LANSING — Detroit-area Sens. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), Betty Jean Alexander (D-Detroit), Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Paul Wojno (D-Warren) have introduced legislation to establish shutoff protections, create an affordability plan for water, and decriminalize water reconnection for World Water Day, which is celebrated on March 22.

“Too many Michigan residents are struggling to access clean, affordable water, and that is why this week, for World Water Day, we are reigniting the discussion on this legislation here in the Great Lakes State,” Sen. Chang said. “These bills will help families deal with many of the issues surrounding water affordability and billing, and the importance of water access to health and public safety. Water is a human right, and we hope to make progress on this issue for our residents.”

People in Detroit have seen their water bills rise 65 percent from 2010 to 2018, which has resulted in families paying nearly $1,200 a year in water bills — which is among the highest in the country. On top of that, families that can’t afford their water bills because of other astronomical expenses — such as car insurance — face water shutoffs at alarming rates. Shutoffs across Detroit have resulted in blocks with water shutoffs experiencing higher incidence of illnesses compared to blocks without water shutoffs, as found in a 2017 study by the Henry Ford Global Health Initiative.

“Everyone in Michigan deserves the right to clean and affordable drinking water,” Sen. Alexander said. “Whether a family lives in the Upper Peninsula, Flint, Detroit, or anywhere in-between, we must ensure that our water infrastructure is offering clean, safe, and affordable water.”

Water affordability continues to grow as a critical problem across the country. In 2017, a Michigan State University study found that with water rates rising, conservative projections show that the number of American households who will find water rates unaffordable could triple to 35.6 percent.

Legislation introduced so far includes:

  • Senate Bill 240 (Sen. Alexander): Provides for the development of a low-income water residential affordability program, in which water rates would not exceed a certain percentage of one’s household income.
  • Senate Bill 241 (Sen. Chang): Creates the Water Shutoff Protection Act, which protects seniors, families with children, people who are seriously ill or disabled, and pregnant women from shutoffs, and specifies information and timelines for shutoff notices.
  • Senate Bill 242 (Sen. Irwin): Decriminalizes reconnecting water service due because of a shutoff due to inability to pay.
  • Senate Bill 243 (Sen. Wojno): Decreases penalty of reconnecting water service from five-year felony to a civil infraction for first or second offense, and a misdemeanor for third offense. This offense is currently a five-year felony.

“World Water Day is a day to celebrate and recognize the importance of this vital resource. While we marvel at the Great Lakes and our natural rivers, it is even more important that we stand up for the right of every person to have clean drinking water. That’s why my colleagues and I are bringing forth legislation that will keep our residents out of prison for not being able to pay their water bills,” Sen. Irwin said. “I’m proud to introduce this legislation as part of a commitment to our peoples’ needs, and hope for swift action to get these bills to the governor.”

Between the years 2010 and 2018, more than 142,000 water shutoffs were issued in Detroit, while thousands more have been at risk of shutoffs without intervention. In 2014, the United Nations even took note of shutoff crisis in Detroit, calling it “a violation of human rights.”

“The idea that people would have to spend unreasonable time in prison for not being able to pay their water bill is unquestionably abhorrent given how important water is to life,” Sen. Wojno said. “I hope this legislation shows our commitment to our residents — we will no longer stand for these injustices.”

The bills were developed in collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, People’s Water Board, Michigan Legal Services, and others. Legislation regarding billing procedures, water rate transparency, and water rate regulation are expected to be introduced in the coming weeks.