Understanding Flint’s Water Infrastructure Crisis: Water Infrastructure Inequality in America

The most recent research data (from EPA, CDC, MDEQ, Virginia Tech, University of South Carolina, and University of Massachusetts) who have been tracking the 2014-2016 Flint public health crisis, indicates that drinking water in Flint is now in the range of other U.S. cities in terms of lead, DBPs, and bacteria. It took a sustained effort by hundreds of State, Federal and City employees, and outside groups such as Virginia Tech, who have been working together to improve water quality since at least January 2016. Residents are still advised to use lead filters before using water for cooking or drinking because the state is still providing them free of charge, and also because we are realizing that water passing through lead service pipes should never again be termed “safe” in Flint or elsewhere.

Now that we are approaching the end of the Flint public health crisis, we must roll up our sleeves and deal with Flint’s water infrastructure crisis, which poses a major danger to Flint’s future. Herein we provide an overview of this evolving concern, and lay out some the key concepts and issues involved including:

  • Why was Flint paying amongst the highest water rates in the world?
  • Why are Flint’s rates projected to double if nothing is done?
  • Why should outside parties (i.e., U.S. taxpayers) help pay for Flint’s pipes?
  • Differences between spending money on bottled water, replacing lead pipes and upgrading water mains.


Why was Flint paying amongst the highest water rates in the world?

Many people are probably wondering, how it came to be, that residents in the second poorest city in America were paying amongst the highest water rates in the world (Table 1) for water (throughout 2014-2015) that was not suitable for anything but flushing toilets.

Table 1. Representative water rates from around the world.
Table 1. Representative water rates from around the world.

Here are three reasons.  First, the Flint water system was built for 250,000 people and a projected growth in population, but by 2014 there were less than 100,000 left to pay and keep it up. Second, water moves very slowly through a pipe system with fewer people, which can actually make corrosion damage of pipes worse, and increase the rate of damage and costs for repair. Unlike highways which degrade faster the more, they are used, water systems can actually degrade more quickly with less water use.

Third, the old adage “a stitch in time saves nine,” does apply to water main repair.  Specifically, proactively replacing water mains before they fail, saves money, compared to fixing pipes as they break. Waiting to fix pipes when they fail endangers public health due to contaminants getting into the system, causes expensive water damage from flooding, creates a sense of unease due to water service and traffic interruptions, and requires payment of emergency contractors/overtime. It is easy to understand that waiting to fix pipes when they fail, can sometimes cost 3-10 times more than fixing the same pipe before it fails. Like many cities and towns in rural America that have come on tough times financially, Flint has had no choice but to stop proactive replacements, which dramatically increases the cost of running the water system.

Figure 1. Water main breaks are very expensive.
Figure 1. Water main breaks are very expensive.

Add it all up (reasons 1-3), and a “perfect storm” is created for higher water rates, which leaves some Flint residents paying more for their water bill than for their home mortgage. This, in turn, can create something we term “an infrastructure death spiral.” Specifically, at some point, the higher water rates begin to cause even more people to leave, which increases rates further (reasons 1-3), which makes even more people want to leave. At some point, the water system becomes financially unsustainable and water rates skyrocket out of control.


Why are Flint’s rates projected to double if nothing is done?

With the added costs of the new Karegnondi pipeline, required water treatment plant upgrades and the need for new staff, and with the water mains falling even further into disrepair, Flint’s already high water rates are projected to double over the next 5 years. If nothing is done that will obviously make a bad situation even worse. To stop or reverse an infrastructure death spiral, water rates must be made affordable, so that consumers and businesses will at least stop leaving Flint, and ideally want to start returning to Flint to increase its population and economic base. Even if Flint’s water is made as safe as other cities, without upgrades to the infrastructure and making water rates affordable, the Flint water crisis is not over.  If rates double in five years another financial and/or public health crisis will occur a few years down the road.


Why should outside parties (i.e., US Taxpayers) help pay to upgrade Flint’s pipes?

There are many other cities and towns in post-industrial and rural America, who face very high water rates and unsustainable infrastructure. Many are on the verge of bankruptcy. In other countries including Canada and Germany, cities are not allowed to go bankrupt, because the state or federal government will step in to help maintain a basic level of civilization including potable affordable water for all citizens.  For better or worse, in America, there is no general mechanism by which the state or federal government will intervene—cities and towns simply get the water infrastructure that they can afford.  And ironically, taking steps to get the water infrastructure you can afford (reason 1-3), makes water even less affordable, and pushes a community into a water infrastructure death spiral. We have argued that the U.S. model, which can work reasonably well if a communities population is either growing or relatively stable, needs to change now that some cities and towns have lost enough population to become financially unsustainable.

But in the meantime, what makes Flint different?  Why should Flint receive a major influx of infrastructure funding from the state or federal government to upgrade its infrastructure, when other cities such as Detroit and rural American towns do not? The major reason is that Flint’s infrastructure was damaged, by the failure to follow federal corrosion control laws. More than a year ago we noted that this failure to install corrosion control caused major damage (perhaps hundreds of millions) to Flint water mains. Because it is now acknowledged that both the State and U.S. EPA knew about this problem, and did not act to prevent further damage to the mains, it is our belief that these entities “own” part of the problem. Hence, we strongly disagree with those who assert, that because Flint’s water quality has improved markedly over the last year, that the U.S. taxpayer should not pay to help with Flint’s the infrastructure problem.   Instead, at best, the man-made disaster will logically morph from a public health crisis phase to a water infrastructure crisis phase, and it is morally and ethically important that the State of Michigan and the Federal government continue to assist Flint with funding. We have repeatedly gone on record supporting Michigan’s congressional leadership, governor Snyder, and others, who have lobbied for federal Flint infrastructure funding.


Differences between spending money on bottled water, replacing lead pipes and upgrading water mains.

Once the money is allocated, all parties have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that it is spent, to provide Flint residents with the brightest possible future. There will be a rigorous debate about prioritization and the resultant impacts on public health and affordable water.

It is useful to consider a hypothetical scenario in which a fixed sum of money (say $170 million) is allocated to Flint’s recovery, and residents have the freedom to decide how to spend 100% of the funding for either bottled water, lead/galvanized iron service line replacement, or water main upgrades.  What are the implications for consumer confidence, public health and affordable water for each choice?

Bottled water. If all the money was spent on bottled water, given estimates that this would cost $10 million per month, Flint residents would enjoy bottled water for 17 months. But water rates would double in 5 years, main breaks would continue, and all problems with lead and galvanized iron service lines would also remain.

Lead/Galvanized Iron Pipe Replacements. Unfortunately, the lead or galvanized iron service lines that connect the home to the water mains, have little or nothing to do with Flint’s high water costs, or the reason that such costs are projected to double. If $170 million is spent on lead or galvanized iron service pipe replacement, there would be a long-term public health and psychological benefit from having the lead and old iron out of the system. There would be somewhat fewer complaints of red water from iron.  But lead and red water problems would not be completely eliminated, because there is still lead in the home plumbing from brass or solder, and there is still unlined iron pipe waters. The water rates would still likely double over the next 5 years.

Water main replacements.  By investing only in water main upgrades, we would help get water rates and main breaks under control, because in some cases every dollar spent could save 3-10 dollars in future costs. From a financial perspective, this would have the greatest impact.  But under the hypothetical example, it would also require giving up bottled water and would leave the lead/galvanized pipes in the ground.

Obviously, in an ideal world, there would be funding for everything, but the false/hypothetical example does illustrate that the decisions are not easy, and will have implications that will impact Flint for generations to come. Even under the constraint of $170 million total (which is also false because there will be a negotiation as to what is appropriate), perhaps a hybrid solution would be best in which bottled water was purchased for a few months, lead pipes are replaced or purchase of water filters is continued, and the rest of the funding is used to help reduce Flint water rates via water main upgrades.  In many ways, the public health crisis was easier to deal with, because there were fewer options available to appropriately protect people, and there were fewer tradeoffs.

Nonetheless, this example gives you a broad outline, of problems that will be faced, now that we must, to squarely address Flint’s water infrastructure crisis.

Primary Author: Dr. Marc Edwards