As a state surrounded by four of the five Great Lakes, Superior, Huron, Michigan, and Erie, the water supply is the least of Michigan’s problems.
However, its water system is at a critical point due to decades of maintenance and managerial failures compounded by decreasing population, lack of money, and will.
An article on Michigan Radio says that solving Michigan’s water problem is complex. Although some financial help is coming from Congress through the two pandemic-related relief funds, the IIJA and the American Rescue Plan Act, these investments are not enough but will require “deeper changes to water policy and financing, such as reducing the number of water systems, collecting and cataloging performance data, and ensuring the poorest residents can afford their bills. Without the changes, maintenance backlogs will grow anew.”
The article presents several solutions that could help Michigan solve its water problems:
Consolidating water networks and treatment facilities can help cut the cost of maintenance and operations. This could also mean sharing staff and closing dilapidated and oversized water plants in favor of getting supplies from a neighboring city or town. State regulators can also make it challenging to build new infrastructure when an existing one nearby can take in more customers.
Rate increases should not only cover day-to-day operations and pay for infrastructure repairs and replacements every 50 years or so but also ensure that low-income can afford to pay their bills through comprehensive assistance programs, lesser fees for overdue bills, and money available to help them fix plumbing leaks in older buildings.
More state and federal assistance
The article says state and federal governments once provided massive subsidies for constructing the country’s water and sewer infrastructure. But since 1976, federal money has dwindled and has affected how municipalities maintained their water systems and infrastructure for decades.
The federal funds that remain, like the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund – are frequently inaccessible to the communities that need them the most.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) plan to make this fund more accessible by lowering its interest rates to local water providers, thus, reducing the burden on municipalities.
Additionally, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) or the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will support struggling communities to access funds. The Act mandates that half its drinking water, sewer, and lead pipe replacement funds be provided as grants and forgivable loans to disadvantaged communities, the article says.
Water treatment to meet regulatory standards is expensive, and instead of customers paying for them, the cost should be passed on to polluters.
Water systems could also generate revenue by selling data. Stormwater systems could be fitted with sensors and automated valves, and data collected can be sold to companies who find it valuable.
Data monetization can become a new revenue stream to help pay for operating these water infrastructures.
According to the article, the state of Michigan has indirectly reduced the money municipalities can spend on water and wastewater infrastructure through a series of changes in tax revenue distribution. These changes have led municipalities to resort to a more regressive form of property taxes, fines, and fees, disproportionately harming low-income families and black and brown communities to cover the losses.
The solution to this funding gap is to just restore the state’s revenue sharing to previous levels and stop the practice of using local funding to fill the state’s funding gap.
The way forward
While each solution can tackle one side of the problem, the scale and interconnectedness of Michigan’s water system problems may require not just a combination of solutions but many of them.
Another solution that can help Michigan’s water systems and infrastructure is the practice of Asset Management that the State’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) is already implementing.
EGLE has primary enforcement authority in Michigan for the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act under the legislative jurisdiction of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. EGLE has regulatory oversight for all public water supplies, including approximately 1,400 community water supplies and 10,000 non-community water supplies.
EGLE defines the principle of Asset Management as “essential to the proper operation of a water system. Asset management is a tool for water systems to plan for future financial needs, estimate the full water service cost, and ensure a sustainable utility. Most water systems already incorporate some principles into their business processes.”
“The Asset Management rule in Michigan’s Safe Drinking Water Act aims to ensure that water systems consider all costs as they plan for the future.”
It is encouraging to observe a broader range of US authorities adopting Infrastructure Asset Management to assist in the long-term management of community assets.