Water Fountain | Flint, Michigan: Making Sense of a Drinking Water Catastrophe

Flint, Michigan: Making Sense of a Drinking Water Catastrophe

Our work in the water industry should give us a great sense of pride. We’ve earned challenging degrees and certifications, contributed important projects focused on protecting public health and the environment, and shared our ideas on improving the practice with utilities, academics, and other industry professionals. I believe that sanitation services and drinking water disinfection are some of the greatest achievements in human history.

We have reached the unprecedented point in our civilization where access to safe drinking water is not just expected by the public, it is viewed as a right. Water professionals serve our communities by working toward maintaining that right.

Unfortunately, events like the one experienced in Flint, Michigan, tell us that the right to safe water can be violated and, consequently, the public’s trust in our industry can be damaged. A simplified summary of this complex event: The utility transitioned from the wholesale purchase of finished water to treating their own water supply. These changes resulted in a shift in distribution system water quality. The resulting instability allowed for significant lead release from service lines and premise plumbing across the community. In addition, disinfectant residual could not be adequately maintained, leading to the proliferation of legionella in some areas, and incidence of Legionnaires' disease.  Subsequently, there were multiple breakdowns in communication and many people, including children, became sick or worse. 

It was shocking to first read about this tragedy — one immediately wants to know how such a catastrophic failure could occur. Was it an unforeseen consequence of chemistry? Was it a design flaw or operational oversight? Or, was it just inadequate administrative or regulatory support? We have all likely gone through a similar exercise trying to make sense of what happened. In addition, we are likely being asked related questions from those in our community. How do we respond?

Perhaps we start with empathy. This emotional link helps us communicate more effectively and allows us to hear others’ needs. Next, we listen when discussing Flint with our clients or our customers. Are they concerned about new water supplies? Do they have distribution lines and premise piping that may contain lead? Assigning blame to the drinking water failures in Flint is, and will continue to be, a divisive issue. We should refrain from jumping on any of the blame bandwagons. This would only create unnecessary conflict with our clients and others who share different opinions. Instead, as industry professionals entrusted by the public, we should focus on the facts and work with our clients to develop strategies that will help them manage any technical, social, and/or financial challenges that could lead to similar distribution-system upsets. 

Our due diligence, commitment to public service, and focus on protecting the health of our communities remain our best tools. Use these tools. With open ears and open minds, we can learn from the mistakes in Flint and keep delivering that safe water our public deserves.