Citizens voice frustrations, discuss next steps about how to address Three Rivers’ water problem

Organizer Michael Evans speaks to a crowd of approximately 40 concerned citizens at the Huss Project on Monday, October 9 during a community meeting regarding the quality and cost of Three Rivers' water. (Deborah Haak-Frost|Watershed Voice)

A group of over 40 people gathered Monday night at the Huss Project to discuss concerns about the state of the water supply in Three Rivers. Michael Evans, an “organizer in small town America and rural areas” who leads a group called With Many Hands, facilitated the “speak-out” meeting. 

The meeting was triggered by reports of lead found during city water testing, although general water quality and increasing water bills have been ongoing concerns in the community. In August, the City of Three Rivers announced it found more lead service lines while conducting a test of tap water in homes for lead and copper in accordance with the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act. In the first round of collecting first and fifth liter samples from 47 homes, six homes had results over 15 parts per billion (ppb), the federal limit for lead contamination. 

To begin the meeting, Evans introduced a panel of three citizens who gave prepared comments. Laura Armstrong, Amber Smith, and Maurice Kelly shared personal stories about their experiences with the water in Three Rivers, and warned of the health risks of lead exposure, particularly for children and the elderly. 

Armstrong is a nurse who works with elderly patients and is concerned about their wellbeing when they have no options besides unfiltered tap water. “As a nurse in Three Rivers, I worry about my patients who are elderly, most with Alzheimer’s and dementia, who have to consume this water by no choice of their own, and [who are] unaware of the problem.” 

Smith is concerned about children under five-years-old in the city, who make up “over 14% of our community,” and wonders what effect lead exposure will have for them down the road. “How is that going to affect their adulthood, how they work, how they learn, how they move through society?”

Kelly told a story about his daughter’s skin issues as a result of drinking the water and voiced the need for action. “The price of doing nothing is not an option for me. Somebody’s got to do something. Me, us, you, all of us together. Somebody has to do something about this. Because the future of my kids and all our kids is at stake. And I’m not ready to take that chance.”

All three panelists described the cost of buying bottled water and filters in addition to the high city bills. Kelly said, “I’m paying twice for water that I can’t even drink.”

After the panel spoke, Evans opened up the floor for attendees to speak. A handful of citizens voiced similar concerns about the price and quality of city water, and shared stories about how city water has allegedly affected their health. Many said they were frustrated by the response from city officials, saying their concerns have not been adequately addressed. One attendee shared their challenges as a renter who is unable to get the water tested themselves, and who is concerned about rent increasing because of the increased cost of city water.   

City Commissioners Torrey Brown and Lucas Allen were in attendance, echoing citizens’ concerns and encouraging residents to attend commission meetings to voice their concerns and to discuss their increasing water bills with the finance staff. Brown stated he was attending as a concerned citizen, but clarified that water bills have been increasing as a result of the city’s work to test pipes for lead. Allen said he did not vote for the rate increase for water, but encouraged citizens to take advantage of faucet and pitcher filters available through the city and the local health department. 

Evans concluded the meeting by presenting a few options for next steps, and gauging interest levels from attendees by a show of hands. He proposed meeting with state officials in Lansing, inviting state officials to Three Rivers, and meeting with the city commission to address what he calls “a systemic problem.”

“Many of you have seen me at your doors, but we’re thinking, certainly, we need help from Lansing,” he said. “The City of Three Rivers alone and its budget cannot deal with this kind of what we call a systemic problem. So, we have two options with Lansing over the next few months: We could invite officials to come here, [and/or] we could set up a meeting in Lansing and get a bus and have a delegation of folks go up and talk. […] And another big local issue I think we’re going to have to have a lot of conversation and negotiation over is the recent increases in the cost of water, and the shock everyone is feeling over the results of the lead testing.” 

Attendees expressed support for all three proposals. Evans stated his organization will start the process of reaching out to Lansing officials, and to set up a meeting with city officials, while keeping in touch with attendees who provided contact information, and communicating next steps to the community through various methods. 

The panelists who opened the meeting said they were encouraged by the turnout and look forward to what comes next. Kelly said this is the kind of thing that can increase the pressure to make change and get the attention of lawmakers. “I think we need to get their attention. That’s the only way we’re going to get anything done. Like I said, if we do nothing, nothing will happen. So, we’ve got to get their attention and let them know.”

Deborah Haak-Frost is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.