In Jan. 2016, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint over health concerns around lead-tainted water, resulting in nationwide concern and attention. Now, nearly two years later, the fallout continues.
On Tuesday, a federal judge gave Flint an ultimatum, saying it has until Monday to choose a long-term source to provide residents with safe drinking water. Earlier this month, a sixth person was charged with involuntary manslaughter related to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease blamed on the city’s water quality, and Gov. Snyder denied misleading Congress about the outbreak.
But the impact of the water crisis isn’t limited to Flint, or even to the state of Michigan. Across the country, cities have found their own water systems under public scrutiny due to the exposure that Flint brought to water treatment and distribution infrastructure.
"Water is kind of an ignored utility. We talk about infrastructure as a nation, but when most people say infrastructure they mean roads and bridges," said Terry Leeds, director of KC Water in Kansas City, MO. "Flint did allow us to talk about our water more than what we would have had the opportunity to do if it hadn’t happened."
Testing the waters
In Washington, D.C., the Flint water crisis and public fears hit all too close to home. "In the early 2000s we did change our treatment process, which changed the water chemistry in the pipes, which caused lead that was already there to leach into the system. So the outcome was similar [to Flint]," said DC Water CEO and General Manager George Hawkins. "The change in D.C. had been to create an environmental benefit. The idea was to change water chemistry to reduce a certain kind of contaminant in the water."
But what wasn’t known at the time was that the chemistry change would reduce the protective scaling on the inside of service lines, thus allowing lead leaching. Like Flint, D.C.’s water crisis occurred because of a change in the makeup of the water flowing through service pipes and was discovered later through testing.
"One of the primary messages and lessons to learn 100 times over is to be incredibly careful on any changes ... because that will have a consequence to the water that people put inside their bodies," Hawkins said. "There are so many important interactions in water chemistry connected to the metals in the pipes themselves."
Although similar, the two situations are not exactly the same. Few scenarios are, really, which leads to another lesson: Each U.S. municipality is different and what works for one may not work for others. "Flint’s a pretty isolated case with a distinct set of circumstances that led up to it," and those conditions don’t necessarily apply to most other areas, Leeds said.
"One of the primary messages and lessons to learn 100 times over is to be incredibly careful on any changes ... because that will have a consequence to the water that people put inside their bodies."
CEO, DC Water
For example, Flint’s economic hardships over the past decade — in a large part due to the automotive industry slump — led to an exodus of residents seeking jobs elsewhere. The rapid, significant population reduction led to a sudden drop in water department revenue. That, in turn, played into the city’s desire for cost-cutting measures in its water systems.
Because of the uniqueness of each situation, utilities have different responses to handling lead risk in water. Some manage the risk by including certain chemicals in the water to cut down on pipe corrosion, while others undertake the lengthy and costly process of removing and replacing lead service lines altogether. "All of us are struggling with what is the best way to eliminate the risk as opposed to managing it really well," Hawkins said.
Some young cities where lead pipes are not prevalent — such as Las Vegas — find success with managing pipe corrosion to reduce lead risks. "Part of our lessons learned out of the crisis in Flint was to verify our corrosion control activities and verify that our… program was still accomplishing what it needs to accomplish to protect customers," said Bronson Mack, public information officer for Las Vegas Valley Water District and Southern Nevada Water Authority.
Madison, WI also found itself at the center of attention following Flint’s crisis. It wasn’t because of lead in its water, but because of the lead pipe remediation program it had completed five years earlier.
The program began in 2000 and lasted for about 12 years. It was unique in that it not only required the city to replace all of the lead services it owns, but it also required residents to replace their portions and provided them with reimbursements for up to 50% of the replacement cost. The city had to receive special permission from regulators to do that and it had to pass an ordinance.
"We could not use water rate-payer dollars to reimburse people for private property improvements, so we had a pool of money from renting antennas on top of water towers that we were able to use for that," said Amy Barrilleaux, public information officer at Madison Water Utility.
Despite Madison’s efforts in the early 2000s to reach out to other municipalities with advice on implementing a lead pipe removal program, there weren’t many takers at that time. "We presented at conferences, we talked about it, or tried to. But there wasn’t a whole lot of interest from other utilities until Flint happened," Barrilleaux said. "Then we had utilities suddenly start looking at our program."
The recent influx of municipal inquiries prompted Madison Water Utility to create an informational website specifically for other utilities. Workers there want others to know that in addition to the high cost, a remediation program takes a lot of time and effort due to the complexity of digging up thousands of yards to replace the lead pipes.
"It took us 12 years to replace all those lead services and we only had 8,000. Some cities have tens of thousands to replace," Barrilleaux said. "So we always try to be as honest as we can whenever anybody asks how we did this. It may sound easy, but there’s a lot of work involved and a lot of coordination."
Communication is key
The exposure Madison’s pipe removal program received during Flint’s water crisis made it easier to answer water safety inquiries from concerned residents. "Right after Flint we were in such a spotlight as a city that most [residents] learned that we had done this," so the department didn’t have scramble to get the word out, Barrilleaux said.
Residents also contacted the water department with concerns in Kansas City. "We had lots of questions [about whether] our water is safe to drink as a result of Flint," Leeds said. “I think it exposed how fragile the trust can be by the public of their local water supplier.”
Las Vegas also focuses on that trust and “establishing that baseline credibility with our customers,” Mack said. “On top of that… I think it’s really important for the water industry as a whole to make sure they’ve got good lines of communication with their state agency so they can be transparent with each other and build confidence, to be able to further benefit the rate payers and customers.”
"I think it exposed how fragile the trust can be by the public of their local water supplier."
Director, KC Water
Cities quickly increased their public outreach due to inquiries from residents who were concerned about the quality of their own water. "Suddenly drinking water quality issues were just thrown into the limelight like never before," said Jennifer Frost, public affairs manager for Charlotte Water.
In Charlotte, lead in water is less of a concern because of the young age of the city’s infrastructure, but residents still had concerns. "What the situation in Flint caused Charlotte to do is up our communications game, and explain why folks didn’t have to worry about Charlotte’s drinking water," Frost said. The city increased lead and copper testing and put water quality results in a prominent place on its website.
Charlotte also held "pop-up" monitoring events where department employees would put out the word on social media that they would be in neighborhoods at risk of having older lead pipes. Staff provided lead testing kits and instructions for residents who stopped by, and then returned the next day to collect the water samples. "We made it as convenient as possible," Frost said. "These were very successful and we didn't have any issues."
Utilities repeatedly point to communication as a vital element to serving the public in the aftermath of a crisis. “Our view is that the more information our customers have, the better,” Hawkins said. Therefore, following Flint’s situation, D.C. ramped up its online GIS-based map of all service lines, which allows the public to check the lead status of any property in the District. "We were going to do that anyway, but we accelerated it with the attention that was coming from Flint," Hawkins said.
But simply being in reactive mode during a crisis instead of taking proactive actions can leave service providers unprepared to respond. “You can’t have a crisis situation being the very first time that you are communicating with your customers about a specific issue,” said Mack.
Others emphasize that communication with the public isn’t the only important factor; employees need to foster communication among each other and take responsibility for their actions.
"Flint was not necessarily a technical water treatment issue as much as it was a failure of management, oversight and responsibility," said Leeds. "Part of what we’ve learned is proper governance is needed to protect the public. The other issue is personal responsibility for people to take appropriate steps when decisions are being made that could possibly endanger the public.”
He says the person managing Flint’s water system had raised concerns about switching sources, but the red flags were ignored.
"He wasn’t listened to at the city leadership level. He was basically running the water supply system and he made the recommendation that they weren’t ready to turn off this whole plant, that they needed additional testing. And the decision above was to go ahead and do it,” Leeds said.
Industry leaders say that even when lead levels appear to be in check and the water system is running smoothly, it's important to avoid complacency.
"I still worry about the lead service lines that we have in place in the city, particularly getting them replaced for low-income customers," Hawkins said. "That is something I worry about all the time."