There’s been a lot of outrage over the water crisis in Flint, Michigan lately, due to shocking images of brown, lead-tainted water coming out of taps across the city. This has lead to protests and heavy political backlash for the Michigan state government and Governor Rick Snyder in particular. The actual causes of the contamination—a mixture of polluted water drawn from the Flint River, improper water treatment, and aging lead pipes—are now relatively clear. The focus has shifted now to the blame game, as the EPA and Snyder and other state officials are facing criticism for the decision to use Flint River water, and their failure to act as problems accumulated. The emergency needs of Flint continue, as the National Guard and FEMA move in and millions of dollars in aid and charity go towards the crisis. But even once this crisis is over, localities across the country will still suffer from poor water infrastructure, and waiting for more crises like Flint to erupt is not the solution.
In its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave America’s drinking-water systems a D, one tier below the D+ average across all categories. And while it is true that the ASCE has a vested interest in getting the government to spend more on infrastructure, the facts behind many of their key points are undeniable.
The story of America's water infrastructure begins at the start of the Industrial Revolution, as cities modernized and populations boomed and governments designed and implemented water main systems and pipe networks to supply new residents with safe drinking water. These systems eventually spread to suburban and rural areas as state and local utilities formed in the early twentieth century. The Sanitary District of Chicago, one of many early groups to deal with sanitation and wastewater, for example, has existed since 1889. By the 1960s, almost every non-rural town in America had a utility company piping drinking water to its homes.
The safety of water from these utilities is not a new concern: the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 was put in place decades ago to guarantee safe drinking water in the future. The law defines safe maximum concentrations for many different dangerous chemicals as well as for microorganisms. A 1986 amendment to this act, the Lead and Copper Rule, severely limits lead concentration to 8 percent in water pipes and 0.2 percent in the solder used to weld them together. Greg DiLoreto, a former president of the ASCE and an industry veteran, said in an interview with the Gate that this law has required many water utilities to spend heavily to meet EPA standards like the Lead and Copper Rule as well as treatment improvements, and that the “money we have remaining is put into repairs.”
In cities, balancing EPA standards and repairs proves particularly problematic. Repairs are much more challenging due to the buildings and constant traffic. Pipes and water mains that were laid before 1900 are sometimes still in place, moving thousands of gallons of water every day. The result of this incredibly old infrastructure is an estimated 240,000 water main breaks every year across the United States, and the possibility of continued contamination from old pipes. Even before the current crisis in Flint, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department was treating the water they sent out with orthophosphate, a chemical meant to coat the old pipes to prevent contamination from old pipes with more than the current legal lead concentration.
A major challenge with drinking-water related issues is attracting the public attention needed for action. While the Flint crisis gives drinking water a temporary publicity boost, motivating people to pressure their local governments to spend more on maintaining pipes and upgrading treatment systems is harder than securing funding for other, flashier projects, like bridges, railroads, and stadiums. DiLoreto chalks this up to the fact that people tend to take water for granted despite the fact that it is an integral part of their day-to-day lives. In his view, whether it costs us more by requiring purchases of bottled water, or lost productivity because of water main breaks disrupting a part of town, not dealing with the challenges is “going to affect the quality of life and the gross domestic product.”. Since January 2000, water main breaks have cost the US over $50 billion in repairs, not including other damages such as corrosion.
The challenge of clean drinking water isn’t just about replacing old lead pipes and properly treating water, it’s also about innovative solutions. Unfortunately, water infrastructure research is perennially underfunded, a fact which is well documented in a report published by Stanford University’s Center for Reinventing the Nation's Urban Water Infrastructure. The center places the blame for technological stagnation on lack of funds and the utility companies’ tendency to err on the side of caution, sticking with proven methods to deliver clean drinking water rather than experimenting with creative but risky alternatives. Despite these challenges, some recent innovations have begun to show promise. According to DiLoreto, computer modelling of pipe systems offers advanced analysis and predictions of which pipes are going to break down next, allowing for more timely and targeted replacements before problems occur. Advancements in pipe coatings allow for longer-lasting pipes as well, which reduces the amount of time between replacements, something of particular value in cities where traffic disruptions are a major issue for local businesses and people living in the area. When it comes down to it, however, pipes are pipes, and without funding, a decaying drinking water infrastructure system will become a major national problem. Flint has faced a perfect storm of troubles, but just because our water is fine today doesn’t mean this nation can continue to kick the can down the road while the pipes underneath it rust away.
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