Crisis in Flint: A Clean Water Wake-Up Call

Flint River bridge, MI | Sarah Razak [flickr CC]

The ongoing health crisis in Flint, Michigan is a stark reminder of the critical importance of healthy rivers and clean water supplies to our health and our communities. And it is an urgent wake-up call that modernizing our water infrastructure and investing in healthy rivers must go hand-in-hand.

For more than 19 months, residents of Flint were exposed to high levels of lead in their drinking water. Lead causes a wide range of health problems, and is especially harmful to children. How did this happen? For decades, the City of Flint paid for drinking water from the City of Detroit, which sourced it from Lake Huron. In early 2014, as a cost saving measure, the state-appointed city manager had the city start pumping water from the Flint River. Flint River water is more corrosive than Lake Huron water, causing lead from older water pipes to leach into the drinking water.

What’s “corrosive” water? This description from Penn State Extension explains that while it is “usually not dangerous to consume by itself, it can cause serious drinking water quality problems by dissolving metals from plumbing systems.” This is a relatively common issue — many drinking water treatment plants use special chemicals, orthophosphates, to inhibit lead corrosion, particularly in older systems. Tragically, this wasn’t done in the case of the Flint.

This disaster in Flint comes on the heels of other high-profile water crises — the mining waste spill in Colorado’s Animas River, the drinking water ban in Toledo, Ohio, and the chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River. Nationwide, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives water infrastructure a D grade in its report card on the nation’s infrastructure. And at the same time, 44 percent of assessed waterways in the U.S. are too polluted for fishing or swimming.

Whether the issue is outdated infrastructure, poor water management, or pollution, the point is ultimately the same: every American deserves clean water. It is unacceptable that in 2016 some communities in our country do not have access to safe drinking water. We must invest in protecting and restoring our rivers and modernizing water infrastructure. Flint is the latest wake-up call. It’s time to act.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) announcement that it will oversee water testing in Flint is a positive step. But the City of Flint needs continued state and federal support to both fix its current infrastructure problem and to develop an integrated approach to water management. Multiple city and state jurisdictions have influence over water quality and public health, and all of these entities need to work together and integrate clean water solutions into their planning.

Additionally, more analysis needs to be done in Michigan and nationwide to ensure another disaster isn’t waiting to happen in other rivers and drinking water sources. Communities deserve to know how aging infrastructure can negatively impact their water supplies.

On a national level, EPA must be vigilant in ensuring our water supplies are safe and that states are doing their jobs in monitoring and enforcing clean water standards. Congress must provide adequate funding for EPA to carry out its responsibilities.

Further, we can improve our clean water supplies nationwide by increasing water infrastructure funds through the Federal State Revolving Fund program — a fund designed to support maintenance of our water infrastructure.

In the end, until we commit to keeping our rivers clean, maintaining our water infrastructure, and supporting the regulatory oversight needed to prevent problems, Flint will be just the latest, but not the last, American water crisis.

Originally published at on January 26, 2016.

Stories about protecting and restoring our nation’s rivers and streams. How will you get involved?

Stories about protecting and restoring our nation’s rivers and streams. How will you get involved?