The water quality crisis in Flint, Michigan is a recent and visible example of what can happen when a community pursues short-term savings and disregards potential environmental and public health impacts. News reports indicate that the City had not adequately addressed its water infrastructure needs and regulatory requirements, and they did not acknowledge nor react to water quality concerns with the diligence required. The consequences of these decisions by those with obligations to the community unfortunately fall on the current and future residents of Flint. While the crisis has many causes, including economic conditions out of Flint’s control, it is clear that more could have been done to prevent it.
One of the reasons the Flint crisis is so shocking is that there are reliable management systems and checks and balances in place in this country that should instill confidence that our regulatory and elected officials are making sound, intelligent decisions for the welfare of the general public. As operators of drinking water systems across the U.S., we know how comprehensive—and yes, complicated—these standards are. As the utility system management partner to many communities, we adhere to all of the water quality, treatment process, and distribution system sampling requirements and guidelines set forth by state regulatory agencies and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These agencies assign strict thresholds and procedural requirements for treatment facilities and distribution and storage systems, including water quality sample parameters, sampling frequency, sampling locations, sample results, and chain-of-custody documents. This information is intended to be communicated in an honest and timely way with residents.
The level of concern that has arisen across the country in the wake of the revelations in Flint is understandable. We know that many residents in communities where we operate drinking water systems have urgent questions about the safety of their own water supply. To address those concerns, we are providing leaders in those communities with information that will answer those questions and reassure people about their health and the health of their families. Responsible utilities should provide this information routinely and ensure that it is available to any resident. This includes the results of routine sampling, the age and composition of the distribution system (including where there may be lead piping), chemical treatment practices, and many other types of information.
It can be hard for the public to understand the true value and cost of a clean and reliable water supply. We know that many communities struggle to balance the need for a sustainable level of funding for water infrastructure against all other requirements. We can take many lessons from the situation in Flint, but some of note are that making fiscally responsible long-term decisions like having an ample capital reserves, implementing a proactive asset management program, and being aware of the environmental impacts of a source water supply are essential for creating a resilient utility. Achieving these necessary objectives is difficult and requires thoughtful technical and financial planning, but compromising on the safety and health of residents is not an option. Flint is a troubling and stark reminder of that fact.