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?
Case Study: Flint, Michigan
It has been four years since the water of Flint ran brown and there is little hope for large scale change any time soon. Ironically, from 2004 – 2014, Lansing, Michigan, only forty-five miles west of Flint, just finished replacing almost all “aging, lead-laced pipes and service lines” (Gerstein, Clark). Lansing is only one of three cities that have replaced their lead pipes, while the other 5,300 cities found violating federal lead rules across the United States have no promise of replacement any times soon (Clark).
So why hasn’t Flint replaced its pipes yet? One reason for this might be race and income. Flint and Lansing have similar histories; both cities are about the same size, with around 100,000 people. Both towns have a long history with General Motor, however both have been challenged by lessening demand for manufacturing in the Midwest (Clark). Flint and Lansing have two major differences- demographic and economy. Flint’s population is 52.8% black with a median income of $25,896 while Lansing’s population is 55.4% white with a median income of $40,160 (City Data). Lansing contains the state’s capitol as well as the Michigan State University, which as Clark describes, “are the anchors that sustained Lansing economically over the years,” while Flint diminished.
Despite still recovering from the toxic water crisis, a decision was made this past week that the people of Flint will not be receiving any more free bottled water from the state, as state officials once again assure everyone that “the lead levels in the water there have not exceeded federal limits for about two years,” despite the fact that “the water can still pick up lead when it flows through the thousands of lead or galvanized steel lines that remain in the city” that have not been replaced yet (Fortin). Why does Lansing get brand new pipes years before the crisis, while the people of Flint have fought for four years for clean water and only received mediocre upgrades to half of their water infrastructure and little instruction as to how lead in schools and near vulnerable populations should be handled (Good-in Smith, Fortin).
Flint is not Alone
The patterns of race, income, contaminated water, and lack of action is not just a coincidence found in Flint, Michigan. Many studies, such as one performed by Pell and Schneyer tested children across the country and found over 3,000 cities with lead contamination even higher than Flint (Pell). These areas of high lead concentration were often run down areas, with low-income and minority groups (Benfer). New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff mentioned, “The continuing poisoning of half a million American children is tolerated partly because the victims often are low-income children of color.” The same study performed by Pell concluded that “poverty remains a potent predictor of lead poisoning.
Not only are more polluted areas found to coincide with communities of low income and minority groups, but it seems that there are racist undertones when it comes to admitting the problem and finding solutions For example, in 2016, former governor Mike Pence rejected disaster relief for families around the West Calumet Housing Complex (where the population is 99% black). However, then lead content of water in Greentown, Indiana (where the population is 97% white) was slightly above normal levels, Pence immediately provided assistance (Benfer). Unfortunately, there is a litany of instances where the public health of low income and minority communities are put below others and their voices are not heard.
When I started my research as to how places like Flint developed into major crises, I expected to find more physical reasons as to why things become the way they were, like industry polluting our waters or government trying to save money by bending the rules, (both of which are true in a sense). However, there is an entirely different side dealing with race and income based preference as to who gets cleaner water, faster. At the end of the day, the United States’ drinking water infrastructure is getting old, and wasn’t designed to handle the pollutants of today. Americans deserve clean water, despite their city’s demographics, income, or economy.
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