Roadmap to Water Security

Client Organization: 
Project Location : 
Detroit, MI
Summary of Project Idea: 

Goals & Objectives

A great, on-going injustice exists – Michigan, like most states, lacks a public safety net for those unable to afford water and sanitation service. From families sacrificing food and medical care to pay unaffordable water bills to water shut-offs, this creates widespread suffering.  This project will:

  • Create original research to galvanize, energize, and move forward the nascent water safety net legislative efforts as a mechanism towards water security.
  • Help create the language and statistics to communicate both the current impact of this injustice and proposed ways forward. For example, energy assistance advocates found seniors skipping fulfilling medications in order to pay for heater costs and coined “Heating or Eating” when advocating for energy assistance. What research findings and communicative memes can be uncovered for water?
  • Build strong documentation of the methodology used will create not a point in time contribution, but a research model that can be updated with new information.

Create a roadmap to use the research and findings to increase water security for residents

Theoretical Justification, Social Benefit, or Significance

Rising water and sanitation costs combined with rising poverty have left thousands unable to afford the most basic of needs, clean water and sanitation. In Detroit alone, 20,000 households are shut off from water annually. Since 2014, over 70,000 homes have been disconnected from service, equivalent to the entire city of Grand Rapids.

Water activists and water utilities are locked in struggle, yet the focus is mostly on each other.  In contrast to water, other basic needs are supported by a variety of funding sources that create a safety net – energy (Low Income Energy Assistance Program, Weatherization Assistance Program, home heating credit, Michigan Energy Assistance Program, etc.); food (SNAP/Bridge Card); housing (Low Income Housing, Housing Choice Voucher Program, etc.); healthcare; transportation; and even cell phone service.

We believe that if a water safety net to advance water security was funded in proportion to the existing safety net for energy, it would provide tens of millions of dollars to low income residents to keep water service connected.

Efforts to create a water safety net are in their infancy. EcoWorks manages the water conservation aspect of Southeast Michigan’s first water assistance program, the Water Residential Assistance Program. Yet our program is limited in scope, and systematic solutions are at an impasse, such as a package of 17 bills stuck in various Michigan House of Representatives committees, or the proposed Low-Income Sewer and Water Assistance Program Act stuck in the federal House’s Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment.

We hope research from this project will be useful in shifting the policy landscape at local, state, and even the national level and make meaningful contributions to the creation of a water safety net.

Specific Activities & Duration

Numerous research methodologies are appropriate as this research project will consist of answering interrelated questions. For example, qualitative research may be used to gain an understanding of the experience of a low-income water customer facing a shut off or seeking water assistance; to understand barriers utility professionals face in maintaining service to low income customers, etc. Quantitative research may be used to determine the likelihood of a customer receiving water assistance and if that amount would be sufficient, and comparing that to outcomes if seeking food or energy assistance; to determine the costs to water utilities and social services agencies of a shut off; to determine what sacrifices households make to pay water bills (such as the aforementioned “heating or eating” in the energy field); the economic impacts of a water shutoff on affected households, etc.  These questions are relatively new and be pursued primarily through original field research. A literature review will also be necessary, both to water affordability efforts and to make comparisons to more developed, related fields such as energy or housing affordability.

Yes, we believe the scale is appropriate for a (part-time) 16-month project for 4-6 students, likely on the low end of that range.

Integrative Approach

Team members will create original research interview via interviews and analysis of low-income community members (both in Detroit and suburban communities), professionals in the human services and water utility filed, and water activists. This requires disparate communication skills. Statistical analysis of those interviews will be performed.

Team members will need analytical research skills. For example, energy assistance funding is provided through a web of funding that will be difficult to construct and communicate clearly to compare to proposed water funding. Clear communication of numeric data, both written and graphically, will be necessary.

Team members must weave together many sources of information (qualitative interviews, quantitative research, and literature review of similar but not always applicable fields) and present them in powerful, impactful ways.

Furthermore, the roadmap they propose must be politically feasible. Too often solutions are proposed that are dismissed out of hand as they do not attempt to take into account potential opposition or the concerns and thought processes of decision makers. Whether through power mapping or through other social advocacy tools, the team will understand the allies and the barriers facing the creation of a water safety net and address them in this project.

Skills/Expertise Needed: 

The team must possess both qualitative and quantitative research skills; the ability to consider the positions of diverse state holders; and the ability to clearly and impactful summarize and communicate research.  If this research is available to dual degree program students in economics or public policy, I believe this project would draw on those skills as well.

While open to the program’s suggestions, we believe a team of 3 or 4 students would be appropriate.

SEAS Program Areas: 
Environmental Policy and Planning
Behavior, Education, and Communication
Environmental Justice
Sustainable Systems
Role for each program area: 

Environmental Policy and Planning: We hope the research will play a part in the creation of specific public policy. Proposed solutions must consider the positions of diverse stakeholders and understand the water utility market and water policy.

Behavior, Education, and Communication: Could explore household responses to water crisis and water shutoffs and evaluate the content and framing of the limited existing water assistance programs offered by utilities.  

Environmental Justice: Surrounded by the Great Lakes and wealth, low-income families and people of color are disproportionally shut off from access to clean water and sanitation.  This project must address this, as well as possible questions such as do shut off policies vary between wealthier communities and low-income communities or communities of color.

Sustainable Systems: This project seeks to support system change and will involve proposing solutions that balance the needs of diverse stakeholders.  Analyzing technical barriers to expanding water access would be valuable. Furthermore, specific possible interests of Sustainable Systems majors such as environmental economics would come heavily into play. For example, decision makers may be influenced if water safety net funding was quantified as an investment, one that prevents additional costs to the state or community that would be incurred as a family faces health or social crises due to water shut off.

Professional Career Development Benefits: 

Similar research is part of the everyday work of numerous non-profits, business, and government units.

Interviews with stakeholders, from low income water customers to social service and water utility professionals, will broaden student’s capacity to empathize and understand various stakeholders.

The research will be broadly promoted and the idea is that deliverables will be highly visible and accessible to the public. Whether through conference presentations or publications, students will be fully credited and recognized for their work.

Students will work closely with EcoWorks. Over 35 years EcoWorks has become a regional leader in social environmental programs, from the Youth Energy Squad, a student environmental leaderships development program active in over 50 schools; Relcaim Detroit, a deconstruction and job training social enterprise; Residential Education, which in partnership designed and implemented the first substantial water conservation and assistance program in SE Michigan, the Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP); and Green Consulting, which is involved in Eco Districts and the energy planning of over 30 SE Michigan communities. Students will have the opportunity to network with both EcoWorks staff and our many partners.

Funding Sources: 

A small budget will available to assist if incentives are needed for customer interviews or focus groups or other limited direct costs associated with research and data collection.

Identify expected products/deliverables: 

Completion of the project will result in roadmap to water security including original research demonstrating the impacts of a lack of a water safety net, the benefits of a water safety net, and proposed solutions to create a water safety net.

  • Original research via interviews, surveys, and data analysis may address such questions as:
    • What is the cost to low income customer of high water bills or shut offs? Are there “Heating vs. Eating” choices being made to pay water bills? Are medical expense cut back?
    • What is the cost to the state and/or social service agencies due to high water bills or shut offs. For example, EcoWorks’ Youth Energy Squad has anecdotally observed teachers installing washing machines in schools and principals opening schools early so that students do not skip school for lack of a clean appearance.  Can research quantify costs such as skipped school days? Increased reliance on other emergency social services?
    • What is the cost to water utilities for shut offs? Anecdotally some have proposed that the cost to shut off a customer, turn back on, spend customer service time, collect only a portion of the bill, etc. may be greater than simply providing assistance.
    • In energy, it is now broadly known that energy efficiency provides more benefits then simply a lower energy bill. Research has shown that “non-energy benefits” such as decreased sick days due to better thermal comfort and increased productivity due to better lighting are valid components of a cost benefit analysis. What “non-water benefits” exist for increased water efficiency or water conservation efforts?
  • Drawing on that research, language and statistics must be presented in impactful and powerful ways. These may include:
    • Currently, a water safety net is discussed in terms of a cost – it costs “X” amount to provide such a safety net. Like in energy, we must use research to change the conversation to the safety net in terms of an investment and savings. In other areas, assistance is presented as a cost savings “Return on Investment”. What is the Return on Investment for water security?
    • Energy assistance advocates found seniors skipping fulfilling medications in order to pay for heating costs and coined the dilemma of “Heating or Eating” when advocating for energy assistance. What research findings could be spread as communicative memes for water?
  • Build strong documentation of the methodology that will create not a point in time contribution, but a research models that can be updated with new information. For example, when comparing the assistance available to water customers versus energy or food customers, a model must be created to be easily updated and maintain relevance.
  • Create a roadmap to use the research and findings to increase water security for residents. This road map must use social advocacy tools to understand allies and the concerns of those not yet advocates. It would be ideal to propose several specific mechanisms to achieve water security such as:
    • Federal legislation and its mechanisms such as block grants to states
    • Fees on existing customers
    • “Pay for success” or social impact bonds

We will use the research and roadmap in our advocacy work and to promote the creation of a water safety net, which we believe could consist of tens of millions of dollars annually to maintain water and sanitation services to low income families. We will promote the sharing of the work through diverse outlets, including the media, legislators, water utility professionals, community activists, non-profit allies and residents.

Contact full name: 
Justin Schott
Job title: 
Executive Director
State or Country: 
SEAS Faculty Advisor: 
Tony Reames
Contact Phone: 
Contact information: 
SNRE alum
Staff member of a potential client organization
Master Students Involved in Project: 
  • Christopher Askew-Merwin
  • Cria Kay
  • Kely Markley
  • Dahlia Rockowitz
  • Malavika Sahai
Project Status: 
Past Project