Water Crisis in Flint

Whether the issue is outdated infrastructure, poor water management, or pollution, the point is ultimately the same: every American deserves clean water.

President Obama is visiting Flint, Michigan on May 4 to meet with residents and witness the city’s efforts to recover from lead-contaminated drinking water supplies. The health crisis in Flint has raised concerns about drinking water safety nationwide.

We interviewed Jenny Hoffner, Vice President for Conservation Strategies at American Rivers, about what triggered the crisis in Flint and how we can ensure clean water for all communities.

Lead causes a wide range of health problems and is especially harmful to children. So how did it end up contaminating the drinking water in Flint, Michigan?

For decades, the City of Flint paid for drinking water from the City of Detroit, which sourced it from Lake Huron. In early 2014, as a cost saving measure, the state-appointed city manager had the city start pumping water from the Flint River. Flint River water is more corrosive than Lake Huron water, causing lead from older water pipes to leach into the drinking water.

What’s “corrosive” water? This description from Penn State Extension explains that while it is “usually not dangerous to consume by itself, it can cause serious drinking water quality problems by dissolving metals from plumbing systems.” This is a relatively common issue – many drinking water treatment plants use special chemicals, orthophosphates, to inhibit lead corrosion, particularly in older systems. Tragically, this wasn’t done in the case of the Flint.

How can we help the people of Flint and make sure communities nationwide have clean drinking water?

American Rivers is calling for the creation of a Clean Water Trust Fund — an unprecedented national investment in clean water to provide consistent funding to address our water infrastructure problems. This trust fund will protect and restore our rivers and bring our water infrastructure into the 21st century.

An investment of $1 trillion in clean water would pay dividends for generations to come. By comparison, our nation spent $1.7 trillion on the Iraq war. For about 35 cents per person per day, spread over 25 years, we can secure clean water in cities and towns across America. What parent wouldn’t spend 35 cents a day, less than the cost of a daily cup of coffee, to ensure the health and well-being of their child?

How can I make sure my own water is safe?

The best way to be sure is to have your water tested. The EPA is providing this factsheet with tips on reducing your family’s exposure to lead. You should call your local water utility with specific questions and talk to your doctor about health concerns.

What does the situation in Flint say about the state of our clean water supplies nationwide?

The disaster in Flint comes on the heels of other high-profile water crises – the mining waste spill in Colorado’s Animas River, the drinking water ban in Toledo, Ohio, and the chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River. Nationwide, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives water infrastructure a D grade in its report card on the nation’s infrastructure. And at the same time, 44 percent of assessed waterways in the U.S. are too polluted for fishing or swimming.

Whether the issue is outdated infrastructure, poor water management, or pollution, the point is ultimately the same: every American deserves clean water. It is unacceptable that in 2016 some communities in our country do not have access to safe drinking water.

Rivers provide more than two-thirds of our drinking water supplies. We must invest in protecting and restoring our rivers and modernizing water infrastructure. Flint is the latest wake-up call. It’s time to act.

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