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Water consumption drops in Great Lake cities, study finds

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LANSING – Residents of major Great Lakes cities, including Lansing, are using less water, a trend that has economic, societal and environmental implications, a new study found.

And the relationship between per capita water use and socioeconomic factors such as income and race may prove significant as policymakers address inequities in the distribution and affordability of water, according to the first such study focused on the Great Lakes region

“Ground and surface water resources across the Great Lakes Basin serve as a drinking water supply for nearly 40 million citizens in Canada, First Nations and the United States,” it said. “Understanding the drivers behind water use trends is critical as the Great Lakes looks towards a future of potentially increasingly variable water supplies, emerging and legacy contamination, and the possibility of a growing population driven in part by climate migration.”

In addition to Lansing, researchers from the Ann Arbor-based Great Lakes Commission, the University of Michigan and Wisconsin Sea Grant looked at trend data for a 21-year period in four other regional cities with publicly owned water utilities: Milwaukee, Cleveland, Duluth and Green Bay. 

The Council of Great Lakes Governors provided funding for the study.

The study points out that although water use is dropping in the region, “service rates and fees are rising at almost twice the rate of median household income, and water shut-offs are increasingly common.”

In August, Detroit announced an end to its moratorium on water shut-offs for households with large unpaid bills.

Earlier this year, the Legislature appropriated $25 million for the Department of the Treasury to design a water shutoff prevention fund.

And in December 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation to bar shutoffs of residential water for nonpayment, but that statewide moratorium was only short term. The intent, she said at the time, was to help guarantee that all state residents “can wash their hands and give their child a glass of water at the dinner table.”  

The new study said higher water costs have an uneven impact on households, depending on their financial resources. On one hand, households that are more financially secure can afford to pay for using above-average amounts of water, while “wealth inequity” may mean lower quality of water.

Affordability factors include the demographic makeup of a community and its water infrastructure, said professor Drew Gronewold of U-M’s School for Environment and Sustainability.

Gronewold, who co-authored the study with two graduate students, said public water utilities need a lot of the same infrastructure and have the same day-to-day maintenance and operating costs, whether the number of customers stays constant or whether there is a dramatic expansion or loss of the population served.

And with speculation that the region’s population may grow due to an influx of “climate migrants,” policymakers will need to consider how that will change water use and customer’s ability to pay for it, he said. 

The study said researchers are uncertain what the “driving” force is behind the decline in per capita water use.

The researchers said their conversations with water resource managers suggest a “very likely combination” of increased conservation practices and mandatory use of water-efficient fixtures and appliances. They also identified updated federal water efficiency standards as another contributing factor.

Michigan has a program to fund financial incentives to reduce water use and improve efficiency but the program doesn’t set minimum guidelines or requirements, according to the study, which appeared in the Journal of Great Lakes Research. 

Next steps include expanding the research to 20 to 30 more cities, including Detroit, Chicago and ones in Canada, Gronewold said.


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