Can We Trust Our Drinking Water?
Is Flint's tragedy a rare exception, or the sign of a systemic breakdown in US water utilities?
With the unfolding horror of Flint’s water crisis, filling a glass of tap water suddenly feels risky.
Throughout history, water quality has been a challenge—cholera, dysentery, and other diseases have felled great cities. Today, more than a billion people remain without safe water access around the world.
And yet, internationally, water is now recognized as a human right, and how to manage it equitably and sustainably is highlighted in climate change agreements as well as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Climate change and energy conservation imperatives are driving changes. As cities learn to protect source water, capture rainwater, recycle grey water, involve the public and establish watershed committees, creativity in urban water management is taking off.
In the end, though, water consumers want results—clean water gushing from their faucet. They wonder: Is my city a leader or a hazard to my health?
Flint can be looked at two ways. It may be an exception, a story of a callous governor making cost-saving decisions at the expense of Flint’s mostly black and brown children. Or it could signal the beginning of a systemic breakdown within the more than 50,000 water utilities in the United States.
So far, despite decaying infrastructure and budget pressures, water utilities have delivered on their promise of healthy water. Many cities have taken positive steps to avoid what has happened in Flint.
Flint is preceded by plenty of disasters, most the result of bad management decisions, that have eroded public confidence and prompted action. In 2014, algae blooms, fed by heavy nitrate use, ruined the water supply in Toledo, Ohio. A dramatic chemical spill in Charleston, West Virginia, left that city’s water undrinkable. These calamities are free advertising for the United States’ $13 billion bottled water market.
But before giving up on public water, there’s evidence to consider. As tragic as the news is out of Flint, said American Water Works Association Communications Director Greg Kail, almost all of the nation’s water utilities are in compliance with the Safe Water Drinking Act’s Lead and Copper Rule. The utilities would have to acknowledge any violations in annual Consumer Confidence Reports. “In the vast majority of cases,” said Kail, “water professionals discharge their duties with seriousness and protect public health. When something like Flint occurs, it strengthens their commitment.”
On the heels of Flint, the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) and New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) circulated reassuring letters to legislators and customers describing their water quality measures. The DEP proactively distributes 1,000 test kits per year to customers to collect household-level data on lead and other contaminants. The MWRA and DEP both rely on feedback from customers, what Stephen Estes-Smargiassi, the MWRA’s director of Planning and Sustainability, described as “building confidence at the retail level. We want customers to have a good feeling about their water after they interact with us.” The MWRA, like many water utilities, tracks and publishes water quality data on its website, and has a water quality hot-line with a public health professional to respond to inquiries. In Flint, the switch to a new water source was not disclosed, and customer complaints were routinely ignored.
In-house and regulatory safeguards shouldn’t stop alert citizens from making their concerns known at City Hall, but in the vast majority of cases, public urban water meets EPA standards. While the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure gives the nation’s drinking-water infrastructure a “D” grade—raising red flags about the $3.2 trillion the United States needs by 2020 to upgrade water infrastructure nationwide—the report also says that “outbreaks of disease attributable to drinking water are rare.” While that is not a ringing endorsement, healthy water advocates can point their public officials to smart cities that manage their water well, investing in transparent governance, “grey infrastructure”—piping and treatment—and “green infrastructure”—rehabilitating ecosystems to ensure water quality and quantity.
New York City’s water system is emblematic of this trend, frequently featured at water-management conferences around the world. Its innovative planning began in the 1800s with gravity-fed pipes carrying pristine water to the city from the Catskill and Delaware watersheds. In the 1980s, facing contamination from industrial agriculture and encroaching suburbanization, rather than build a $6 billion treatment plant, the water utility pioneered urban-rural collaboration in what came to be known as “payments for environmental services.” In return for healthy drinking water, the city transferred cash to rural areas to improve animal-waste management on farms and sanitation in towns.
Although New York City likes to claim title to the “champagne” of drinking water, in 2014 it was edged out by Boston in the American Water Works Annual Tap Water Taste Test. Similar to New York City, Boston keeps water clean at its source. Whereas New York primarily forges land-use agreements with private landowners, Boston concentrates on protecting public lands in collaboration with state agencies. Conserving the forest around the Quabbin and Wachusetts reservoirs means that, to achieve Environmental Protection Agency(EPA) standards, Boston water requires only minimal treatment.
The city’s good tasting water isn’t just an aesthetic bonus: It means that when water smells bad or is discolored, customers call the utility to complain.
Upstream and downstream, watersheds are home to competing economic interests, many of which can compromise water quality. Governments have used both carrots and sticks to ensure responsible water and land use that yield clean water. After stirring a hornet’s nest of angry farmers with strict regulation enforcement, New York’s water utility switched tactics and offered direct aid to farmers who voluntarily engaged in watershed-friendly farming.
A similar challenge emerged in the Midwest. Iowa’s $30 billion grain trade is fattened by a multimillion-dollar infusion of chemical fertilizers, only a portion of which actually ends up fertilizing corn and soy plants. Much of the rest of it is washed into waterways like the Raccoon River, a principal Des Moines water source. Bill Stowe, the chief executive of Des Moines Water Works, said that the state failed in its efforts to get farmers to willingly reduce nitrate runoff.
“It’s very clear to me,” Stowe said in a New York Times article, “that traditional, industrial agriculture has no real interest in taking the steps that are necessary to radically change their operations in a way that will protect our drinking water.” Treating the nitrate-filled water to potable water standards isn’t cheap, so in 2015, the water utility served farmers the bill via a lawsuit against two upstream counties. While this may sound like the makings of an urban-rural civil war, the lawsuit has set in motion an important public debate in Iowa about who ought to pay for clean water.
Self-taxing may seem unlikely today in many communities today, but California voters in 2014 approved a $7.5 billion bond to repair and replace aging and vulnerable water infrastructure. Parched lawns, made more visible by Governor Jerry Brown’s vocal leadership on water conservation and climate change, shook voters from complacency; water can’t be taken for granted. The bond meant that water bills will likely spike, but voters put thirst before wallets.
Funds will be used to, among other things, shore up water reliability, meet safe drinking-water standards, and clean up groundwater. Some $260 million will go to the State Water Pollution Control Revolving Fund’s Small Community Grant Fund, run by the State Water Resources Control Board. In the Bay Area, a 2002 voter-approved bond has helped the San Francisco Public Utility Commission blend groundwater with Sierra Nevada snow melt and incentivize San Francisco builders to collect and treat water onsite, part of what Paula Kehoe, director of Water Resources at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, describes as “a new water paradigm.”
Such a paradigm may not come without a struggle. When United Water won the contract to manage Atlanta’s water system in 1999, they halved the workforce and increased rates. Brown and orange water dripping from city faucets led to boil-only alerts. Then Mayor Shirley Franklin canceled the contract in 2003 and restored municipal management of the water system. Around the world, citizens are forcing re-examination of private contracts and pressuring city governments to take back control of water services. Faced with rate hikes without service improvements, communities question how returning profits to private shareholders squares with managing water for the public good. The Transnational Institute’s remunicipalization tracker reports that in the past 15 years, 235 cities in 37 countries have brought water systems under public control.
Flint's tragedy has moved the country like no other water crisis. When one water utility betrays the public trust, Estes-Smargiassi said, “it damages confidence everywhere.” The injuries in Flint will persist well beyond its scarred children. It may be some time before families feel reassured enough to drink from their tap. And yet every day and everywhere, there are examples of committed water workers and forward-thinking city officials demonstrating that, with enough investment and public oversight, water can be managed for the public good.
Daniel Moss lives in Boston, where he raises his children on city water. He works with Latin American and Caribbean water utilities to protect their water sources and strengthen resiliency in the face of climate change.