WASHINGTON, D.C. – On Thursday, February 26, Congressman John Conyers, Jr. (MI-13) held a briefing organized by faith-based human rights group Unitarian Universalist Service Committee focusing on the affordability of water to the nation's poorest and most vulnerable. The briefing, held in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, was organized in the context of soaring costs of water to consumers nationally, the continuation of the widely-criticized water shut off policy in Detroit, and the implications of these trends for America's urban and rural water and wastewater services. In addition to Rep. Conyers, Reps. Debbie Dingell (MI-12), Brenda Lawrence (MI-14), Sheila Jackson-Lee (TX-18), Charles Rangel (D-New York), and Earl Blumenauer (OR-3), were also honorary hosts of the event.
Panelists included: Detroit attorney Alice Jennings, a lead attorney in a federal class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of community organizations and Detroit residents affected by the city's mass water shutoffs; Economist Roger Colton, the developer of the original Detroit Water and Sewer Affordability Plan who testified as an expert witness in the city’s 2014 bankruptcy case; David Gatton, the director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Council on Metro Economies; and Patricia Jones, the Senior Program Leader for Environmental Justice at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, who is an international expert on the human right to water and coordinated the 2011 and 2014 United Nations missions of the Special Rapporteur to Detroit. Noted writer and scholar Michael Shank, Director of Media Strategy of Climate Nexus, moderated the briefing.
In his remarks, Rep. Conyers emphasized that ensuring the human right to water is “an economic, social, and health issue that we can all get behind. It doesn’t have any partisan aspect to it.” In an op-ed published earlier this week, Rep. Conyers advocates for the full implementation of the “water affordability plan passed by Detroit's City Council in 2006 to account for residents' financial need in water billing and to prevent discrimination in access.” He also stressed the need for “need strong local, state, and federal investment in infrastructure around the country.”
During the briefing, Jennings stated that “just last year, there were 33,000 homes shut off, and only 18,000 restored. That means that 15,000 potential homes are without water.” Patricia Jones called on federal agencies “to provide immediate assistance to the thousands in Detroit in harm’s way today.”
Michael Shank highlighted that Detroit’s water system is not alone in facing challenges in covering its costs. “A survey last month of 368 water utility companies in America suggested that two-thirds of the utilities have insufficient funds to cover their costs and will likely increase fees to make up for the shortfall,” he said.
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