National Consumers League

Water shut-offs across the country threaten our health and safety during pandemics

By Nailah John, Linda Golodner Food Safety and Nutrition Fellow

We all depend on running water to maintain good hygiene. Yet, as America grapples with the worst pandemic in several generations, unemployment is causing people to fall behind on essential utilities, like their water bill.

Consumer Reports notes that millions of Americans are at risk of losing running water. Two-fifths of the country relies on water utilities that have not put in place a policy of suspending shutoff for nonpayment during COVID-19. This is due to a confluence of related factors—institutional racism, environmental injustice, and poverty—which means communities that are most vulnerable to COVID-19 are also being the most adversely impacted by water shutoffs. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds and to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands. How can you do so without running water?

According to NBC News, more than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits in the past five weeks due to COVID-19. And in Michigan, 23.8 percent of residents have filed for unemployment since March 14, the third-highest number in the country. To add to their woes, Detroit residents that fall behind on waters by as little as $150 are being faced with water shut off. At the start of the pandemic, 2,800 homes were estimated to be without water. Those numbers will soar if action isn’t taken to protect those who can’t pay their water bills. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an executive order that reconnected shut off water service and started a $2 million grant program to help communities comply with the order, according to ECO Watch.

On the national level, no similar grant program has yet been introduced. The third rescue package included $1.5 billion to assist low-income households with water bills during the crisis, with a condition that required localities and utilities to suspend shutoffs to quality for financial aid. But the clauses were left out of the final bill approved by the Senate. There is some sign of political will with congressional Democrats wanting $12 billion for water subsidies in the fourth rescue package, with grants for utilities conditional on shutoff moratoriums, according to Consumer Reports.

Michigan also has one of the highest water rates in the country. Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Erik Olson points out that Coca Cola and Pepsi get months to pay their water bills and then turn around and sell bottled water at 100 times the cost of tap water. Consumer Reports found that most bottled water sold in the United States comes from the same source and just goes through a purification process before being sold to the consumer.

For those not facing utility shutoffs, Consumers Reports confirms that there is no shortage of safe drinking water and health officials--assuring us that the public water supplies are not contaminated by the Coronavirus--are prohibiting hoarding of bottled water. The bottom line is that running water is part of the solution to beating this pandemic. No one should lose access to water if we truly want to flatten the curve and move beyond COVID-19.