The Flint River near downtown Flint, Michigan. AP Photo/Paul Sancya

One civil engineer says it would be less laborious and more cost-effective.

The current price on removing all lead service pipes in Flint, Michigan, is $55 million, as Mayor Karen Weaver announced at a press conference Tuesday.

In the wake of a drinking water crisis that’s risen to national attention, millions of dollars have poured into Flint from the state, the federal government, and private donors. It would be surprising if the city has trouble coming up with the money that Weaver is budgeting.

But what about for other towns around the U.S.? While the scope of the crisis and level of attention in Flint is unique, the infrastructure problem is not. All over the county, leaders are grappling with how to manage or replace aging, lead-addled water-distribution systems, with shrinking tax bases to boot. Does digging up all lead service lines to replace them make fiscal sense for cities deep in the red?

On his urban planning blog Strong Towns, the civil engineer Charles Marohn suggests that a more sound approach for cities in this situation may be to install an entirely new system that runs parallel to old lead pipes. The old system could stay in place and continue to serve the purpose it was really designed for: fighting fires.

Marohn explains why the super-high capacity of many municipal water systems doesn’t really serve the purpose of distributing drinking water:

Let's say you live on a 50-foot lot and there is a small, eight-inch water pipe running in front of your house. There is 130 gallons sitting in that pipe right now. If the water was just for drinking, that's enough for 260 people (half a gallon each). If we counted water for sanitation, it's still enough for 26 people. And that's just in the pipe. There are many multiples of that stored for you in other parts of the system. If the problem is getting people water for drinking and bathing, our current approach is overkill.

Replacing high-capacity systems with another high-capacity system—as Flint is gearing up to do—doesn’t make sense, Marohn believes. “We’d be putting back the same failed systems that are just a millstone around cities’ necks,” he tells CityLab. “They’re enormously expensive to maintain. We have to come up with some lighter touches.” Marohn suggests that the parallel drinking water system could be made of PVC and copper, and that most of these pipes could be simply plowed several feet into the groundno expensive, laborious trench-digging needed.

Is there wisdom in Marohn’s elegant-sounding proposal in the case of Flint? Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor of civil engineering who has spearheaded lead testing in Flint, tells CityLab via email that it is “one viable approach for dealing with a distribution system that is over-sized for the current population.” He adds: “Someone will have to look at all the alternatives, and complete a cost-benefit analysis.”

What about for other cities drowning in infrastructure costs? Greg DiLoreto, the former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, tells CityLab that Marohn’s two-pipe system approach could adequately provide lead-free drinking water, but that it would ignore the other big problem with the existing infrastructure: it’s old and failing.

“If you just put in drinking water pipes, then those lead pipes for fighting fires are still not reliable,” DiLoreto says. “Less expensive alternatives should be considered, but if the old system fails, then you haven’t got fire protection.”

That’s a big reason why most cities rely on high-capacity systems that essentially combine drinking water and firefighting water. But Marohn’s point is still valid. On top of dangerous lead levels in water systems well beyond Flint, the U.S. sees roughly 240,000 water main breaks per year, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. It’s going to cost about $1 trillion to replace the pipes that need replacing.

Marohn’s proposal, while imperfect, is a reminder that cities scrambling to keep the most basic services running need lower-cost alternatives when it comes to providing safe, reliable infrastructure—without cutting corners. As Flint knows all too well, that can lead to tragedy.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A man walks his dog on a hilltop overlooking San Francisco in the early morning hours on Mount Davidson.
    Equity

    When Millennials Battle Boomers Over Housing

    In Generation Priced Out, Randy Shaw examines how Boomers have blocked affordable housing in urban neighborhoods, leaving Millennial homebuyers in the lurch.

  2. A photo shows the Amazon logo on a building.
    Amazon HQ2

    Amazon’s HQ2 Spectacle Isn’t Just Shameful—It Should Be Illegal

    Each year, local governments spend nearly $100 billion to move headquarters and factories between states. It’s a wasteful exercise that requires a national solution.

  3. A photo of a resident of Community First Village, a tiny-home community for people who were once living in homelessness, outside of Austin, Texas.!
    Design

    Austin's Fix for Homelessness: Tiny Houses, and Lots of Neighbors

    Community First! Village’s model for ending homelessness emphasizes the stabilizing power of social connections.

  4. A photo of a small small house in San Francisco's Noe Valley that sold for $1.8 million in 2014.
    Equity

    Single-Family Zoning: The Biggest Battle in the Generational Housing War

    As cities wake up to their housing crises, the problems with single-family-home residential zoning will become too egregious to ignore.

  5. Cyclists and walks use a trail beside Lady Bird Lake in Austin, Texas.
    Life

    HQ2 Is Only Part of the Story of Big-Tech Expansion

    Amazon HQ2 may be split between superstar cities, but San Francisco’s big tech firms are starting to expand into smaller, non-coastal places.