Photo courtesy of Alana Semuels/The Atlantic

Photo courtesy of Alana Semuels/The Atlantic

Imagine turning on your faucet for nice glass of water, but the water has a weird blue tint, smells like rotten eggs, or worse smells like garbage! That’s the reality for many residents in Flint, MI, but it could become the reality for many Americans because of our aging infrastructure.

Water Problems in Flint

Flint has struggled financially since the 1980s and 1990s as General Motors started to close plants. As the unemployment rate rose to 25% in 2009, families sought opportunity elsewhere and Flint’s population declined. As with many cities in the United States, this forces the city to provide services like water, sewer, and road maintenance within the same city boundaries while bringing in less tax revenue to pay for it. In the instance of Flint, they have not had the money needed to spend on crucial infrastructure upgrades and have left old pipes in place for much longer than most engineers would recommend.

Flint started buying water from Detroit in 1967. As the Detroit Water and Sewer Department began raising water rates for residents to help pay for its expanding services, Flint did not pass those rates to Flint customers as residents were struggling economically – and politicians were worried they would be voted out of office – leaving even less money for infrastructure upgrades. For example, in 2004 Detroit charged Flint $11.06 per million cubic feet of water and by 2013, it was charging Flint $19.12 per million cubic foot (a 73% increase). By 2011 Flint had a $15 million deficit.

Unable and unwilling to pay the rising Detroit water costs, Genesee County (where Flint is located), along with other Michigan counties are building a pipeline to pump Lake Huron water to mid-Michigan, but the pipeline, called the Karegnondi Water Authority, won’t be completed until late 2016. In 2013, Flint decided to save the city money by pumping the water from the Flint River, treat it, and then sell it to residents. Buying water from Detroit costs about $12 million a year, while the annual cost for treating water from the Flint River is $2.8 million, according to Howard Croft, the city’s public-works director.

Sounds like a perfect plan, right? Wrong. Filtering river water for public consumption is especially harder than treating reservoir or lake water as rivers are subject to runoff, air quality, and heavy storms. Flint turned off the pumps from Detroit in April 2014 and almost immediately residents complained.

The water smelled like rotten eggs or like a sewer. It had a strange tint coming out of the faucet – blue, yellow, brown – depending on where you lived. Bethany Hazard, a Flint resident, says her water started coming out of the faucet brown and smelling like a sewer, but when she called the city to complain she was told the water was fine.

Spoiler alert: the water wasn’t fine.

Tests first showed there was fecal coliform bacteria in the water. Engineers responded by issuing boil advisories and increasing the amount of chlorine in the water. The added chlorine in the water led to dangerously high levels of trihalomethanes (TTHMs), which put Flint in violation of the Clean Water Act. And TTHMs are especially dangerous when inhaled… essentially making showering in hot water toxic.

A GM plant in Flint noticed that engine parts were corroding because of the water, causing the plant to switch off the water from Flint, truck water from elsewhere, and eventually use water from Flint Township (which buys water from Detroit).

Another resident, LeeAnne Walters didn’t notice any changes right away. But a few months later she started noticing rashes on her children. Her 4-year-old developed a scaly rash and her 14-year-old got so sick he missed month a school.

Walters wanted answers so she sent samples of her water to Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech environmental engineering professor who forced the CDC to admit it misled the public about the level of lead in D.C.’s water. He found that Walter’s water had a lead content of 13,000 parts per billion (the EPA recommends keeping lead content below 15 parts per billion). The average lead content over the 30 samples Walters sent was 2,000 parts per billion, which meant no matter how long Walters let her taps run, the water would still be toxic. Also the levels of lead in the water could be the cause for the health problems she and her children were having.

According to Edwards, “Lead is the best known neurotoxin, it adversely impacts every system in the human body. Certainly it could have caused children’s lead poisoning.”

While Flint does not know why so much lead was found in Walters’ pipes, Edwards has a theory: Many cities have lead pipes, and when water sits in those pipes, the lead can leech into the water. So cities usually add corrosion-control chemicals, such as phosphates, to keep the lead out of the water. But Flint did not take such precautions.

Lead in their water is not the only problem Flint residents have faced. In the past 16 months, Flint tap water has had abnormally high levels of E.coli, trihamlomethanes, lead, and copper have been found in their water. A dead body and abandoned car have also been found in the Flint River, the source for Flint’s tap water.

Nationwide Issue

While poor city planning, financial accounting, the practice of pumping water from the Flint River have helped to lead to Flint’s current water issues. Neglected, eroding infrastructure is really to blame and is not unique to Flint.

“Flint is an extreme case, but nationally, there’s been a lack of investment in water infrastructure,” said Eric Scorsone, an economist at Michigan State University who has followed the case of Flint. “This is a common problem nationally – infrastructure maintenance has not kept up.”

In 2013, the United States received a “D” in the drinking-water category in the American Society for Civil Engineer’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. The report found that most of the nation’s drinking water infrastructure is “nearing the end of its useful life” and replacing the nation’s pipes would cost more than $1 trillion.

Last month, the American Water Works Association released a report warning that many utilities across the country won’t have the money needed to perform necessary infrastructure upgrades over the coming decades. Utilities are seeing water sales declining as households and commercial clients are becoming more water efficient, but, like Flint, are required to provide the same infrastructure, just with less revenue.

“They don’t have money to even do the best practices according to our currently lousy best practices,” says Edwards, of Virginia Tech. “They have even less money than normal to address these very, very expensive problems.”

At Quench, we have found that much of the nation’s water distribution infrastructure is between 50 and 100 years old. With infrastructure that old, it is susceptible to corrosion that traps bacteria, viruses, and other toxins. And water from the cleanest reservoirs and best municipal water services has to travel through miles of pipe to get your glass, exposing it to a host of contaminants along the way. And drinking delivered bottled water isn’t necessarily better. Bottled water is typically dispensed through an un-sanitized jug and cooler exposing drinking water to contaminants and germs.

However, a bottleless water cooler purifies water just before it’s delivered to your glass, filtering chemicals and other toxins, eliminating germs and bacteria, so you are drinking clean water. Want ice or sparkling water? Our ice machines and sparkling water dispensers use the same state-of-the-art technology to ensure your sparkling water or ice is the cleanest it can be.