Water Main Breaks in California and Tainted Water Supplies in Michigan – A Sign of Bigger Infrastructure Problems in the US?

In 2014, a bit of a media frenzy surrounded a particular water main break in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Westwood. A 93-yar old water main broke and flooded neighborhoods in the area with an estimated 8-10 million gallons of water and caused particular damage to the UCLA Campus.  UCLA had recently completed a $133 million renovation of the Pauley Pavilion, the main on-campus sports arena where the school plays its home basketball games. The broken water main caused significant damage to the Pavilion as well as parking structures and other facilities on the campus.

Unfortunately, this incident was not an isolated one for Los Angeles nor the country as a whole. A Los Angeles Times article reported that between 2006 and 2015, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) reported approximately 13,000 leaks across its network. In the Westwood area alone (the neighborhood where the water main break flooded UCLA) LADWP reported 274 pipe leaks. Sixty-eight percent of those leaks happened in pipes that were between 75 and 100 years old. Most recently, President Obama declared a state of emergency in Flint, Michigan after a series of alleged missteps, improper management and cover-ups from the city and the State of Michigan led to serious lead contamination issues in Flint’s water supply. While California and Michigan are miles apart geographically, they both share a common theme: Aging infrastructure bears part of the blame for the water main breaks in Los Angeles and the contamination issues in Flint. The potential bills to fix the aging infrastructure in Los Angeles and to restore safe drinking water in Flint are massive: LA DWP predicts it will cost about $1.34 billion to fix at-risk water main leaks by 2025, and initial estimates to fix the water emergency in Flint could be as much as $1.5 billion.

Were the issues in Flint and Los Angeles avoidable? What can these cities and states now do to address the issue of aging water infrastructure and its clear effects on the communities that rely on these systems? I will provide a background to the challenges both cities’ infrastructure systems face and discuss some lessons to learn from this largely unseen problem.

Tainted Water Supplies in Flint

The water crisis that has unfolded in Flint, Michigan was entirely preventable. A series of mistakes, combined with an aging infrastructure system and a desire to cut costs led to the tragic outcome. Flint faces many of the same economic and structural issues that led to Detroit’s bankruptcy filing in 2013. The shutdown of automobile manufacturing facilities in Flint caused a spike in unemployment from which the City never recovered. At the height of the recession in 2009, the unemployment rate in Flint approached 30%. Forty percent of the city’s residents live in poverty, and the average annual household income is about $25,000.  The economic impacts of the jobs and population exodus took its toll on the city’s finances as well.

In October 2013, Governor Rick Snyder appointed Darnell Earley to tackle the city’s $13 million budget deficit. It was this desire to save money that started the cascade of events that led to the current state of emergency in Flint. The city received its water supply from Detroit for approximately 50 years before the crisis began. Despite the fact that Flint had many decades-old lead water service lines, the water supply caused no major water quality concerns. According to Time Magazine, Flint treated the water supplies with orthophosphate, a chemical compound that essentially coats the pipes as water flows, preventing the water from corroding the pipes.

The switch from Detroit’s water supply to the Flint River in April 2014 caused the problems the City faces today. Long-time City Council Member Scott Kincaid said, “[Emergency Manager] Darnell and the people in Public Works and Finance in the City believed that they could save $6 to $8 million” by switching water supplies. However, water from the Flint River had a completely different chemical and organic composition than the Detroit Water supply. Flint River water has eight times more chloride than the water from Detroit, a compound known to cause corrosion in lead pipes. As we have now learned, the State Department of Environmental Quality failed to require that Flint add chemicals to stop the corrosion from taking place. Attorney General Bill Schuette also confirmed that the new water supply contained chemical byproducts, e. coli and bacteria that causes Legionnaires’ disease.

Residents almost immediately began to see a change in the taste, odor and color of the tap water as the corrosive water ate at lead pipes. A Virginia Tech study of 271 Flint homes found that average lead exposure in the tap water was more than 10 times the 90th percentile of lead exposure in Detroit homes. The crisis has turned into a full-blown state of emergency, and both the federal and state governments are determining who is responsible for this crisis. Documents show that the Governor’s office was aware of the problem as early as July 2015.  In July, the Governor’s former Chief of Staff Dennis Muchmore wrote, “I really don’t think people are getting the benefit of the doubt. Now they are concerned and rightfully so about the lead level studies they are receiving from the (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) samples. … These folks are scared and worried about the health impacts and they are basically getting blown off by us (as a state we’re just not sympathizing with their plight).”

A Sign of Deeper Challenges in the US?

A couple of important lessons have so far come out of the crisis in Flint. First, this crisis was entirely preventable. Officials could have prevented the corrosion in the water system by properly treating the Flint water or continuing to use water from the Detroit system. Second, it appears that multiple layers of government (chief among them, the City of Flint’s emergency manager, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Governor’s office) knew about the issues in Flint and failed to address the problems before it became a full-blown crisis. But finally, the issues in Flint point to a more pressing problem across the US of aging infrastructure.

The pipes in Flint that likely are causing the problems contain lead and are likely decades old. Many of these pipes have not been replaced because of the fiscal challenges in the city. But Flint is hardly alone. As I mentioned in the opening, Los Angeles has aging water infrastructure. The increased leaks and LA’s aging water system can be directly linked. While certainly not to the extent of Flint’s crisis, the City of Sierra Madre, a suburb of Los Angeles has similar challenges. The drought in California forced Sierra Madre to import water through the Metropolitan Water District to bring its groundwater basin back into balance. Imported water from Metropolitan has a different chemical composition than the city’s groundwater, and the switch caused water discoloration in the city’s older pipes. Residents started running the taps for longer to wait for the brown water to flush out. But that created another problem – Sierra Madre is one of the few cities in the state facing fines for not meeting the state-mandated water conservation requirements. As citizen ran their taps for longer, they also used more water than normal. It also put further stresses on the water mains that are in some instances more than 80 years old. Sierra Madre has since started to use the imported water for groundwater recharge rather than direct use.

The bottom line is that while I understand the political and practical implications of municipal budgets, officials have to make water infrastructure updates a priority. Sierra Madre allocated approximately $384,000 to update some of the most deteriorated pipes in the city. But cities across the country including Flint and Los Angeles have pushed their systems to the brink of their useful life. There are consequences for deferring maintenance. Officials must also be aware of the consequences of changing a water supply. We may automatically assume that “water is water,” but each source can have very different chemical and organic makeups. Sierra Madre said that the city experienced a 600% increase in water leaks after they switched to imported water supplies. Hopefully we can take the lessons learned from the crisis in Flint to ensure that this is an isolated incident. But with billions of dollars of aging infrastructure in the ground across the US, it will take a commitment from both elected officials and citizens as a whole to address this important and ever-increasing challenge.

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About Jeff Simonetti

Jeff Simonetti is the Vice President of Public Affairs at the Capitol Core Group and provides project management, business development, and policy/lobbying expertise to a variety of federal, state and local clients. During his tenure at Capitol Core, Jeff has among other projects helped a renewable energy company to secure authorizing resolutions in cities across Southern California. Prior to joining Capitol Core Group, Jeff was a Vice President at the Kosmont Companies, a real estate and economic development consulting firm. At Kosmont, Jeff was the project lead for cities looking to implement financing strategies such as Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs) and other post-redevelopment funding mechanisms. He also was the project manager for the Economic Development element of the Fontana General Plan Update. Jeff gained significant state and local government affairs experience as the Government Affairs Director at the Building Industry Association (BIA) of Southern California’s Baldy View Chapter. During his tenure at the BIA, he helped to found the annual San Bernardino County Water Conference, an event that gathers over 400 elected officials and business leaders in the region to discuss the pressing water policy issues that affect the community.