The reasons that underlie the water crisis in Flint, Michigan are less obvious than the headlines that made the issue national news. Outmoded water policy, infrastructure and monitoring point to 20th century methods that do not meet the demands of 21st century environmental standards and societal needs.
In Michigan, where embattled Governor Rick Snyder's administration was accused of ignoring the growing cries of extensive lead contamination of Flint’s drinking water, spokesman Ari Adler warned, "What happened in Flint is a crisis, but Flint is not alone.” The governor’s aide may be in a defensive crouch, but he is more right than he knows. America’s waters have been in dangerous straits for decades.
Flint’s problems began when, in a 2014 money saving scheme, it switched from Detroit's Lake Huron supply to the notoriously polluted Flint River. The low pH of the new water source mobilized lead from the old pipes of the city’s delivery system and brought the potent toxin to home taps. Lead levels in the delivered drinking water spiked to more than 100 times the allowable limit and blood levels in children soared. City and state officials were slow to acknowledge the problem and the scandal erupted nationally. (For excellent coverage of the Flint story by The Detroit Free Press follow this link.)
Once the story went public, other crises began to emerge around the country. The national conversation expanded to "Is my water safe?" In Sebring, Ohio, for example, officials warned its consumers to stop using the public supply due to lead contamination there. Federal officials acknowledged that many hundreds of communities have lead pipes or connections in their water systems, and that no one knows exactly how many or where – a troubling gap in information, given that the EPA has been attempting to quantify the extent of the problem for 25 years.
Lead is not the nation’s only water contamination issue. A 2008 study by University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health found that 19.5 million Americans are made ill annually by parasites, bacteria and viruses in drinking water. In January 2015, I asked chief researcher Dr. Kelly Reynolds if the seven year-old figure is still accurate. Based on new information, “the number is likely higher,” she said.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than 40% of the nation’s waters have been of substandard quality since the mid 1980s. Fish health advisories due to toxic contamination cover more than 17.7 million lake acres and 1.3 million river miles. More than 5,000 swimming days are lost annually due to beach contamination by disease-causing pathogens. These are conservative estimates.
The 44 year-old Federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and 42 year-old Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) do not provide a joint comprehensive strategy for protection of public health, the nation is three decades behind schedule in the statutory goals for elimination of pollution, and there is limited statutory authority in either act to prohibit the discharge into or presence of dangerous contaminants in a water body. Meanwhile, political fractiousness in Washington makes reform of the laws' outmoded provisions seem impossible. Even the websites of the “progressive” presidential candidates do not offer detailed solutions.
Real-time monitoring is an innovation that could eliminate, or at least minimize, exposure to unexpected contaminants. Permanently installed sensors that can detect lead, combined with real-time analytics, could have provided Flint an early-warning system that would have significantly reduced the risk of public exposure. But such sensors are not yet developed. Like the four-decade-old policy provisions of federal water law, research and development priorities are outmoded and funding limited. The sensor revolution that has extended to everything from automobiles to children's toys has barely touched the nation's water systems.
21st century needs demand a fresh federal approach to water, including: new dates-certain for pollution elimination; massive spending on upgrades to local water infrastructure; and robust investment in water research and development, such as a new generation of advanced analytics and treatment technologies that will warn and protect the nation's water consumers.
Water is an invisible national crisis because water is a profoundly local issue. Every month, thousands of water stories set in hundreds of U.S. communities top front pages. On rare occasions, a local water story, like Flint, makes national news, as was also the case with the 1993 cryptosporidium contamination of Milwaukee’s water supply that caused more than 300,000 people to become ill.
Such tragedies, and the illnesses of more than 2,000 Americans each day, can be prevented if local communities and officials speak in a common voice for a new generation of federal water policy, infrastructure repair and technological innovation.
In a future post we will examine Congressional response to the Flint crisis.