Flint crisis: a cautionary tale about America’s water supply

The lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Mich., demonstrates the consequences of quick fixes in the face of financial woes, experts say. But it also is exposing a greater need in cities around the country.

Dale G. Young/The Detroit News via AP
Samuel Smith is happy to receive a case of bottled water and a new water filter at his home on Mallery St. in Flint, Mich., as volunteers accompanied by Michigan State Police and Genesee County Sheriff's Deputies bring residents water filters and bottled water on Tuesday. Volunteers and police carrying bottled water, filters and lead test kits knocked on doors in Flint on Tuesday, seeking to help residents in the Michigan city that's confronting a water crisis.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) mobilized the National Guard late Tuesday to help dispense filters and water bottles in Flint, as state and local officials struggle to deal with the city’s water crisis a year and a half after it began.

The order is meant to boost aid to Flint residents, whose tap water was tainted with lead after the city changed its source of drinking water in 2014 in an effort to cut costs. On Oct. 1 – more than a year after the switch and after test results revealed that children had elevated levels of lead in their systems – Michigan officials declared a public health emergency.

The crisis is emblematic of the consequences when local leaders seek quick fixes in the face of financial troubles, experts say. That’s especially true in Flint, where the deficit soared as high as $19 million in 2012 and about 40 percent of the population fall below the poverty rate.

But the city’s drinking water disaster also stems from a conundrum both deeper and broader in scope, water policy experts say. Decades of inadequate replacement and repair of aging water infrastructure has resulted in a nationwide problem that cuts across income brackets and city lines. These water systems need to be replaced – at a cost of perhaps $330 billion nationwide.

“Flint is a microcosm,” says Robert Glennon, a professor of law and public policy at the University of Arizona in Tuscon and author of the book, “Unquenchable: America's Water Crisis and What To Do About It.” “The maintenance of water systems and wastewater systems is not just an urban problem, or a problem for places with low-income residents. It’s a problem all over the nation that needs to be addressed.”

Addressing it isn't going to be cheap – but it's essential to public health and safety. And for cities like Flint, one of the poorest in America, that becomes an added challenge.

“You’ve got to keep in mind – the requirements are the requirements whether you’re a growing, prosperous city or a city with a lot of low-income residents and people moving out,” says Adam Krantz, chief executive of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) in Washington, D.C. “You have to do what everyone is doing, but without the same capacities.”

Flint's tainted water

The crisis in Flint, some say, is partly a result of a leadership struggling under financial strain.

In 2013, Flint city officials voted to stop buying water from Detroit – which it had been doing since 1967 – and join a new pipeline project that would source water from Lake Huron. Officials estimated the switch would save the city $19 million over eight years, but the project wasn’t due to be finished until late 2016. Detroit, meanwhile, was set to shut off its water supply to the city in the spring of 2014.

City leaders announced that until the pipeline was completed, Flint would pump water from the Flint River to the city’s water plant, where it would be treated before being distributed. The switch occurred on April 25, 2014 – and complaints quickly poured in from residents, who noted a bad taste and odor in their tap water.

Then-Mayor Dayne Walling and emergency manager Darnell Earley maintained the water was safe, according to MLive.com. But the problems mounted: Fecal coliform bacteria was found in the water four months after the switch, and later, high levels of trihalomethanes (TTHM) – a chemical compound that, over time, is known to cause a range of medical issues – were also discovered. The city issued boil-water advisories but declined Detroit’s offer to reconnect to its water supply.

Soon, residents began reporting rashes, hair falling out, and headaches, especially among children.

In the fall of 2015, Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards confirmed it was the water: Tests from local samples found that supply from the Flint River was more corrosive than Detroit’s, and ate away at the lead in the city’s underground pipe system. Ten percent of homes in Flint had 25 parts per billion (ppb) of lead or more, exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recommendation of lead levels at or below 15 ppb, the study found.

What’s more, “Several samples exceeded 100 ppb, and one sample collected after 45 seconds of flushing exceeded 1000 ppb,” Dr. Edwards and his colleagues wrote on their study’s website. “Flint has a very serious lead in water problem.”

Following the release of the results, Michigan officials declared a state of emergency. In late December – after months of defending the safety of Flint’s water supply – Governor Snyder issued an apology.

“I want the Flint community to know how very sorry I am that this has happened,” Snyder said. “And I want all Michigan citizens to know that we will learn from this experience … I'm taking the actions today to ensure a culture of openness and trust.”

The governor's office did not return a request for comment in time for deadline.

Flint residents have said they feel betrayed.

"It's sad, it's frustrating, it's irritating because it's like nobody cares," Elena Richardson, whose pediatrician told her the tainted drinking water may be behind her children's symptoms, told CBS News.

While state and municipal leaders' initial decision to switch water sources out of financial need may have been understandable, their inaction amid residents’ concerns following the shift was inexcusable, says Erik Olson, senior strategic director for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s health program.

“There’s no more fundamental government service than providing safe water for your citizens – and if you can’t do that, you’re not doing your job,” says Mr. Olson, who since the 1980s has worked on issues around drinking water safety, including as general counsel for the EPA.

“Yes, you can say you’re saving money by switching water sources,” he continues. “But in the long-run, if you have kids that are lead-poisoned across the city, how much is that going to cost?”

The value of water

Flint, some experts say, is illustrative of a larger problem. Poor asset management, shrinking federal and state budgets, and a lack of political will to address the issue over decades has left the US with deteriorating water and wastewater systems – some dating back to the Civil War era – in urgent need of repair and replacement.

With more than one million miles of water mains across the country, the cost of restoring and expanding them to serve a growing population could cost up to $1 trillion over the next 25 years, the American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates. The EPA’s forecasts are more conservative – an investment of just over $330 billion over 20 years – but even those remain well above the $1.38 billion state and local governments are spending annually on drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers reports.

At the heart of the issue, some say, is how Americans value water.

“In many ways, drinking water utilities have been a victim of their own success in providing safe and reliable service,” says Greg Kail, the AWWA’s director of communications. As the infrastructure starts to fail, however, and federal funding remains stagnant, the burden to pay for repairs has moved increasingly to state and local agencies – and to customers.  

Already an issue that politicians tend to shun – “No elected official wants to run on a platform of, ‘I fixed your sewer system,’ ” says Professor Glennon – raising the price of water is a tough proposition to Americans who for generations have been able to retrieve safe, clean drinking water from their taps.

“If you consider what the water infrastructure provides, you’d be hard pressed to find a more essential service. But it’s simply not something that we think about every day,” Mr. Kail notes.

That attitude may be changing, as the consequences of neglected water systems become more apparent: In Flint, it’s poisoning from lead in old pipes. In Toledo, Ohio, it’s harmful algal bloom, a result of defective septic systems and runoff of over-fertilized fields. In Los Angeles, it’s a pattern of water main breaks due to pipes that are more than 80 years old.

“This issue increasingly is being brought up by mayors and city councils across the country, and affordability concerns are front and center,” says the NACWA’s Krantz.

In response, some cities are launching initiatives to upgrade their water systems, as well as developing sustainable funding mechanisms to aid those efforts. Chicago, for instance, is in the middle of a 10-year plan, begun in 2012, to replace 900 miles of century-old pipes throughout the city – a project financed in part by cutting payroll at the Department of Water Management, raising water rates, and partnering with private contractors.

Next door to Flint, the city of Burton – using the state of Michigan’s revolving fund for drinking water infrastructure projects – has likewise begun to replace its 1930s water mains, but with cheaper, non-corrosive, environmentally-friendly PVC pipes. The effort received an award from Genesee County in November.

In the end, different cities will need to respond differently depending on their own needs, says Krantz. Once Flint has safe drinking water again, leaders there will need to think about how to finance a long-term effort to upgrade the city’s infrastructure, he notes.

Citing a decline in federal funds since the 1970s, Krantz adds that the federal government will need to step in to provide support. That's particularly true in areas with large low-income communities like Flint, Krantz adds.

Whatever the case, what’s clear is “we can’t stay on the path that we’re on,” says the NRDC’s Olson. “This is clearly a nationwide problem and we do need a national solution.”  

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