Michigan and California leaders call for national commitment to safe, affordable water

Community-led organizations host water justice panel for policymakers

September 19, 2023

Washington, D.C. – Today, community leaders with Community Water Center and We The People of Detroit, two community-based water justice organizations from California and Michigan, hosted a panel for policymakers on the state of water safety and affordability across the United States. California’s Central Valley and Detroit, Michigan represent two hotspots for the U.S. water crisis.

“We’re honored and excited to be here to join forces with We the People of Detroit to push for increased funding to ensure we can solve our national drinking water crisis,” said Susana de Anda, Co-founder and Executive Director, Community Water Center. “Public policy needs to engage with us, frontline communities, so that programs are created and funded that respect and respond to the need on the ground. Work with us to solve this.”

The burden of unsafe and unaffordable water falls on low-income communities and communities of color. Black communities have been disproportionately impacted by failing infrastructure and aggressive water shutoff policies, facing higher rates of water disconnections. Farmworker communities in California pay twice for safe drinking water because their taps are contaminated, forcing them to rely on more costly bottled water.

“In a global pandemic, Black people made up 14% of the state of Michigan’s population, but 40% of the deaths. We saw whole families wiped out. We had to plead with our leaders, our governor, and petition the national government to turn the water on,” said Monica Lewis-Patrick, Co-founder, CEO and President, We The People of Detroit. "You cannot be declared the leaders of the free world if you cannot provide this basic necessity to your residents.”

Today’s discussion focused on the impact that aging water systems and rising water rates are having on real people.

“In 2003, we already had 40,000 residents living in the city of Detroit, surrounded by water, that could not afford their water and were being shut off,” shared Cecily McClellan, Co-Founder and Director of Water Works, We the People of Detroit. “We have mothers who don’t have the capability to prepare formula for their infants. Seniors who were not ambulatory, who depended on us to bring water. You may be low-income, on a fixed income, and you need to know that you will have the necessity of running water in your household.”

As community water systems grapple with backlogged maintenance, the strain of climate-driven drought or extreme weather, and removing lead pipes, water rates across the country are rising faster than inflation and all other utility costs. More than 1 in 3 adults responsible for their water bill report they struggle to pay it on time. Faced with rising and unaffordable bills, households risk debt, having their water shutoff, or even losing their home.

While there are federal programs that help low-income households pay energy and phone bills, there is no permanent program for water. The temporary Low Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), set up as a pandemic relief measure, will expire at the end of 2023 without congressional action. This comes at a time when rising water rates put access to drinking water at risk for lower income communities.

California received about $116.5 million and Michigan more than $36 million in funding through the program. Members from California and Michigan’s congressional delegations like Senator Padilla (D-CA) and Representatives Tlaib (D-MI) and Dingle (D-MI) have been advocating for a permanent federal water assistance program.

Community Water Center and We The People of Detroit are working to establish low-income water affordability programs in their states that would be bolstered with additional federal funding. While in Washington, D.C, the organizations will meet with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and their congressional delegations to advocate for the establishment and funding of a permanent federal low-income water bill assistance program, the end of water shutoffs, the equitable distribution of water infrastructure spending, and the continued investment in U.S. water systems to make the human right to water a reality for us all.

“We are not here asking for a hand out; we are asking for support,” said Sandra Garcia, Poplar, California resident and former water board member through an interpreter. “We appreciate working hard and paying our taxes. It brings us joy and pride to work hard and provide for our families and the families around us. We are asking for federal programs to support us with our water bills.”

About the organizers
Community Water Center (CWC) is a community-based organization that works to fulfill the human right to water. CWC serves rural, low-income communities of color in the Central Coast and Central Valley regions of California, with policy advocates based in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

We The People of Detroit is also a community-based, grassroots organization that aims to inform, educate, and empower Michigan residents on imperative issues surrounding civil rights, land, water, education, and the democratic process.

Both organizations serve on the steering committee of the Water Equity and Climate Resilience (WECR) Caucus, a national network of organizations working to address water equity and climate resilience — centering frontline communities of color and low-income communities.