The Flint Public Water crisis has emerged as one of the keystone talking points of a young 2016, as it has drawn in celebrity attention from Flint-born Celebrities to World Famous singers (Well, at least Cher), and has even found itself on the ticket as a talking point in the Democratic Debates. Up to this point, I gave myself credit for knowing the basics around the water in Flint, Michigan: it got contaminated and you’ll get sick if you drink it. As it turns out, the corruption of a resource that is so instrumental to everyday life made the country angry and caused concerned citizens in Flint and around the country to demand answers on just how water quality got so out of hand in the city. While I could hear the protest and felt the anger for those poor people in Michigan, I wasn’t really sure what I was angry about. Yeah, I knew water quality was bad, but that’s about the length of my statement on the issue around the dinner table come the start of 2016. And honestly, I think the majority of people (at least my peers) knowledge of details on the Flint water crisis was about par as mine. A little bit of classic restlessness/not being able to sleep/questioning why I didn’t know more about an issue like this and most importantly constant reminders from Facebook pushed me to the point that I needed to dive deeper into this mess, and boy it got interesting.
Just saying it aloud, something seems inherently wrong with a water crisis in Michigan. As the Michigan Times correctly points out, that water is the basis for Michigan’s wildly successful “Pure Michigan” advertising campaign which highlights towns on rivers and bordering Lake Michigan. If that doesn’t click, it’s the Midwest, there’s lakes and rivers everywhere (like really everywhere) trust me. Initially for me, it was hard to grasp the idea of how a state surrounded by so much water could have such difficulty providing water to any part of the state: I mean for god’s sake there’s a great lake named after it. Spending lots of time in Minnesota as a kid also didn’t help the issue, as I was a witness to the role of the natural water bodies and just how important it was to maintain them. And Just like many towns in Michigan, Flint had a history based largely in part on the Flint River’s presence and the amount of benefits one river gives. The river fueled the state’s agricultural based economy and helped transport goods from city to city for industrial needs (in state and exports).
What may be the most confusing aspect of this whole debacle is that while this issue has been a hot topic in 2016, the Flint water contamination crisis is not a new development. While many of the articles I have seen online talk about the crisis and give us specific pointers to know about the crisis (looking at you CNN), not many of these articles probe the events that set the table for this mess. And to my point, the research I conducted has shown me that if you were a member of the Flint Public Government, you may have had an idea of this crisis as early as 2013.
In March of 2013 Flint, who previously had been supplied water by the city of Detroit, joined the Karegnondi Water Authority which simultaneously voided their agreement with the city of Detroit that had been in place for 50+ years. Following the movement to the Karegnondi Water Authority, Flint immediately announced that they would be using the aptly named Flint River to source their local water needs, and this is where the problem started. The existing water treatment infastructure was not sufficient for the workload and to top it off, the service lines between Flint’s original Water Treatment Plant (built in 1919) and the second plant (which was established in 1952), as well as the lines from the plants to residential houses were built out of Lead. Indeed we know building with lead was the standard at the time because of its ease of use and cheap price, but no one would argue we have learned lots more about the negative effects of lead exposure. Just over a year and a month ago, the Flint government was notified by the EPA that it violated the Safe Drinking Water Act and a follow up study by a Virginia Tech researcher proved that lead had contaminated the city’s water supply. After trying his best to stay the original path of sourcing water from the Flint River for seemingly as long as he could, Governor Snyder finally agreed to have water shipped in from Detroit again.
While Governor Snyder will likely resign, and it is more than likely we will see a serious change in how water quality control will be handled in Flint moving forward, I am very wary that problems surrounding our older quality control infrastructure may actually frequent more rather than be deterred by the events of the Flint crisis. The fact remains that much of the large infrastructure surrounding our natural water sources is only getting older, meaning it has been deteriorating in structural quality and has had a greater risk of exposure to containments like what we saw in Flint. While widespread protest and call to action are a step in the right direction, we must remember it takes money to renovate these aging structures. And from what I have seen, many of our population is very skeptical of the notion of increasing taxes, aka the primary source of funding these public properties.
To this day, America has developed coping mechanisms to deal with these problems by believing there are ways these structural breakdowns can be ignored solely through the low probability of a crisis occurring in one’s town and government intervention if the issue gets out of hand. Flint proved to us that both of these notions couldn’t be farther from the truth. While disappointing as it is to have our preconceived opinion of the topic ruined, we should be optimistic. By understanding our role in the equation (meaning yes, we will have to pay for these renovations), we can push for and justify government action/spending on the renovations of infrastructure around our drinking water at the very minimum. What Flint has done better than any other crisis is exposing them to the reality that contaminated water can have very serious consequences for all, and that this problem can be happening anywhere (to some degree) and the Government might not be telling us about it. I truly believe that the Flint water crisis will be a pivotal time in for all related around the politics of water quality, but I hope this issue crisis will amount to further proactive movement around the country to avoid this kind of crisis from happening again.