Where Do We Go from Flint? 

6 Feb 2017  |  Keith Hays

The impact of Flint, Michigan’s water crisis continues to reverberate throughout the US water industry after nearly two years. Concerns over drinking water quality, specifically contamination from lead pipes, have grown exponentially as Flint highlighted the issue for the public and water utilities around the U.S. Crews in Flint have replaced pipes for 800 homes through January 2017 as the city set aside $25 million for the project. A total estimated 29,100 should be replaced that would cost $140 million.

Long Road Ahead for Lead Replacement, Tighter Quality Control

Although this signals progress, it also lays bare the massive, frightening water quality challenges the country faces, as our recent analysis indicates. According to the National Resources Defense Council, 18 million people were served by water systems with lead violations in 2015. Within the Water Resources Development Act of 2016, only $60 million has been allocated specifically to replace LSLs, plus $100 million in emergency funding, compared to investment needs that total up to $80 billion according to the EPA. The EPA’s efforts to strengthen its Lead and Copper rule appear unlikely to garner much support with the current administration. This puts the burden on municipalities to hike rates and prioritize LSL replacement.

The state of US potable water quality monitoring gives little peace of mind. To be fair, it’s not even fully in the utility’s hands, as the ownership of service lines that may contain lead is shared between the municipality and the homeowner.  But most utilities have limited visibility once water leaves the treatment plant, making it slow and difficult to pinpoint issues when a quality event occurs – such as Corpus Christi illustrated in December, and most recently in Pittsburgh. Increased quality monitoring through real-time, ‘smart’ solutions has yet to reach the mainstream in the US, primarily due to cost, but is starting to gain traction in a few states such as Nevada.

Finding a Way Forward, City by City

An anticipated new, $1 trillion infrastructure plan will likely support pipe replacements, and Flint’s will be funded under the emergency measure. Milwaukee recently announced it has begun a plan to replace its nearly 70,000 LSLs. Cincinnati and Washington DC are considering a similar program. Let’s hope the lessons of Flint will catalyze more action, both at the city and national level. But the magnitude of the problem, the low level of federal support, and the complexity of replacing so many pipes will require significant resilience and financial creativity on the part of city planners.

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Keith Hays is Vice President and co-founder of Bluefield Research, a market research and insight firm focused exclusively on supporting companies addressing opportunities in water. Bluefield has individual reports on US water utility strategies and CAPEX forecasts, municipal wastewater and reuse trends, and investor-owned utility market trends.