The Race to Fixing Flint’s Water Crisis

Humans need food and water to survive. Without it, we would die. Though we can go without food for about three weeks but without water humans would live for only three to four days because at least 60 percent of the adult body is made of water. This dependency on drinking water is why the recent and reoccurring water crisis in Flint, Michigan is so important.

Though Flint’s water crisis had emerged within recent years, one needs to go back to the 1980s in order to trace the problem. During the 80s, Flint thrived in economic growth due to being home to General Motors’ largest plant. Once the company started downsizing, the city began to see an economic decline. Flint’s economic crisis had grown so severe ($25 million deficit) that by 2011, the state of Michigan took over its finances. The $25 million deficit also had revealed a water fund shortfall, so the city decided to build a new pipeline to deliver water from Lake Huron to Flint. The city then turned to the Flint River as a temporary water source. The residents admitted that their water started to look, smell and taste funny.

The lead came from existing lead pipes in the city’s water delivery system. The change in water supply caused lead to leach into the water.

In 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with Virginia Tech conducted tests that revealed dangerous levels of lead in the water of the residents’ homes.

The consumption of high levels of lead is very dangerous. It can cause damages to various organs in the body such as the heart, kidney and even the nerves. During a child’s developmental stage, high levels of lead consumption could cause impaired cognition, behavioral disorders, hearing problems and could cause delays in puberty.

As the state and the city find themselves fighting various lawsuits, the water crisis continues to linger with little to no permanent water solutions in sight. Hundreds of organizations and celebrities have lent to support for finding temporary fixes. They are donating bottled water. Actor Will Smith’s son created a nonprofit organization to help provide water filters to the residents. Other celebrities have pledged millions of dollars.

Experts say that it will cost at least $1.5 billion to permanently fix Flint’s water problem. This involves replacing the lead pipes and the renewal of the city’s water infrastructure. City officials had recognized 18,300 feet of lead or galvanized steel water lines and have so far replaced nearly 7,000 feet of them. In a press release, Mayor Karen Weaver had announced that the city hoped to complete replacement of all service lines that could contribute to lead contamination by the end of 2019.

“While the DEQ recognizes all of the local and state efforts toward replacement of service lines within the community, more work on lead and galvanized steel service line replacements will continue throughout 2019 with a goal of ensuring lead in the drinking water continues to be maintained under the federal action level,” Scott Dean, communication director at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said to the Detroit News. In 2017, the EPA awarded $100 Million to Michigan for upgrades to Flint’s water system.

“I appreciate the EPA approving this funding to assist with Flint’s recovery,” Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said in a press release. “Combined with the nearly $250 million in state funding already allocated, this will help keep Flint on a solid path forward. It’s great to see federal, state and local partners continuing to work together to help with infrastructure upgrades and pipe replacements for the people of Flint.”

Currently, all eyes are on Flint and on the entire state of Michigan. The combination of replacing the pipes and the complete restructuring of Flint’s water infrastructure are steps in the right direction. In addition, the science community is looking to get involved to find other ways to clean up the water. Residents, activists and the media are also urging for an in-depth investigation to address the long-term health implications of the residents who had already been exposed to the lead.

Flint is not the only municipality with a lead problem. Another is University Park, Illinois where changes to water supply and addition of rust removal chemical are also causing lead to leach into supplied water. The fact that the US has aging water infrastructure in many areas begs the question of what the scientific solutions may be in addition to replacing lead pipes and other crumbling and outdated equipment. These solutions are needed but require significant investment and government collaboration and agreement, all of which seem to be in short supply. What other solutions may give short term relief?

At Ecovie, we naturally look at how improved on-site water management can help be part of the solution. Here are a few thoughts to consider:

1. Using on-site water for non-potable purposes takes the load off large municipal water supplies which lessens the risk of potable water contamination. Widespread adoption of on-site water capture and use (rainwater, greywater, blackwater) can collectively make a meaningful reduction in potable water demand as well as wastewater and stormwater discharge. On a site by site basis, the reduction of both incoming and outgoing water can be reduced by over 40%. This reduced load on large infrastructure helps these systems provide better water quality with fewer upsets while allowing for future growth in demand.

2. Using captured rainwater is a viable potable water source that eliminates risk from outside contamination from things like leaching lead from old lead pipes pathogenic contamination that frequently occurs in municipal water supplies. This decentralized approach sidesteps the issues with large centralized supply while reducing stormwater runoff. The cost of such systems need not be excessive and are offset by savings in water supply, sewer treatment, and improved public health. Ecovie even has an emergency water supply product that uses captured rainwater to provide potable water in case of emergencies such as hurricanes and acute issues like in Flint.

3. Point-of-entry (POE) and point-of-use treatment can treat municipal water to eliminate the risk of lead and other contamination. There is research into finding better affordable solutions as an alternative to reverse osmosis (RO) and other energy and cost-intensive solutions.

There is no doubt that we need large-scale water infrastructure improvements with both federal and local support in order to avoid issues like in Flint and other localities in the future. But, smaller on-site, decentralized solutions also are part of the solution. The combined approach will lead to water resilient communities that can withstand water shortages, excess water from flooding, and water contamination of supplies and waterways.

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