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Thankful for water, hopeful for action

Things certainly will look and feel a lot different than anyone could have ever imagined this Thanksgiving.

But these trying times have helped me focus on the positives in my life and appreciate what my family and I have more than ever.

One thing I am particularly grateful for right now is running water, knowing that too many Michigan families have lost or are in danger of losing access to that basic need. No one in our state should have to go without water in their homes ever, but certainly not in the midst of a health crisis.

Think of how often you use water on a daily basis. To shower, to bathe your kids, to drink, to cook, to clean. How many times will you turn on the tap to prepare your Thanksgiving dinner or clean up afterward?

Now imagine your water is gone. Shut off with little hope of returning anytime soon.

How would you survive?

Take that consideration one step further. Personal health and hygiene are more important than ever as a way to help stave off COVID-19 exposure and transmission, but it’s pretty hard to wash your hands when your faucets have run dry.

That’s why the Michigan League for Public Policy has joined the chorus of organizations and advocates who are urging the Michigan Legislature to pass Senate Bill 241 to establish a moratorium on water shutoffs during the COVID-19 crisis. The League has advocated for individuals with lower incomes since our inception in 1912. We have endured many challenges in this state, including previous pandemics, and, at every turn, we seek to speak up for Michiganders who are being hit the hardest by these crises.

Residents with lower incomes continue to be more adversely affected by COVID-19, making it harder than ever to keep up with their bills. And this is true in every part of the state. As infection numbers increase around Michigan, so does the economic pinch on working families.

The Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC) has compiled data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services that shows the risk of water shutoffs is threatening families everywhere — 317,631 households are behind on their water bills around the state. That includes 305 households in Alpena. Thousands of other residents in Clare, Mount Pleasant, Reed City, Midland, Traverse City, and across the Upper Peninsula are also at risk of having their water shut off.

In turn, consumers’ inability to keep up with their bills is hurting local water utilities. The NRDC has also put together data showing the number of municipal water utilities that have requested financial assistance through the state’s $25 million water assistance program. That list includes the Alpena and water providers in all of those other areas mentioned, as well.

The good of all Michigan residents should be the goal of all Michigan lawmakers, and putting a hold on all water shutoffs can benefit the entire state by helping improve racial equity. The COVID-19 crisis and water shutoffs have been particularly bad for Black and Brown residents. Black and Brown people face the greatest water affordability challenges to begin with and are now being disproportionately affected by the health and economic impacts of COVID.

For people who are struggling financially right now, shutting off their water and creating a second life-threatening emergency is not the answer. Because of the danger water shutoffs pose to residents and water providers in every corner of the state right now, this legislation has widespread support outside of the Capitol — and bipartisan support in it.

But the lame duck clock is ticking and there are only a few weeks left of this legislative session. Legislative leaders need to make a water shutoff moratorium a top priority.

This is a pivotal time in our state’s history, and the Michigan Legislature fought hard to establish a more pivotal role in COVID-19 decision-making.

Now, lawmakers must seize the opportunity before them. Passing SB 241 before the year is out will help residents weather this crisis and leave a lasting, positive legacy on this state.

Alex Rossman is external affairs director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

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