How Municipalities Can Learn from the Flint Water Crisis

26 January 2016
 Categories: Construction & Contractors, Articles


The water crisis affecting Flint, Michigan, continues to grab headlines and concern from around the nation. As residents attempt to recover from the severe contamination of the city's water supply, the water crisis leaves several lessons that other municipalities can take away and apply to their own water treatment efforts.

Understanding the Situation in Flint

Since 1967, the city of Flint purchased its water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. In March 2013, however, the city decided to switch water providers as a cost-saving measure. From 2014 and onward, the city would receive its water from the Karegnondi Water Authority, which sourced its water from Lake Huron. However, the regional water authority was in the process of building a new pipeline—a project that wouldn't be completed until late 2016.

In the meantime, city leaders would source Flint's water directly from the Flint River. The water would then be treated by the city's water plant before being distributed throughout the city. No sooner than the switchover from Detroit's water to local Flint River water occurred, residents quickly complained about the poor taste and bad odor.

Initial tests confirmed levels of fecal coliform bacteria and trihalomethanes (TTHM) present in the water. Further testing by Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards found that the highly corrosive water was leaching lead from the city's underground pipe system, resulting in the water supply exceeding the US Environmental Protection Agency's recommended lead levels of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

The switchover also contributed to a rise in Legionnaire's disease cases in Genesee County, where Flint is located. According to the Washington Post, 87 cases were diagnosed since June 2014, with 10 of those cases proving fatal.

Exposing Vulnerabilities in Water Treatment

The story of Flint's water system isn't just limited to the midwestern city. Throughout the United States, cities and regional authorities are grappling with the monumental task of maintaining its water treatment systems despite a broad range of external and internal obstacles:

  • Many US cities continue to rely on water and wastewater systems dating as far back as the Civil War era. As a result, cities often rely on antiquated and outdated treatment and delivery technologies for their drinkable water.
  • Shrinking federal and state budgets have prevented many municipalities from improving and replacing aged water treatment systems and infrastructure. Water infrastructure's relatively invisible nature has made it easier to ignore, especially in times of fiscal crisis.
  • In many cities, there's little to no political will to extensively upgrade or replace water infrastructure, since the task may not be as noticeable or attractive to voters. University of Arizona professor Robert Glennon noted that "no elected official wants to run on a platform of 'I fixed your sewer system.'"
  • Poor policy decisions may also contribute to lapses in water quality. For instance, Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality failed to treat the Flint River water with anticorrosive agents to prevent erosion of the iron water mains.

Lessons Learned

In order to avoid a large-scale crisis such as the one affecting Flint, it's important for municipal agencies tasked with water treatment to take a proactive approach toward improving their aging water infrastructures, especially when positive fiscal outlooks permit increases in funding. For example, the city of Chicago, Illinois, has recently embarked on a 10-year plan to upgrade over 900 miles of aging and decaying water infrastructure.

Improved planning of major water infrastructure changes can also help agencies better weather changes in water supply without suffering a drastic decrease in water quality. Prior testing of the Flint River water supply and the city's treatment and delivery capabilities before switching water sources could have prevented far-reaching pollution of the city's water.

Embracing new water treatment technologies can also help municipal agencies improve the overall quality of their water and prevent water emergencies from occurring. Ultraviolet (UV) irradiation, membrane filtration, and biological filtration are among the many water treatment technologies being studied and tested for future use in municipal water treatment facilities. To learn more about water treatment processes, contact a representative from a company like Valley Pump Inc.