Whitmer budget would direct $180M more toward drinking water

A lead pipe is pictured on July 20, 2018, after being replaced by a copper water supply line to a home in Flint, Mich. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is proposing a $180 million plan to boost the quality of tap water across Michigan, from replacing lead pipes and school drinking fountains to combating chemicals that are contaminating public supplies and private wells. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

By DAVID EGGERT
Associated Press

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is proposing a $180 million plan to boost the quality of tap water across Michigan, from replacing lead pipes and school drinking fountains to combating chemicals that are contaminating public supplies and private wells.

The spending is included in a supplemental request for the current budget. The Democrat unveiled it this month in conjunction with the release of a $60 billion 2019-20 budget proposal.

Included in her request is $37.5 million to help water utilities comply with tougher lead and copper rules that were adopted by former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration after the Flint crisis. While Flint’s underground service lines connecting water mains to older houses and other buildings are being

A worker completes a new copper water line to a house after lead pipe replacement in Flint, Mich., on July 20, 2018. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is proposing a $180 million plan to boost the quality of tap water across Michigan. The proposal is included in a supplemental spending request for the current budget. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

replaced with federal and state funding, utilities in other communities are expected to cover the cost themselves.

Whitmer is proposing that the state help swap out lines in other cities, too. The regulations require all 500,000 service pipes in Michigan to be replaced by 2040, unless a utility can show it will take longer under a broader plan to repair and replace its water infrastructure. Large water suppliers in the Detroit area are challenging the rules in court, calling them a $2.5 billion unfunded mandate.

The state must “do everything we can” to replace the underground lines, said Department of Environmental Quality Director Liesl Eichler Clark. “It’s absolutely something that we need to be spending time and attention on. So you’ll see that commitment through the course of dollars and then also through the course of the work that we’re doing.”

The $37.5 million — an expansion of a pilot program that replaced nearly 1,000 service pipes in 18 communities — would go to some of the 40-plus systems where the 90th percentile of lead concentrations exceeds the new “action level” of 10 parts per billion.

Whitmer is asking for an additional $30 million to respond to and research drinking water contamination from perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, and other emerging contaminants. She also wants $40 million to issue grants to water suppliers seeking low-interest loans for infrastructure projects and $12.5 million for asset management, improved data collection and corrosion control, and other priorities.

About a third of the funding, $60 million, would be used to install “hydration stations” in all public school buildings statewide. The combination water fountain/bottle fillers filter out contaminants, reduce the number of plastic bottles and are seen as a cheaper option than replacing fixtures or pipes containing lead fittings or solder.

Some districts, such as Detroit, have installed the stations due to elevated levels of lead or copper.

“This will be a chance to turn a new leaf and prove to people that we will finally clean up their drinking water,” Whitmer told lawmakers when presenting her budget. The water proposal may be the most substantial facet of her plan besides a proposed 45-cents-a-gallon fuel tax hike to improve the roads, which also would enable structural budget changes so more could be spent on K-12 schools.

Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature, who have been vocal in their opposition to the gasoline tax increase, so far are not saying much about Whitmer’s water plan while Democrats are applauding it.

“Obviously, I think we’re all interested in protecting water quality in Michigan, but we’re just in the early phases of getting some details on this,” said House Appropriations Committee Chairman Shane Hernande, a Republican from Port Huron. He said he was still researching whether the state should pay to replace lead lines outside Flint but was “open to a conversation.”

Hernandez also appeared open to considering additional spending to abate and clean up contaminants, saying “this Legislature has already taken the lead on putting PFAS money out there.”

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