The drinking water calamity in Flint, Mich., has drifted off the radar screen for many Americans.
Yet the Flint mess — a massive failure of responsible government — is far from being permanently fixed. And its lessons go well beyond Michigan. CNN recently reported that some 5,300 water systems in the U.S. violate the Environmental Protection Agency’s lead and copper contamination rules and that’s a conservative estimate.
The Flint problem grew out of a penny-pinching decision made in 2014 to change the source of the city’s drinking water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to the Flint River.
Unlike the treated water from the previous source, Flint River water was corrosive and caused lead contamination. That raised lead levels in the blood of children and others, and such elevated levels can cause serious health issues and even death.
The Flint crisis was essentially the fault of a state-appointed emergency manager overseeing the city, which was in financial receivership at the time.
The crisis in Flint demonstrated what can happen when government puts temporary financial savings above the safety of citizens. The water source switch was designed to save $5 million over two years, but it already has cost hundreds of millions more than that just to begin to recover from the error.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s handling of all of this has been abysmal, leading to understandable calls for his resignation.
While Kansas City officials say they have great confidence in the city’s water treatment system, the Flint experience is a warning about the need for constant vigilance to be sure of the safety of both the water itself and the pipes used to deliver it.
One issue in Kansas City is that some of the 2,800 miles of pipes through which water flows are quite old and need to be replaced. To its credit, the city started an extensive water main replacement program several years ago.
But Kansas City officials should review the pace of that program regularly to make sure it keeps up with the need.
For Flint, major obstacles remain in providing water that won’t poison its residents with lead. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy noted in a recent letter to Snyder and Flint Mayor Karen Weaver that a long, costly, unfinished process is ahead.
▪ Water isn’t moving through the city’s large system as it should, and motionless water in pipes can erode the protective chlorine.
▪ McCarthy wrote, “The water treatment plant is not adequately staffed, operated or administered to reliably deliver safe drinking water for years into the future.”
▪ She also called for a long-term plan to provide financial resources for the system in Flint, where residents “already pay one of the highest water rates in the nation....”
Water is any city’s life blood. Flint’s disaster should serve as a constant reminder that every water system needs responsible government oversight.