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Report finds thousands of northern Michigan residents at risk for water shutoffs

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More than 800,000 Michiganders were behind on their water bills this summer and risk losing their service during the pandemic, according to a report authored by water policy advocates.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and the People's Water Board Coalition analyzed new data from the state that shows the threat of water shutoffs also impacts Michigan communities outside urban areas like Detroit and Flint.

When the state opened some coronavirus relief dollars for those behind on their water payments, local utilities reported how many of their customers were in arrears from March through the end of August. Of the thousands reported, the vast majority of customers weren’t eligible for, and didn’t get, assistance.

The report shows in the Upper Peninsula, an estimated 11,452 residents missed payments.

Cyndi Roper, the Michigan senior policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says this is the first release of state data that shows how many people are behind on their water bills. She says it may be worse because the unemployment rate is high.

“I know that a lot of people were struggling before the pandemic and I believe that that’s just been made worse,” Roper says.

When the data was collected this summer the state had a moratorium on water service shutoffs during the pandemic. But the order ended in October, when Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s recent executive orders were undercut by a state supreme court ruling. Now, the threat of shutoffs is back.

Roper says because the data was incomplete and reported by the utilities, it’s hard to know how many are likely to lose their water.

“We also don’t know from the data if the amount of the assistance that was provided to those who received it is even enough to even cover what they owed,” she says.

A bill before the legislature in the lame duck session could reinstate protections for those behind on water payments.

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.