Saturday, January 30, 2016

Infrastructure Lessons from Flint

The water quality problems in Flint, MI have been all over the news for quite a while now. It's only been a national story for a few weeks, but here in Michigan we've heard about it on and off for months.
Despite the amount of media coverage, I find that there's a lot of confusion over what actually happened. Michigan Radio has a good timeline covering all the major points, but to summarize:

  • Flint has really old infrastructure, which includes the water system.
  • In April 2013, it was decided that Flint couldn't afford to continue to use Detroit's water system as a source. A new pipeline from Lake Huron will take over, but it won't be ready for several years.
  • In April 2014, the Flint River became the new water source for the city, as a interim measure until the new pipeline is ready.
  • There are all kinds of problems reported almost immediately by the city's residents and discovered by regulators, from bad smells to e coli.
  • In October 2015, Flint goes back to the Detroit water system.
  • The water is still unsafe because that old water infrastructure was damaged by the Flint River water.
I've talked to people who thought that Flint was still using the Flint River water. Others thought that Detroit cut off the city of Flint, rather than Flint choosing to stop using Detroit water.

There's a lot of blame being tossed around, most of it in the direction of Governor Rick Snyder, largely because an emergency manager that he appointed was in charge through most of the timeline. Personally, I think laying blame at the point is a pretty silly exercise. There's a lot of work to do to get Flint water fixed, and plenty of time to go through investigations once the people can use tap water again.

There were a lot of really dumb decisions made that led to this situation, but the whole mess would have been much less severe if Flint's infrastructure wasn't so old and poorly maintained. All those lead pipes that were damaged by the river water and are poisoning the current supply have been around for a very long time. Replacing or updating the water system could have been done at many different points before this crisis, but it was never enough of a priority. 

One thing that I do think we all ought to be doing right now, no matter where we live, is taking a good hard look at the infrastructure around us. Poor road maintenance leads to more accidents and more vehicle wear. Old bridges are unsafe. The electrical infrastructure is outdated. Back in 2012, it was estimated that the USA needs about $260 billion a year of investment to repair and update infrastructure, and the cost only goes up as time passes. The crisis in Flint won't be the last one if we continue to let our infrastructure decay around us.

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