The news story of Flint, Michigan’s lead contamination spotlights a number of issues that impact MCWRS members and municipalities across the nation. The facts behind the Flint situation are hard to come by. What is clear, however, is that a failure by one water utility to meet its obligations to provide safe drinking water to its customers can taint the entire water supply profession. The media activity surrounding Flint has muddied the waters for us all and raises the specter that water supply professionals cannot be trusted and that public officials put cost savings above public health.
Certainly, Flint officials did a disservice to their water customers by not explaining what was going on. It appears they have a corrosion control problem that was not addressed when they decided to switch to a different water source. Without a doubt, there are also water infrastructure issues in Flint, namely lead services that need to be more appropriately dealt with. These same issues potentially impact water utilities across the nation. But, let’s rise above the current fray in Flint and always remember how costs affect communities’ abilities to keep pace with the demands of new regulations, let alone ongoing maintenance.
As the New York Times reported, “the country has invested far too little in its public works, as governments at all levels have become obsessed with cutting spending.” While the call for more federal and state financial assistance is proper and necessary, the demand for more regulation is exactly the opposite of what is needed. One of the reasons that municipalities are looking to cut costs is the enormous and never-ending regulatory burden. Some regulations and permit conditions are necessary to protect public health or to make meaningful environmental improvements. But today, far too many produce little or no benefit and create costs that are astronomical. In 2012, the MA Water Infrastructure Finance Commission’s report identified a $21.4 billion funding gap over the next 20 years for water and wastewater systems, as cited in this interesting Boston Globe opinion piece.
Should a community spend $120 million on wastewater treatment plant upgrades in order to reduce its phosphorus level from 0.2 mg/l to 0.1 mg/l when the result of the investment is not certain to make appreciable environmental improvements? Or, should it spend an equivalent sum replacing old sewer and water pipes whose imminent failure may cause environmental or public health catastrophes? That is the dilemma facing communities because they do not and will not have the resources to do both!
The Coalition urges federal and state governments to heed the lessons of Flint and provide more funding for water infrastructure to communities and their ratepayers and to restructure regulations and permits so that local resources can be expended on the most critical local priorities. What are your thoughts on lead contamination in Flint? Let us know what you think by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.