In 2014, Flint, Michigan switched its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River in order to save the city $200 million over 25 years (NPR, CNN). The tradeoff for saving money in this way was switching the city’s water source to a polluted river, being 70 times harder and 19 times more iron than the water of Lake Huron. These high concentrations of iron corroded the city’s lead pipes, poisoning the drinking water with almost 7 times the EPA’s limit of the neurotoxin. The new water supply also had contaminants like E. Coli, total coliform, heightened chlorine levels, and total trihalomethanes. Meanwhile officials assured the people that the water was still safe despite running brown and having the composition of hazardous wastes.
Unfortunately, a crumbling water infrastructure is becoming a reality for cities across the United States. According to American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the U.S. ranks D in drinking water, meaning the infrastructure is “mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life,” displaying “significant deterioration” with its “condition and capacity are of serious concern with strong risk of failure.” But just how did it get this bad? By examining the history of the nation’s water and pipe-laying infrastructure over the last 100 years, government legislation and regulation on drinking water, and the Flint, Michigan crisis, we might be able to better understand the problems we’re facing.
History of America’s Water Pipes
Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, the U.S population began to skyrocket with high concentrations of people living in cities. More people living in cities meant a higher demand for water systems. Chicago became the first to install a revolutionary water tunnel system in 1869, powered by steam engines (Jesperson). This infographic shows “the percent of current water mains installed by decade” (Walton). The increase in community water systems are not all during the same time period, but as populations increased in these areas over history. The new England area has significantly older water systems put in place during the 20’s and 30’s and some even in use from before the civil war (prior to 1860!) Changing populations wasn’t the only factor affecting the need for water systems in America. The Cholera epidemic of 1832 caused a demand for safe, clean drinking water and proper waste management (Buckley). With more people in cities, fires were more frequent, accelerating the need for large, accessible, and transportable amounts of water (Jesperson). As populations began to increase and concentrate in cities, Americans began to develop water systems that accommodated the community and the public’s safety
Today, over 90% of Americans are a part of a community water system (Jesperson). There are currently about one million miles of pipe transporting water in the United States, however with many of these water systems built in the early to mid 20th- century with a 75-100 year lifespan, these pipes are reaching or have past their expiration (ASCE). With the age of these pipes comes deterioration and damage, causing over 240,000 water breaks per year that end up wasting over two trillion gallons of treated water (ASCE).
The Clean Water Act of 1972 and The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 are the two main pieces of legislation over America’s water supply. The Clean Water Act of 1972 regulates the release of pollution into the water by industry and individuals (EPA). The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 is intended to control America’s drinking water in order to protect public safety (EPA). It sets standard minimum amounts of organic and manmade contaminants such as:
“…disinfectants (such as chlorine), disinfection byproducts (such as bromate), inorganic chemicals (such as lead), microorganisms (such as those that cause Legionnaire’s Disease), organic chemicals (such as polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs]), and radionuclides (such as uranium).” (Buckley)
These acts were put in place to protect people and provide clean water for all people, so why are people still asking why their water smells or looks funny?
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