Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Flint First: A Glimpse into a Future of Water Disaster

By Derrick RicePublished March 23, 2016

Given our nation's crumbling water infrastructure and government's complacency in the effort to repair it, Flint may be the first of many water disasters nationwide"”but if we target our efforts properly, we may be able to ensure a safe and secure future for our nation's water.

By Derrick Rice, 3/23/16

In a contemporary light, many view the crisis in Flint as one of the most abhorrent violations of the right to clean water. But in our initial reactions of shock and awe, we must ask one fundamental question: Is this crisis the beginning of a national catastrophe?
To answer this question, we don't have to look far. Last week, the Ithaca City School District shut off their water supply after detecting "high levels of lead." In Newark, New Jersey, 17,000 children are now being tested for lead poisoning. In Long Island, New York, leaky cesspools  have led to a mass die-off of flora and fauna within the Long Island Sound, due to nitrogen pollution. These incidents represent a fraction of the growing disaster that is our nation's water infrastructure. Experts on urban water infrastructure have characterized water mains as "ticking time bombs." This is justified for the most part—many aging water mains have pipes made from wooden planks wrapped in metal coil. From 2004 to 2009, water suppliers detected 316 contaminants in water supplied to the public.
Woefully, issues of water quality and human health are not exclusive to cities. Of the 43 million people who use private water wells in the U.S., it is estimated that 20% are drinking from water sources with contaminants capable of harming human health. What is the end result? A decrepit water system-- representative of a weakening infrastructure, strengthening in its abilities to trigger a disaster. Flint provides a glimpse of what may be the new normal: thousands of children poisoned from lead-contaminated water, hundreds of thousands of citizens dependent on expensive bottled water, and a government that refuses responsibility every step of the way.
Though the current crisis in Flint is cause to be pessimistic about our capabilities in repairing water infrastructure, there are government programs that provide durable solutions to repairing aging water infrastructure. The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF), a loan program which allows state and local governments to invest in their water infrastructure using low-interest loans, has the capacity to serve as a micro-solvent to our "macro" water problem. Legislation also serves an integral role in creating solutions—for example, the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, if fully funded, can provide low-cost financing and bond programs for municipalities looking to upgrade their water systems, and bolster current financing programs (like the DWSRF) even further. The solutions are clearly there. It is our job to support and expand their abilities.
But for every glimmer of hope, there is a metaphorical smack to bring us back down to earth—and we don't have to look far in this case either. In 2015, Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, leader of a post-industrial city struggling with water infrastructure, requested funding from NY Governor Andrew Cuomo, to repair several water tunnels and a water main system that normally has one break (failure) a day. His response was terse, and predicated on the fact that Syracuse's has a weak economy: "Fix your own pipes."  Efforts to repair our nation's water infrastructure must be led by officials in state government, not stymied by them. Furthermore, economic success should not be a prerequisite for repairs that are vital to a city's existence.
During a Democratic primary debate several weeks ago, moderator Anderson Cooper asked Hillary Clinton about her stance on the handling of the Flint water crisis. Her response articulated something that history has proven true: "If the kids in a rich suburb of Detroit had been drinking contaminated water we would have done something about it." High-income neighborhoods are more likely to have expedient repairs to infrastructure, investments in new infrastructure, and a more active citizenry—with a greater ability to influence and mobilize government officials. In the words of Governor Cuomo, high-income communities have the agency to "fix their own pipes." But this cannot be the future that we strive for. The movement to improve our nation's infrastructure must be done in a fashion so that it serves all, not just the privileged few. Given the crisis in Flint and the sentiments of government officials in regards to water infrastructure, it seems that this will prove to be our greatest challenge.
It is clear that the United States is nearing a systemic breakdown in water infrastructure, and while there are options to solve it, there is no clear plan to achieve full repair. To prevent analogues to the crisis in Flint, we must ensure that repairs are done in an egalitarian fashion-- in order of highest need, rather than highest income. Clean water for all should be our guiding principle in this effort, and it is with this principle that we shall succeed.