Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
It's not a commodity—it's a basic human right.
What is the dollar value of water? In Flint, Michigan, the answer is zero.
Ten people there have now died from Legionnaire's disease, a form of pneumonia likely linked to bacteria in the city’s water. Lead levels perilously above federal limits have put 9,000 young children at risk of blood poisoning. Countless residents have complained of rashes, hair loss, and headaches caused by their taps. The city’s pipes have suffered hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.
And yet, after nearly two years of living with poisonous water and astonishing government negligence, Flint residents still pay between $100 and $200 a month for their water bills. For a predominantly low-income community, those bills add insult to injury. "We've been paying for it for so long," resident Tyrone Wooten told Mic. "Sometimes it's like, 'Don't flush the toilets sometimes; we don't know how much that costs.' "
How did Flint get here? And what does this crisis say about the true value of water? Is it a commodity? Is it a service? Is it a human right?
These are not just navel-gazing questions for economists and philosophers. Clear answers might have helped avoid disaster in Flint—and they can help chart a road map for some resolution.
Filthy water, filthy politics
In April 2014, under the direction of a state-appointed emergency manager, the nearly bankrupt city opted to switch its water supply from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Supply over to its own Flint River. The plan was to use the local supply as a cost-cutting measure while Flint waited to connect to an under-construction pipeline carrying water from Lake Huron.
But for reasons that remain obscure, state environmental regulators opted not to treat the salt-loaded Flint River water with an anti-corrosive agent. Complaints of rusty, brown, stinky water surfaced almost immediately after the switch. Tests discovered fecal coliform bacteria, and the city sent out boil advisories in early 2015. Engineers upped the amount of chlorine in the water, which created toxic chemical byproducts.
Still, officials insisted the water was still fine to drink—even after Virginia Tech scientists independently confirmed that it also contained lead levels at least twice the EPA limit.
In September 2015, a local pediatrician revealed elevated lead levels in children’s blood tests. Finally, in October, city and state officials urged residents to stop drinking the water. In January 2016, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency, called in the National Guard, and asked President Obama for federal aid. Flint has since reconnected to Detroit’s water system.
At no point have citizens of Flint ever stopped paying exorbitant costs for their tap water—which many have also supplemented with expensive bottled water. In some ways, the prices reflect one of the root problems of Flint’s present situation: A tax base shattered by depopulation. With fewer residents to pay for water, Flint charges more per customer.
Water as a commodity
Unless you’ve got a well or a river, most of us can’t opt out of the water “grid.” We are forced to be utility customers, creating what’s called a natural monopoly.
This doesn’t mean utilities can set prices however they want. Usually there is a public commission involved and political reputations on the line. Utilities also often subsidize a minimum amount of water that’s necessary for survival, and are able to charge lower prices when there’s economy of scale: more demand, cheaper prices.
The question for cities is how this utility structure plans to sell its product—in this case, water. If water is pretty pretty much like any commodity, such as oil, corn, shoes, or potato chips, then utilities find or create more supply as their customer base demands it. But unlike chips or shoes, people need water to survive. You can’t just not buy water.
So thinking of water as a commodity is dangerous territory in smaller, economically distressed cities, where there’s little cash to subsidize the costs of treating and moving water, and few customers to spread out the expense. People can wind up forced to pay through the nose for water, like in Detroit and other cities in Michigan. To make matters worse, Flint’s water was completely unsuited for its intended purpose—and still, customers are forced to pay unaffordable rates for it.
Water as a service
Maybe water should be thought of as more as a service. Actually, this is closer to how utilities price it: They don’t charge people for molecules, but rather for the treatment and conveyance that makes water safe and accessible from your tap. Paying the water bill, then, is sort of like paying taxes for the fire department, for public parks, or for the courts. It’s less about the quantity of water, and more about the quality.
If water is a service, then Flint residents should have to pay nothing for it—at least until their government can demonstrate that it’s safe to drink. Citizens should be compensated for the bills they paid during the time that their local utility, along with their state government, did not provide a safe and adequate water service to them.
Where should this money come from? That’s the responsibility of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the federal EPA. Those agencies should work together to refund this money and to restore trust in Flint water. Marc Edwards, the lead Virginia Tech civil engineer who helped blow the lid off Flint’s contaminated water, suggests how to accomplish this task:
For us, we’d be satisfied if Flint was protected by the same law that applies to every other city in the United States of America. That law requires: 1) corrosion control, and 2) monitoring that proves more than 90% of high risk homes sample below the EPA Action Level of 15 ppb.
Flint has begun to add corrosion control and will need to continue testing to prove to citizens that the water is suitable to drink. But trusting the water will also mean trusting government officials, which will mean those officials should work with people who Flint residents have confidence in, like Edwards and that local pediatrician. And eventually, the city’s pipes will probably have to be replaced—a $1.5 billion proposition.
Water as a human right
When the water is demonstrably safe and adequate for the people of Flint, it might be ethical to charge for it. But that doesn’t mean residents should keep forking over $200 per month. Affordable water, according to the U.N., is also human right.
That’s not to say people are entitled to use as much water as they want, so long as they can pay. But somewhere between 13 and 26 gallons of water per day is necessary for survival. Flint residents should get safe access to at least that amount at an affordable price.
How can government ensure this right is recognized? It’s not just a question for Flint but for the entire country, because the problems that led to Flint’s water crisis are not unique. Like Detroit, San Bernardino, Camden, and so many other cities, Flint had hemorrhaged population, watched local poverty skyrocket, and found itself unable to pay its bills from local revenue. When the city’s emergency manager switched water supplies in 2014, Flint had already slashed its police force by two-thirds. It had already cut its fire department. It had seen homicides and arson jump, and yet the city cut back further—so far back it couldn’t ensure the most fundamental need, water.
This is a matter of urgent policy. State, local, and federal taxpayers need to stand up for those services and behind a city’s ability to protect their basic services at affordable rates. And legislators need to draw a line that bankrupt cities cannot cross when it comes to cutting costs.
Because what happens when those services are slashed, oversight fails, government doesn’t intervene, and the state and city do not properly share revenue? In Flint, “human tragedy is resulting,” says Michelle Wilde Anderson, a scholar of public law at Stanford University. “There are things that are too important to bargain away in the conversation about debt repayment.”
Local governments are obliged to provide for basic services, regardless of a city’s, or a citizen’s, ability to pay. States and the federal government should work together to figure out how to cover those costs.
For the moment, though, can Flint residents opt not to pay for their unusable water? As of now, that would be act of civil disobedience. It’s up to their government to grapple with the question of what Flint’s water is worth at all—and what more a traumatized city should possibly be asked to pay.