Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Flint and water water everywhere and not a drop to drink

Bottle of WSSC water...from the tapA bottle of water produced by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which operates in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties in Maryland.

The Brookings Institution produced a piece, "Flint’s water crisis highlights need for infrastructure investment and innovation," arguing that what has happened in Flint with the destruction of the water system there is an illustration of failures to innovate and invest in infrastructure.

While it's convenient to use the Flint situation as an example of why we should be investing in infrastructure, it's a serious misreading of what happened in Flint.  The real issues are different ("State admits Flint did not follow federal rules designed to keep lead out of water," Michigan Public Radio; "Documents show Flint filed false reports about testing for lead in water," Flint Journal).

To me, it is an example of overreach of the execution of Republican ideology about government as "bad" by definition.

While it is true that cities that have lost their manufacturing base--and Flint is a primary example--are financial basket cases, and decaying water supply systems are susceptible to corrosion and water main breaks, and require significant new investment, the problem in Flint with the water system was the result of a sadly simple failure: the water department didn't properly treat the water with the right set of chemicals to head off corrosion and the release of harmful chemicals and particulates into the water.

The Flint water treatment plant is pictured on Thursday, April 17, 2014. The City of Flint is planning on switching from Lake Huron to the Flint River as the primary water source for city residents and businesses. Samuel Wilson |

Before the switch from "Detroit water" to water from the Flint River, the facility should have (1) tested Flint River water (2) to determine what combination of chemicals would limit potential problems with corrosion (3) to treat the water with (4) once the switch between water sources was made  (5) before releasing the water for distribution to customers.

But they didn't.

Flint's government is under the control of the State of Michigan, which had taken it over--appointing an "Emergency Financial Manager"--because the city was broke.  So all city government agencies including the water department, were ultimately were under the control of the state government.

It's also an example of a cover up, because the state government lied about the failure to treat the water, once the consequences could no longer be ignored.

Image from "Flint, Michigan residents fight lead poisoning of water supply," World Wide Socialist Website.

As reported by other sources, problems with the water were evident immediately after the switch.  In response to water impurities, a local hospital and a manufacturing plant secured water from other sources, particulates in the water and the impact of the particulates (from corrosion) on their processes.

Those actions should have been the trigger for the state agency overseeing water systems (the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) to step in and ensure the water treatment facility was in fact treating the water.

Instead, they did nothing, stating that the water was being treated properly.

More than the issue of "infrastructure and innovation," the question for me is how does what happened in Flint illustrate the neoliberal narrative that the private sector and "the market" are better at "doing government business" than is the government.

Despite the change in the source of the water, there was no preordained reason for the failure of the water system in Flint.

There are thousands of municipal water systems across the country that are managed quite well.  Although water rates have risen quite a bit in the past few years because of the cost of complying with federal mandates on the treatment and discharge of storm water runoff and protecting water supplies from tampering--the cost to comply for many systems runs more than $1 billion.  So prices go up, but people blame "management," when that's not the problem (past blog entry, "How do you 'reform' a crumbling sewer line?").

DC Water water bottle refill program
When government fails it's usually the consequence of either of two things:  (1) political decisions disconnected from "evidence" but more based on ideology or (2) deliberate disinvestment and underfunding of agencies.

And when it does fail it's criticized for failure without acknowledging that funding and/or political and ideological decision making was the root cause, that government by definition isn't incapable.  But proponents of the market use such failures to prove their case that government is inept by definition.

What happened in Flint is comparable to FEMA's failure under President Bush to respond adequately to Hurricane Katrina? ("Undone by Neoliberalism," The Nation).  Or the continued inability of local government to respond adequately to flooding in England and Wales, in the face of annual reductions to their budgets by the central government ("After the floods, local government is fighting to stay afloat," Guardian).

No consequences.  Except for the fact that the Michigan Legislature is controlled by the Republican Party, shouldn't Governor Snyder be impeached?  (I don't know if Michigan has an impeachment or recall process for the position of Governor.  It should.)

Municipal water systems can be innovative.  While Brookings calls for more innovation on the part of local governments, using the Flint water system as an example, the reality is that many water agencies are innovative, in either operations or marketing, especially compared to the norm of government agency operation.

Speaking of innovation, photos of bottles of brown water drawn from the Flint water system remind me of the efforts of various municipal water systems to promote the use of tap water as opposed to bottled water sold for a profit by private firms.

DC Water Authority truck branded with their "drink tap water" campaignIn 2006, I picked up a bottle of tap water bottled by the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission at a festival in Prince George's County.  At the time, that was pretty innovative.

They were making the point that their water is as good as the bottled water people buy in stores and pay premium prices for--store bought bottled water is about 100 times more expensive than water from the tap.

DC Water created similar programs (Drink Tap - DC Water) (which comes from a river too, the Potomac River) promoting drinking from the tap and using tap water in your own bottle, rather than buying bottled water.

But with events in Flint, I wonder if these kinds of social marketing efforts will meet some resistance, since so many people believe water bottled by for profit companies is somehow better.

In terms of operations, agencies in California are embarking on running desalination plants and have developed significant recycling programs and diversion programs.  DC's water system has launched an energy generation system as part of its treatment process, which produces 30% of the system's power needs.

And the creation of the Karegnondi Water Authority to provide water to Mid-Michigan cities including Flint so they can get water more cheaply than from the Detroit system. is an innovation too as it is designed to create a system to serve multiple jurisdictions with a closer water source and at less cost.

Penny-wise, pound foolish.  Note that Flint would have probably been better off waiting to switch from Detroit water after the Karegnondi Water Authority system actually becomes operational, rather than 4-5 years before this system begins to deliver water.

As the adage says: "Penny wise, pound foolish."

The cost to replace piping in the Flint water system could be as much as $1.5 billion.  People have died. And hundreds if not thousands of people have been poisoned by lead, suffering permanent damage to their health.  The cost to deal with this will be considerable.

An interesting nugget from the Brookings article.  The article mentions PENNVEST, an initiative by the State of Pennsylvania to provide funding and support to local water authorities for various improvements.

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