For the City of Flint, Michigan, the immediate problem is that the water it provides its citizens is not safe to drink. For many other communities across the nation, the problem may be whether they can do the things necessary to avoid a similar fate.
On Thursday, October 1, local health officials in Flint declared a public health emergency warning that the City’s public water supply is causing elevated lead levels in children (Water Crisis in Flint). Residents were warned not to drink the water unless it has been filtered at the tap, and the State’s governor promised to provide $1 million for filters and for water testing in public schools. Even before the discovery of lead concentrations, the City’s water was found to contain high levels of E. coli and other harmful bacteria. The City’s efforts to control the bacteria using large amount of chlorine created dangerously high levels of trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic by-product of chlorine (NPR).
Some of Flint’s drinking water problems are the result of things that are specific to its situation, including the judgments and diligence of local and State governments. Other factors seem to be more broadbased and likely to present problems in varying degrees in other communities.
Certainly Flint has experienced the types of financial problems increasingly common in the aging factory communities of the Midwest. Unlike Detroit, Flint did not declare bankruptcy, but for almost three-and-one-half years it was under the control of an emergency financial manager appointed by Michigan’s Governor, with that arrangement ending only last April. Among other things, the manager balked at paying increasingly higher prices for water being provided by Detroit, Flint’s historic source of drinking water. Construction of a water line from Lake Huron offered the prospect of a less expensive source, but that line won’t be completed until mid-2016. Yet Flint decided to sever ties with the Detroit system in April, 2014, and replace it for the interim with water from the Flint River. We now know that the river water not only contains high levels of harmful bacteria, it is corrosive, causing lead to leach from joints in the piping system. Although the use of river water was approved by State officials, the many problems leading to the declaration of a health emergency force the conclusion that the idea was not thoroughly considered nor was it adequately monitored in the early days of implementation. This pattern seems to have continued with efforts to solve initial problems, such as the E. coli concentration, causing additional public health risks.
More generally, Flint’s situation may reflect problems that will soon face many other communities around the nation. While the financial problems experienced by both Flint and Detroit have a number of causes, an issue for both cities is the increasing expense of maintaining and operating aging water systems. These issues are not isolated or unique as many communities are facing similar problems with infrastructure and operating costs. A 2011 report by the American Water Works Association estimates that restoring existing water systems as they reach the end of their useful lives and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years (Buried No Longer).
Providing funding for these costs will be a difficult task, but that is only a part of the problem. To avoid the problems facing the residents of Flint, governments, and private operators where they are involved, must do a better job of assessing the potential risks from particular sources of water and diligently monitoring the quality of the water provided to assure that public health is protected.
Update: Late Thursday, October 8, Michigan’s Governor Snyder announced his support for an interim solution that would reconnect Flint to the Detroit water system. The Governor will ask the legislature to provide most of the money needed to renew the connection and provide water through the middle of next year (Star Tribune).