Money & Business

Water Works Association Eyes Broader Lessons in Flint's Water Crisis

By / Jan 22, 2016 (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

As the effects of the water crisis facing Flint, Michigan, become more apparent, the American Water Works Association is speaking up about both cost and tactical concerns that might face other cities needing to upgrade or change water supplies.

As Flint, Michigan, attempts to recover from a major crisis involving lead poisoning in the city’s water supply, a key association in the water-treatment space is speaking up.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA), a group focused on water infrastructure issues such as those raised in Flint, hopes to expand on the issues raised by the tragic event.

The key point it wants to make? This story isn’t just about Flint.

What Happened?

The crisis in Flint is rooted in a decision made while the city was under control of an emergency manager appointed by the state.

In an effort to save money, the cash-strapped city had decided to stop acquiring water from Detroit, instead planning to join a new project that would source water from a pipeline into Lake Huron. However, the new pipeline wasn’t finished yet, leading the city to temporarily get water from the Flint River, which hadn’t been used to supply municipal water since the 1960s.

After the city enabled the Flint River supply in April 2014, residents immediately started complaining about the smell, taste, and color of the water. A variety of problems were soon raised with the supply, including signs of bacterial and chemical contamination. Residents were advised to boil their water.

Last fall, however, it was confirmed that the water tested for high levels of lead, at which point a state of emergency was declared. Equally troubling was the news that officials had failed to use an anticorrosive agent to treat the water, violating federal law.

As the state failed to act despite concerns from critics, the crisis has led to calls for Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s resignation.

Responding to the Crisis

In a news release, AWWA CEO David LaFrance praised President Obama for making federal aid available to help remedy the Flint water crisis. He noted that the Flint crisis highlights challenges—and costs—that communities will face remedying aging water infrastructures. LaFrance noted that preparation is key.

In comments to Associations Now, AWWA Director of Communications Greg Kail emphasized that the role the association is taking in this situation isn’t necessarily as a form of emergency response, but rather as a support mechanism for members dealing with crises.

“As an association, we exist to to help our members first, so we try in a situation like this to collect the information from the event that is going to help them understand it and help them do their jobs better,” Kail said in an interview, adding that the key role it takes in situations like this is helping them work with their customers.

The situation, Kail added, helps bring to light larger issues facing the water-treatment world, particularly the need to replace aging lead-based pipes throughout water systems around the country. A 2012 report produced by the association, “Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge” [PDF], says the costs of such upgrades will be at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years, based on current levels of water service.

“In many cases, utilities and customers will have to work collaboratively to remove lead service lines,” LaFrance added in his comments. “There may be opportunities to expand existing government assistance programs to mitigate costs.”

Kail added that the association is likely to address the issues raised in Flint as part of its annual meeting, taking place this June in Chicago. In the end, though, he says that the incident, while problematic, helps make the public more cognizant of the things that go into municipal water supplies. (To that effect, AWWA has a consumer-facing website, DrinkTap.org, that offers information on water safety issues.)

“When an incident like Flint occurs, it’s certainly a step back for public confidence,” Kail said, adding that the association hopes to offer its members the tools they need to better handle similar incidents in the future.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. More »

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