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Grant Whittington headshot

Aging Water Pipelines Sicken Residents in Flint, Michigan


While California's drought dominates the headlines, another severe water problem is becoming more and more prevalent in the U.S.: aging pipes. Poor water-piping infrastructure is leaving residents in certain cities forced to drink and bathe in water loaded with high levels of copper, lead and E. coli.

Flint, Michigan, one of the cornerstone examples of a city struggling to keep up its infrastructure, provides its residents with contaminated water from a local river. Flint officials had to gamble with water quality and depend on the murky Flint River to supply the residents with clean water after outsourcing to the nearby Detroit Water and Sewage Department became too expensive for a struggling city.

Flint has relied on Detroit water since 1967, but as the population of the two metropolitans started to shrink, the price of the water became unmanageable. In 2004, Detroit charged Flint just over $11 million per million cubic foot of water. But in just nine years, that rate increased by 73 percent to more than $19 million per million cubic foot.

A city that once thrived thanks to the success and headquarters of General Motors, Flint was hit hard when GM fled the area and headed 66 miles west to Detroit. Flint's unemployment rate has steadily climbed since the turn of the century, reaching a high of 25 percent in 2009. Families abandoned their houses in search of other work opportunities, pushing the population down and the tax funds dry. Without tax revenue, the city can’t appropriate proper funds toward building up the its water-piping infrastructure.

Genesee County, where Flint serves as the county seat, is building a pipeline in conjunction with other state counties that would connect Lake Huron to mid-Michigan. The Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline won’t be completed for another year. For the time being, elected officials thought it best for the city to treat its own water from Flint River, at a cost of $2.8 million annually, a great deal less than the $12 million it would have to pay Detroit for water.

Residents, however, have immediately felt the sacrifice the city officials made to save money until the pipeline is built. The water tested positive for fecal coliform bacteria, which forced city engineers to increase the amount of chlorine in the water -- causing high levels of trihalomethanes, which put the city in risk of violating the Clean Water Act.

According to the Atlantic, a family riddled with sickness likely linked to the water quality sent in the water to be tested. Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech found that the water had lead contents of 13,000 parts per billion — the EPA suggests keeping lead content under 15 parts per billion. None of the 30 samples the family sent in were safe to drink.

In 2013, the American Society for Civil Engineers awarded the U.S. with a “D” in the drinking-water category on its report card for America’s Infrastructure. The report also found most of the country’s pipelines are “nearing the end of ... useful life.” Estimates have suggested replacing the pipes could cost more than $1 trillion — roughly 5 percent of the nation’s debt.

Flint isn’t the first place to be concerned with water quality. Last summer, Toledo, Ohio, residents were told not to drink tap water after tests showed high levels of microcystins — a bacteria that causes fever, headaches, vomiting and, in extreme cases, seizures. The third largest city in America could face problems on par with Flint's, as Chicago’s lead service pipelines are aging fast and starting to see a spike in contaminated tap water.

Flint officials had to make a decision, as the New York Times put it, to have water either “cloudy or costly.” The new water pipeline that will service the city, starting in an anticipated 2016, will bring water from Flint’s previous provider: Lake Huron. It will be a welcome change from Flint River, which has been littered with everything from dead bodies to an abandoned car.

Image credit: Flickr/Michigan Municipal League

Grant Whittington headshotGrant Whittington

Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.

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