Beyond Flint: The Future of Water Quality Issues in the United States

In my last post, I wrote about how the water problems in Flint, Michigan may not be an isolated incident in the United States. While a series of missteps and mismanagement led ultimately to the water crisis in Flint, the situation there highlights a much greater problem in the United States: We have generally under-invested in our water infrastructure, and water quality may continue to suffer in other parts of the nation as a result. The water system in Flint has pipes in it that are in some instances 100 years old, and many main lines contain lead. But Flint is hardly alone in facing the problems that aging infrastructure cause. Cities on both coasts, from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles all have lead and cast iron pipes in the ground that will need to be replaced. In 2013, the American  Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) created a US infrastructure “report card” which assigned grades to a host of infrastructure types. ASCE’s report was not kind to the various water categories. Drinking water, waste water and dams got “D” ratings, and our levees got a “D-“ rating. The report estimates that the drinking water system alone will take $1 trillion in investment to bring the US as a whole up to a satisfactory level of service.

After the recession in 2008, governments and business have been forced to operate more leanly and find creative ways to stretch taxpayers’ dollars. But the lean budget tactics have their consequences. The crisis in Flint began as the cash-strapped city believed it would save approximately $6 million annually by switching from Detroit’s water supply to water from the Flint River. Governments face two trends that will affect policy decisions over the coming decades. On the one hand, municipal water districts across the US will have to replace aging pipe infrastructure or risk increased leaks and service costs down the road. On the other hand, many cities and state and local governments have to provide municipal services with limited financial resources. How will cities achieve both of these goals? In this post, I will explore a key area of our water infrastructure system that may present water quality challenges in the future, and the policy decisions that our lawmakers will have to make to ensure we have a safe water supply.

Municipal Water Systems

Aging infrastructure remains the key challenge to municipal water systems delivering clean water. Despite an Environmental Protection Agency rule limiting lead and copper in the drinking water supplies, some American cities still have vast amounts of Lead pipe infrastructure. Indeed, even the word “plumbing” comes from the Latin word plumbum or lead. Lead pipes were widely used throughout the United States up until the mid-20th century. In cities such as Chicago, the Chiago Tribune reports that an estimated 80% of all pipes in the city are still made of lead. The American Water Works Association estimates that there are 6.5 million lead pipes still in use across the US, especially in older cities.

So why are there still so many lead pipes in the ground in cities across the United States if the government knows that they can cause serious health problems? Politics that are slow to react and a lack of funding to change them out are the main culprits. Chicago only banned the use of lead pipes and joints in 1986 after the US Government proposed a nationwide ban, but the influential Plumbers Union in the City opposed the move. Copper and plastic pipes require less labor and expertise to fit than traditional lead pipes, and the Union was concerned the shift would cause job losses in the profession. A Chicago Tribune article from March 30, 1986 quoted Business Manager of the Local 130 Branch of the Chicago Plumbers Union as saying, “We don’t think [the measure] is good plumbing. We think lead does a better job.” He recommended “letting the tap run for a while or flushing the toilet” to remove water that in pipes that had built up contamination.

The US government followed suit in 1986 with amendments to the Safe Drinking Water Act which placed restrictions on lead pipes nationwide. Five years later in 1991, the US EPA introduced the Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) to create standards and set compliance procedures for the amount of lead allowed in public drinking water. Critics of the rule, however argue that the rules have little teeth and can miss vast swaths of that population that may have exposure to lead pipes. For example, the LCR only mandates that Chicago, a city of 2.7 million people and the highest concentration of lead pipes in the US to test only 50 homes every three years for lead in the drinking water. Further, the rule only requires the utilities to test the first liter of water drawn in the morning after pipes have been dormant all night. Critics argue that the test misses potentially high levels of toxic materials that flow through the pipe after the test is complete.

Funding Needed Improvements

While the crisis in Flint has grasped much of the media’s attention, water quality issues for municipal utilities are widespread. Recently, the City of Stockton received a visit from famed water advocate Erin Brokovich after some residents began complaining of pipe corrosion from the use of chloramines in the municipal system. Brokovich and her team have intervened in cities across the country with water contamination problems including Tulsa, OK, Charlotsville, VA, Grand Isle Vermont and Nipomo, CA, a small community near Pismo Beach. The problem of water quality in municipal drinking water systems is widespread and has a few common themes among the affected cities. First, cities are finding it difficult to find funds to remove old lead pipes. Flint, Michigan is in State receivership, and Stockton entered Chapter 9 bankruptcy in April 2013. Larger cities are also having a tough time finding the funding to replace lead pipes. The Los Angeles Unified School District  (LAUSD) estimated that it would cost approximately $330 million to remove lead pipes from all of its schools after a 2008 investigation determined that thousands of students could be drinking water tainted with lead. As of 2015, LAUSD installed filters on water fountains at only 200 of its 900 schools and has replaced all lead pipes at only one school.

Washington DC also began a $400 million lead pipe removal program in the early 2000s after tests showed elevated lead levels in citizens’ and children’s bloodstreams. However, after the recession hit in 2008, Washington abandoned the program. Officials there said they would only replace lead pipes when they failed. But a Centers for Disease Control report concluded that partially replacing lead pipes in a system would not guarantee reduced lead contamination. It said, “children living in housing where a lead service line was partially replaced after 2003 were more likely to have [elevated blood lead levels] than children living in housing without a lead service line.”

A Matter of Political Will

I believe that there are two main lessons from the water quality cases in Flint and other areas across the nation:

  1. Testing and compliance for water quality issues has so far not been adequate to stop problems before they become crises, such as what happened in Flint
  2. It will take significant financial resources to remove lead pipes across the country, and many cities where the problem is acute are already cash-strapped.

The US as a whole faces a major financial challenge to remove lead pipes that are prevalent across many major cities. It is even more acute in places such as Flint, Chicago and Stockton that already have budgetary constraints. Going forward, cities will have to come up with a long-term plan of water testing and eventual removal of older pipes. Will our elected officials make it a priority?


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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.