleging that the communities charged residents with stormwater rates above what’s fair. Some of the cities and townships facing the suits settled, and others went to court — some winning and some losing in front of the judge, costing several municipalities millions in reimbursements.

Some would argue that the actions that summer weren’t intentional, but rather extenuating circumstances from a whole lot of rainfall. But no matter which side you’re on, the fact remains that local governments are afraid to make any changes to their water systems.

“There has to be some clarity for utilities to fairly charge rates and not be in fear of raising rates for fear of getting sued,” Hersey explained, adding that without rate hikes for repairs and replacements, the water infrastructure will continue to suffer. “Until we properly structure rates and collection, there will always be a dark cloud hovering out there.”

And speaking of our water infrastructure so badly in need of attention, there are more efficient ways of replacing lines, Hersey said. The process now wastes money, to say the least.

“Our infrastructure improvements should be coordinated between sectors, so there isn’t a roadwork project somewhere completed and then two years later we have to rip it up again to replace the lines,” he said.

The Great Lakes Water Authority, which manages water and sewer operations for the tri-county area, was unavailable to comment on any of the proposals before press time.