Will the Flint Water Crisis Refocus America on Unsafe Drinking Water?

If there is one potentially positive side effect of the situation, it could be that all the media attention shines a light on the larger water infrastructure problems the U.S. faces.

The public health crisis in Flint, Mich., is a man-made disaster. An unfortunately titled “emergency manager” appointed by the governor to oversee the city’s finances made the decision to switch drinking water sources from Lake Huron to the Flint River to save money.

The river water was highly corrosive, causing lead to leach into the drinking water. State and federal regulators were slow to respond to residents’ concerns and either minimized or ignored the lead problem for months.

The people of Flint will be dealing with the repercussions for years. But if there is one potentially positive side effect of the situation, it could be that all the media attention shines a light on the larger water infrastructure problems the U.S. faces. Much of the nation’s water infrastructure is reaching the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) report card on U.S. infrastructure notes that there are more than 240,000 water main breaks in the country each year. That same report gave the nation an overall “D” grade for drinking water infrastructure.

“The fact is we have a $126 billion need, but only $42 billion in revenue coming in,” said Greg DiLoreto, past president of the ASCE. “It comes down to the fact that we have to invest more in the system if we want to continue to have a safe, reliable drinking water system. If we don’t, we’re going to have a lot more Flint, Michigans.”

DiLoreto, former CEO of the Tualatin Valley Water District in Oregon, said that of course his utility colleagues’ first priority is to ensure safe drinking water, and whatever funding is left over is used for repair and replacement of pipes ­— and that is where the shortfall is.

How does this situation affect emergency managers? DiLoreto explained that water line systems are designed and sized primarily for fire flow. “As these main breaks happen, sometimes there is just no water to an area, so now we have placed it at risk until we get it repaired, and the more of those breaks you have, the more potential risk you have,” he said. When the main breaks, it’s not so much a health risk, but it is an inconvenience, he added, so people have to buy bottled water. In Flint’s case, that was a health risk, and they are drinking bottled water, which is much more expensive than the drinking water provided by the utility in the community.

On Jan. 16, President Obama issued an emergency declaration that makes available federal aid for the drinking water crisis in Flint. In response, David LaFrance, CEO of the American Water Works Association, released a statement highlighting the AWWA’s 2012 report, Buried No Longer, which estimated that repairing and expanding drinking water infrastructure in the United States will cost more than $1 trillion over 25 years, an expense that will be largely borne by water customers. The figure does not include the cost of removing lead service lines on private property.

“The experience of Flint underscores the importance of public communications about lead risks,” LaFrance said. “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.”

The water infrastructure situation in New York City illustrates the challenges many local governments face. With billions of dollars devoted to filtering the city’s water and cleaning its harbor, less money has been available the last few years for maintenance of its water and sewage pipes. From 2001 to 2007, nearly 300 miles of sewers were constructed or reconstructed. But from 2008 to 2014, only 118 miles saw work, according to Adam Forman, senior researcher at the Center for an Urban Future, who has studied the city’s water needs.

“The biggest issue with New York City’s water infrastructure is that a lot of money has gone into purifying the water that comes from our watershed — disinfection plants to make sure our water is clean,” he explained. Meeting these unfunded federal mandates means less money has gone into the city’s water distribution system.

“We are seeing the effects of that underinvestment in our distribution system in the form of more water main breaks,” Forman said. There were 513 water main breaks in 2014. The city also suffers from water main leakage, which might not turn off the water system in the way a main break does, but it leads to issues such as a water main leaking onto a gas main and electric lines, and that can cause disintegration of those pipes and lead to emergency situations.

Up and down the East Coast, other municipalities face similar situations. “Old cities have old infrastructure. That is not a big surprise,” said Forman. “But I think we are now seeing the effects of how vulnerable these old infrastructure systems are and how important it is to start replacing it at a much faster rate than we have been doing.”

There always seems to be money to build new highways, even new water mains, Forman added, yet “funding has gone down considerably from federal sources for maintenance, and we are seeing the effects of that. The federal government is insisting on improvements to the system, but not actually helping with the funding.”

Coastal cities like New York also must deal with climate change’s impact on sea-level rise and increased flooding, including damage to wastewater systems. A New York City Department of Design and Construction presentation noted that during Hurricane Sandy, 10 of its 14 wastewater plants experienced some flooding or process issues, and three lost the ability to treat wastewater for some duration of time. A citywide study found that all 14 treatment plants and 60 percent of pumping stations are at risk of flooding. In addition, the study determined that investing $315 million to $426 million in strategic fortification could safeguard $1.1 billion in vital infrastructure and save the city $2.5 billion in emergency response costs over the next 50 years.

Could the Flint crisis mobilize efforts to increase water rates and find federal and state funds for investment? “This is a great policy window for major reforms, major investments,” said Forman. “Flint brought people’s attention to the quality of our water supply and distribution system. Politicians are definitely trying to seize this opportunity. There was a rash of gas line explosions earlier in this decade and that led to an effort to replace older gas lines, and I think similarly now there is a lot of attention on water infrastructure, and hopefully that will spur similar investments.”

Sixty miles east of Flint, emergency management officials in St. Clair County, Mich., have dealt with water infrastructure issues by proactively developing plans for dealing with potential water outages. Across the border in Ontario sit some of the largest chemical complexes in North America. Any chemical spill could impact the drinking water taken from the St. Clair River, said Jeff Friedland, emergency manager for St. Clair County.

A few years ago, a vessel reported to the Canadian Coast Guard that a large amount of chemicals was pouring into the St. Clair River. The city of Sarnia, Ontario, responded and found not chemicals, but stormwater runoff going over the sea wall, and the event was closed. But when Friedland came into work the next morning, he had 75 phone messages about it waiting for him. “People were saying the water was not drinkable and the water plant was shut down,” he said. “What had happened was that social media had just exploded and we weren’t aggressively looking at social media.” Now St. Clair County is working to develop digital volunteers to help get factual information out.

 As part of an all-hazards assessment, the county’s vital infrastructure team conducts regular water user surveys, and has done several things to improve preparedness for an emergency impacting drinking water. “We have the Everbridge mass notification system, and our partners in Lambton County in Ontario have the same system,” Friedland said. The county is preparing to participate in CAUSE IV (Canada-U.S. Enhanced Resiliency Experiment) to improve information-sharing and situational awareness between the two countries. “Our whole water distribution system is mapped out,” he said. “We are building a quick notification tool for critical users along the river.”

Does Friedland think the Flint situation will change anything? “I hope so,” he said. “Before Flint, anytime you talked about a water crisis, people would say they were prepared. They had bottles of drinking water stored. But when you look at Flint, you see that it impacts cooking, bathing and simple things such as brushing your teeth. We are so accustomed to a storm coming through and dealing with power outages.

Everyone is buying generators. They just don’t get the concept that if you don’t have water at all, the effects are huge. It is beyond the bottled drinking water.”

When it comes to making the case to people for increasing water bills to pay for infrastructure improvements, DiLoreto asks them to compare their drinking water bill with their cable bill or cellphone bill and ask which one you must have in life.

“The fact is we are underinvesting in all our infrastructure, and our infrastructure works together,” he said. “We are talking about drinking water, but without a reliable electricity system, it won’t matter how great the wastewater or drinking water system is because they require electricity to work.”

This article was originally published on Emergency Management.

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