Water is a defining natural resource for Michiganders. With the significant number of inland lakes and four out of five of the Great Lakes here, water is a source of natural beauty and recreational enjoyment. Data from the Environmental Protection Agency shows that the Great Lakes contain more than 20 percent of the world’s surface fresh water and 84 percent of North America’s.

Unfortunately, when Michigan residents visit lakes and rivers this summer, some will find warning advisories staring back at them. As reported by the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART), advisories are currently in place against touching foam from per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on two inland lakes and three rivers. PFAS contaminants are resistant to heat, water and oil; have been commonly found in waterproof, stain-resistant, or non-stick products; and have been linked in some research to cancer and other illnesses. There are also do-not-eat-fish advisories and limits on fish consumption in other Michigan waterways due to PFAS levels. These elevated levels of PFAS, as well as lead in areas like Flint, have demonstrated the need for greater efforts to protect clean water in Michigan.

Pope Francis has said — and the Catholic Church has long taught — that “access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right,” an element that is “essential to human survival” (Laudato Si', 2015). At times, however, concerns about water safety and affordability hinder water access, especially for those living in poverty. Too many communities leave their low-income residents behind in the decision-making process regarding water issues, letting short-term consequences, politics, or finances dictate outcomes.

Certainly, the Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC) recognizes that supplying safe, clean water to Michigan residents has a cost and requires financial investment from communities. That reality cannot be ignored. At the same time, considering real people and treating them with dignity should always be the primary focus of any water-related decisions. In that vein, elected officials would benefit from considering: 

  1. Increased education regarding financial assistance resources available to residents, especially for water bills;
  2. Demand management policies or investments that encourage efficient water use; and
  3. Attentiveness to rate affordability and discount services for the poor.

The Detroit Religious Leaders Forum, an interfaith group of spiritual leaders, composed a joint statement in January, encouraging elected officials to “address the essential role water and its affordability play in the flourishing of Michigan residents.” These leaders — including Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit — acknowledged the role they and other citizens must play in supporting elected officials during decisions related to water affordability. Each of the signers pledged “to work for meaningful change in the provision of … clean and safe water for all” and “to work collaboratively” for the common good. This pledge is a worthwhile endeavor for all Michiganders.

The Catholic community has shown its willingness to work collaboratively on water issues. During the Flint water crisis, Catholic Charities and parishes rallied, helping communicate with the local community and provide water bottles and filters to those in need. Across Michigan, St. Vincent de Paul councils and other parish groups have helped individuals struggling to afford their water bills. In countries abroad, Catholic Relief Services prioritizes water security and empowers water stewardship, aided by the donations provided by Catholics here at home.

People of faith in the pews can provide the support for these vital efforts to continue, as well as explore other avenues to ensure clean and safe water can be accessed by all. To learn more, read the MCC’s May FOCUS: Clean and Affordable Water for All.

The Word from Lansing is a regular column for Catholic news outlets and is written by Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC) President and CEO Paul A. Long. The Michigan Catholic Conference is the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in this state.