Last week, the Flint, Michigan Fire Chief announced that the recent water crisis had come to his domain. A new truck has corroded valves and pumps, with an estimated $65,000 in needed repairs (Sabella, 2016). This is only one of many headlines coming out of the totally mismanaged situation in Flint. A federal state of emergency has been declared in an American city for lack of clean, safe drinking water, something that a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services employee said “sounds like a third world country” (Michigan, 2016). These are the sort of newspaper stories that our descendants will see as marking a time of massive crisis in the US. A major part of this story is that it is essentially the fault of managers, and not due to a climatic or unforeseeable consequence.
The crisis in Flint began during the Michigan financial crisis, with control of the municipal water supply being put into the hands of the state emergency manager in 2011. Following decisions by the state emergency government, water from the Flint River entered the municipal water supply, and the Detroit Water and Sewage Department no longer provides water. There were immediate complaints, about the taste, odor, and color of the water. Analysis by Marc Edwards, Professor of Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech, revealed highly corrosive water (Michigan, 2016). Edwards’s team has been in Flint since at least August 2015, while Genesee County declared a state of emergency in January 2016. Some of the team’s data is publicly available (Edwards, 2016). The damage to the system has also been found to be largely permanent, with so many pipes corroding that full replacement of lead pipes will be needed. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality never installed corrosion control measures, and actually lied to the USEPA about installation of measures (Michigan, 2016).
The state emergency manager claimed that the move to the new water system was done as a cost saving measure, but over $100 million of aid from Federal and State governments was announced in just two days in January, 2016 to remedy the totally artificial disaster. A 2012 request by then-emergency manager in Flint, Mike Brow, for blending of Flint river water with DWSD states that blending alone would save Flint $2-3 million annually, which is only 50x less than the emergency cost that higher levels of government have given to repair the system (Michigan, 2016).
There was a comment in a 2013 email, by Genesee County Drain Commissioner Jeff Wright, that “nobody … should have these decisions made by people who live outside their community” (Michigan, 2016). In the context, he was advocating for the switch to a new regional water system. He is reflecting an often neglected attitude that the best community decisions come from the community itself. Given the proper information, community leaders can make the right choices. However, given the wrong or incomplete information, they can make disastrous mistakes. Of course, you can have the situation in Flint where even with the information there was nothing done to fix the issue.
Providing the right data and analysis is the responsibility of the engineers and scientists. Local and regional professionals should understand the environmental and public health impacts of decisions made, especially regarding access to clean and safe drinking water. This can range from making sure that the water is sustainably and renewably sourced to making sure it isn’t corrosive enough to destroy your distribution system. This case should serve as a guideline for analysts in all aspects of water resource decision making. This guideline should enumerate the ethical and moral obligations of a water resources engineer, in light of the transition to hydromorphology as advocated by leading water scientists (Lall, 2014). Engineers need to take into account water quality, availability, and renewability when designing their systems. Let the lessons from Flint lead the way to institutional reform in the water resources field.
“Disaster Day by Day: A detailed Flint crisis timeline.” (2016). Bridge Michigan, The Center for Michigan, <http://bridgemi.com/2016/02/flint-water-disaster-timeline/> (Feb. 16, 2016).
Edwards, M. (n.d.). “Flint Water Study.” Flint Water Study, <http://flintwaterstudy.org/> (Feb. 16, 2016).
Lall, U. (2014). “Debates-The future of hydrological sciences: A (common) path forward? One water. One world. Many climes. Many souls.” Water Resources Research Water Resour. Res., 50(6), 5335–5341.
Ross, J. (2016). “In Flint, bad tap water runs politically deep.” Washington Post, The Washington Post, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/01/14/in-flint-bad-tap-water-runs-politically-deep/> (Feb. 16, 2016).
Sabella, A. (2016). “Flint Fire Chief: Water damaging fire engine water pumps.” WJRT RSS, <http://www.abc12.com/home/headlines/flint-fire-chief-water-corroding-fire-engine-pumps-368271731.html> (Feb. 16, 2016).