Monday, January 25, 2016

Flint Water

Would you want to drink this water?

Back in the days when Mark Twain lived in California, he observed this:  "Whiskey's for drinking; water's for fighting over."

It has been thus for years in the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, which supplies water for 40 percent of Michigan residents, including those in Genessee County, whose county seat is unlucky Flint.

Over the years, the DWS has had several problems:

     ---  Its water is expensive.  The city system was designed for a Detroit that used to have three times as many residents as it does today.  Those remaining few must keep the whole thing going.  Water rates increased 110 percent between 2004 and 2014.

      --- The agency took a lax attitude toward collecting water bills until 2014, when Detroit was in bankruptcy.   Many in the city are poor, and a local newspaper said the DWS allowed a "culture of nonpayment" to flourish.

     --- When DWS began cutting off water for months-behind customers, many poor residents borrowed or signed up for payment programs.  Others paid plumbers under the table to restore their water instead.
    In fact, the agency seemed to have poor records -- including for abandoned homes and buildings.  The Detroit Athletic Club, which considered itself current on its $20,000 monthly tab, was surprised to learn that it was in arrears $8,000 for a separate water account that it had not known it had.  There were other cases.

The Flint Fiasco

The city of Flint, a smaller version of Detroit that got its water from the DWS, joined several other cities and counties to generate their own water supply, also from Lake Huron.  As construction of more than 60 miles of pipe to bring the water to the consortium's new plant got underway, DWS cut off Flint's water supply in early 2014.  Flint's mayor, city council and emergency manager agreed unanimously to save money by using Flint River water until the pipeline was finished.  The city water department blessed the decision.

The downstream result is that Flint's water has for almost two years been dirty, fouled with bacteria and bacteria-treating organisms and tainted with lead leached from old cast-iron pipes.  Lead has been known for many years to be a particular hazard to the developing brains of children and babies in their mothers' wombs.

A Michigan blogger, Greg Branch, has written a pretty good explanation of what happened in Flint, and I encourage you to find it on  If you are short of time, here is his executive summary:

The Recap

  1) Flint’s elected leadership makes what is actually a solid, sound decision that will, in the long run, save the city millions of dollars and give it more control over its destiny – and, because it positions Flint as a wholesale supplier of water, possibly enhance revenues for them.

   2) Detroit Water Board decides to be spoiled and pissy and leaves Flint with no good options for the two years before its pipeline is built.

   3) Flint’s (Democrat) leadership and GOP-appointed EFM make a well-deliberated decision to draw water from the Flint River.

   4) Flint’s water staff – the people in Flint who are the experts on this sort of thing – apparently aren’t up to the task. And the people they count on to oversee and help them …

   5) The Michigan DEQ, is completely asleep at the switch. And once they discover their mistake, they lie about it and ask Flint to help them lie.

   6) US EPA is aware of a problem, but apparently trusted the kids playing in the DEQ sandbox to fix things.

Questions and Observations

The Idiosyncratist has no expertise in city water supplies, but is aware of no city that draws its drinking water from an adjacent river.
     New York does not tap the East River nor the Hudson, but rather imports water from the Catskills.  San Francisco water comes not from the Sacramento Estuary but from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir near Yosemite.  Los Angeles depends on the far-away Colorado River.  Minnesota is know as the "land of 10,000 lakes," but Michigan is said to have 11,000 inland lakes of its own.  Why start with the Flint River, which is silty and contains agricultural runoff, when seeking potable water?


By the end of 2014, it was clear that the federal EPA knew that Flint's treated water did not pass national standards laid out in the 1974 Drinking Water Safety Act.  In early 2015, the evidence of lead coming out of Flint water taps also was understood.  No federal oversight was offered or action taken as a result of these reports. The EPA director in charge of the district that includes Michigan resigned a few days ago and will leave her job, effective February 1, 2016.  Too little, too late.
     This is the third EPA mess in recent months.
      In August an EPA safety team accidentally released 3 million gallons of contaminated water into the Animas River in Colorado. The water contained heavy metals and arsenic, among other substances, and turned the river bright orange.
     On October 23, when a major natural gas leak opened in a limestone reservoir in the San Fernando Valley, the EPA's first response was that it did not have authority over gas storage operations.  It took a California Congressman to point out that the agency did in fact have such authority.  As the released gas added 25 percent to the state's greenhouse gas emissions, the agency waited until December 18 to begin an investigation.


Estimates of the cost to repair/replace Flint's water infrastructure range as high as $1.5 billion. The city's population has dropped from more than 163,000 in 1950 to 99,000 or less today.  Would it be worthwhile to consider giving money to help Flint residents relocate rather than digging up and replacing underground pipes as people continue to move away? Certainly housing bargains and better water seem to be available in Detroit.


Both political parties are blaming each other for what happened in Flint.  It's an election year, and that's the kind of politics we have now.  Shame on them.

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