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Michigan’s rural communities are struggling with aging drinking water systems and less money to fix them.

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Old Water Faucet by Rubén Díaz Alonso is licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
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Many of Michigan’s rural communities are struggling with aging drinking water systems and less money to fix them. As part of a series by the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Michigan Radio’s Lester Graham reports it’s a result of fewer state and federal dollars and putting off tough decisions at the local level.

Which way am I going?

Well, I guess you want to see downtown this way.

Marvin Hasso, Junior is showing me around Akron, Michigan. Population 349. Back in 1980, it had 538 residents, but there’s been a steady decline.

Hasso is the one man Department of Public Works.

And here's our tower in the late 50s.

From here, it looks good, it looks small, but it looks good.

The biggest issue is really the size. They would like you to have a day and a half's worth of water. And we're we don't even have a day's worth of water in our tower.

The village’s water distribution system is old and now a smaller number of households has to pay for keeping it up.

Hasso “We do repairs if we have breaks, will replace a section. But, by and large, it's, you know, 98 percent the same system that went in in the late 50s.”

Some of the water mains should have been replaced over time. But, the village didn’t think it had the money.

Ten years ago, Akron asked the Michigan Rural Water Association to assess the system. The experts said the village needed to raise its water rates to have enough money to maintain the water system. The board members voted to raise prices, but not as much as recommended. They just didn’t think the residents could afford any more.

Neumann Too many small systems haven’t been charging accurate rates for longest time because city council, villages, township boards, you know, a lot of times some think they're doing the right thing by not raising rates and in the long run that hurts them.

That’s Tim Neumann, the Executive Director of the Michigan Rural Water Association.

He’s seen communities go five, ten, even 15 years without raising water rates. Then suddenly they have major problems and the rates have to be hiked by something like 50 percent. He says if those towns would have increased the price at just the rate of inflation, they would have had more money to deal with infrastructure problems before they became emergency repairs.

“There is a general lack of political will certainly raising people's water rates doesn't get you reelected.”

That’s Eric Oswald is the director of the Drinking Water and Environmental Health Division of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

He says there is a way to spread out the costs: the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. It’s federal money that states distribute in low interest loans. Some of it can be given to communities as a grant.

But, a study by the University of Michigan found that Michigan was dead last among the states for the number of municipalities accessing the State Revolving Fund loans.

“Part of our problem in the past is we have just not been our interest rates haven't been that competitive with what they can get on the outside of the state.

Oswald says the legislature and his agency are working toward a solution.

Akron and other small rural communities often pass up the State Revolving Fund in favor of a U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development and Environmental Programs. It’s a good fit for small, disadvantaged communities.

Recently, there’s been a fair amount of enthusiasm about money to fix some of Michigan’s water problems. The legislature and the governor approved a couple of billion dollars in federal stimulus funds for aging infrastructure. Michigan government leaders are also looking forward to the funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, more often called the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

But the influx of federal money is not nearly enough to fix Michigan’s water infrastructure problems.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment indicates Michigan needs to spend $13-billion to fix its drinking water systems.

Some experts say part of the solution for rural communities is working together. They say towns can explore whether they can share equipment or consolidate systems to save money.

“You'd be amazed at how hard they push back against suggestions about cooperation and working together,” said Eric Oswald at EGLE.

He concedes there are some legitimate concerns about civic pride and loss of control.

“But, I think we need to get more efficient about how we deliver our water and how we operate our water systems in the state. And at the end of the day we’re looking at a better product at lesser expense to the ratepayers.”

At the Michigan Rural Water Association, Tim Neumann agrees

“Some of these systems should be, you know, my opinion should be combined because it's going to help them in the long run.”

And if anything is clear, rural communities need to start thinking harder about things that will help sustain water service to their residents in the long run.