Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The city will reconnect with Detroit's system, but crumbling pipes remain a big problem.
Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced Thursday that the city of Flint would reconnect to Detroit’s water system, after more than a year’s worth of complaints and evidence that its current source—the Flint River—was delivering tainted water to residents.
Flint had pumped water from Detroit since the 1960s. But in April 2014, the city switched to water from its own Flint River, a move touted as cost-saving and as a symbol of the city’s independence from its neighbor to the south. The river was to be a temporary source of water until 2016, when construction on a pipeline from Lake Huron to mid-Michigan—a project intended to supply water to, and funded by, several Michigan counties—is expected to be completed.
But complaints about the Flint River water began almost immediately. It had a nasty smell and taste. Some residents spotted particles floating in it. Others experienced horrific physical reactions: dark black rashes, Measles-like hives, bloodshot eyes, hair loss, and diarrhea. In the summer of 2014, the city directed residents to boil their water, but residents kept getting sick.
This year, independent researchers found that the river water was corrosive—likely the result of excessive road salt seeping in. It burned through old lead pipes, particularly common in low-income neighborhoods, creating lead levels high above EPA standards. Bacteria and harmful chemicals were also found. Yet the city stood by its water source until now.
“A switch back to Detroit is the fastest way to protect public health and stabilize Flint’s water system,” said Flint Mayor Dayne Walling, via The Detroit News. “The city of Flint will contribute $2 million toward the [total $12 million] cost. ... And that’s money well-spent.”
But the root of Flint’s water troubles go beyond the city level, and some Congress members are calling on the state to cover the full cost. Like a number of economically troubled cities in Michigan, Flint’s finances are overseen by a state-appointed emergency manager, whose powers some residents have compared to that of a dictatorship. Flint’s decision to switch to river water came under its emergency manager, Jerry Ambrose, after residents complained about high rates for the Detroit water. In March, Ambrose called the Flint city council’s vote to "do all things necessary" to revert to the Detroit supply "incomprehensible," and vetoed the decision—a move within his powers.
“Flint is a financially distressed city, and it should not have to empty out its bank account to pay for the state’s failures,” said Congressman Dan Kildee in a statement. “The decision to switch to the Flint River water source was made while the city was under state emergency management, and now it is incumbent on Governor Snyder and the state to fix — and pay — for the problem they created.”
The state of Michigan also needs to take a good hard look at its crumbling lead pipes. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state a D in its last Infrastructure Report Card, estimating a need of $15 billion to upgrade drinking and waste water systems over the next two decades. Flint may be an extreme example of what can happen with decaying and outdated water infrastructure, but it’s not unusual in its inability to fund better maintenance. Alana Semuels wrote in The Atlantic in July:
Like many cities in America, Flint has lost residents but still has to provide services like water and sewer and road maintenance within the same boundaries. All while bringing in less tax revenue to pay for it. Flint has not had the money to spend on crucial infrastructure upgrades, and has left old pipes in place for longer than most engineers would recommend. Water prices are rising in Flint, like they are in lots of other cities, but the quality of water is getting worse, not better.
It’s unclear what the current rates will be for Flint customers when the city switches back to Detroit water. As of last year, residents were paying about eight times the national average water rate for their tainted supply.
Meanwhile, nationwide, nearly $1.1 billion sits unspent in Drinking Water State Revolving Funds, the federal aid program designed to improve drinking water systems. “Project delays, poor management by some states and structural problems” have meant “many states are not on track to meet a goal set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which wants any money dating back to 2013 to be spent by next year,” the AP reports.
Flint residents will be getting clean water. But when it comes to equitable water access, the politics are as dirty as ever.