Almost three years after the city of Flint, Michigan, began using its namesake river as a source of drinking water, the lead crisis that poisoned thousands of taxpayers and their children is coming to an end — or, at least, it’s at the beginning of the end.
Earlier this week, the New York Timesreported that the state of Michigan has agreed to shell out an estimated $87 million to replace at least 18,000 lead pipes through 2020 in an effort to finally deliver clean tap water for taxpayers. Under the plan, the result of a settlement from a lawsuit brought against Flint and Michigan government officials in January of 2016, residents can also receive ongoing stream water filters (and replacement cartridges for those filters), and can demand lead testing at least four times annually.
While the drinking water in Flint was officially in compliance with federal regulations as of January, Mayor Karen Weaver told residents that the water supply won’t be totally safe until the town’s aging network of contaminated lead pipes are completely replaced. Until that happens, the city will continue to provide access to drinking water for homeowners (though, according to ABC News, some free bottled water centers may begin to close depending on demand).
The people of Flint aren’t the only ones who have faced an uphill battle for what is a fundamental human right. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card gave our national water infrastructure a “D” grade due to the rapidly decaying system of lead pipes that dot population centers rural and urban. While Michigan officials have eked out an expedited plan to replace 18,000 lead pipes across Flint, there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks annually across the United States, breaks that waste more than two trillion gallons of treated drinking water. And of the more than 51,000 community waters systems analyzed by the ASCE, just 5.5 percent serve more than 92 percent of Americans, or 272.6 million citizens.
Despite the ingenuity of a chosen few in Michigan, not every municipality will enjoy a quick turnaround, according to the ASCE. “With utilities averaging a pipe replacement rate of 0.5% per year,” the ASCE writes, “it will take an estimated 200 years to replace the system — nearly double the useful life of the pipes.” Pulling off this massive infrastructure overhaul will cost an estimated $1 trillion to not just maintain existing water mains, but to expand and upgrade the service to meet the needs of average Americans over the next 25 years or so, an unlikely wager for a municipality like Flint forced to switch to its river as a water source due to financial woes. Even worse: The ASCE report notes that the “lack of resources and personnel” among smaller water systems that serve fewer than 10,00 people “can limit the frequency of testing, monitoring, maintenance, and technical capability in their systems.”
There is at least a glimmer of political hope on the horizon. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has extended an outstretched hand to the White House on infrastructure projects. The trillion-dollar infrastructure bill unveiled by Democrats in January included a hefty $110 billion for sewer and water system maintenance and upgrades, and President Donald Trump, now politically wounded by his failure to make good on his Obamacare repeal-and-replacement promise, appears poised to negotiate on infrastructure issues — although they’ll always be disagreement on how, exactly, to fund them.
But no matter how things go down on Capitol Hill, the biggest obstacle to actually addressing America’s urgent water infrastructure needs is the same thing that caused the Flint crisis in the first place: bureaucratic malfeasance. While the $87 million settlement handed down Monday certainly marks a major victory for the residents of Flint, another class-action suit filed against Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other city and state officials for their “deliberate decision to expose them to the extreme toxicity of water pumped from the Flint River into their homes, schools, hospitals, workplaces and public places” was dismissed. And while investigators have brought dozens of charges against 13 state and local officials for their part in precipitating the crisis in Flint, the ASCE data suggests the Michigan town won’t be the last American city to face a toxic water crisis — and to rely on public officials who, despite their pledge to serve the taxpayers, simply won’t see the signs until it’s too late.