The Flint, Mich., water crisis is an issue with so many layers, it will take a long time to get at them all. But one fact it instantly brought to light is the possibility for danger that can lurk out of sight, out of mind, in our nation’s water infrastructure.
On Jan. 16, President Obama issued an emergency declaration that makes available federal aid for the drinking water crisis in Flint. On Jan. 19, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder apologized to the people of Michigan in his State of the State address.
“More than roads, we have a hidden problem ... underground, some pipes are over 100 years old. Some are made of wood. Others are made of lead,” Snyder said, according to an MLive.com report.
Two years ago, Flint temporarily switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the notoriously less-than-clean Flint River as a cost-saving measure. One thing that wasn’t part of the deal? Corrosion control, which would have prevented lead from entering Flint’s water supply. According to a Time magazine report, the river itself was found to contain eight times more chloride than Detroit’s water.
What happened in Flint is nothing short of tragic, and the fallout will continue for decades to come. But we in the industry also must utilize this story a somber example to further the case for infrastructure upgrades where they are needed most. Now that our industry has firm footing in national headlines, we must leverage that stage to educate the general public about the importance of maintaining and replacing our nation’s aging infrastructure. The story hits so close to home, and we must ask the tough questions.
The industry also must empower the general public to be their own water stewards.
“The experience of Flint underscores the importance of public communications about lead risks,” said David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Assn. (AWWA), in a press release. “Water utility customers should know how to determine if they have lead service lines, the benefits of removing lead service lines, and the steps to protect themselves and their families from lead exposure.”
According to AWWA’s 2012 Buried No Longer report, repairing and expanding drinking water infrastructure in the U.S. bears a price tag of more than $1 trillion over 25 years, an expense that will be largely borne by water customers. That figure did not include the cost of removing lead service lines on private property. Now that this sobering statistic has received a spotlight, we must work together as an industry to remedy it and let it be heard that lead-contaminated drinking water in the U.S. in 2016 is unacceptable.
Stay tuned for continuing coverage of the Flint crisis.