Flint, Michigan: A City in Troubled Water

The residents of Flint, Michigan are no strangers to hardship. In the past three decades, auto plants have closed, the population has plunged, violent crime has spiked, and poverty rates have reached 40%. But in recent months, the blue-collar city north of Detroit has hit a new low. Lead has contaminated the city’s water supply, leading to widespread poisoning and a state of emergency.

The crisis originated in 2011. After years of economic decline, the city was “so broke that it was taken into state receivership”. Michigan Governor Rick Snyder promptly ousted the mayor and city council and appointed a series of emergency managers to govern and reduce costs. In 2013, one manager decided to switch Flint’s water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the new Karegnondi Water Authority (both draw from Lake Huron). But as the connecting pipes were not yet built, he ordered officials to temporarily pump from the Flint River – at a projected savings of $1 million/year. Flint River water began chugging through city pipes in April 2014.

The Flint River is a “cesspool” tainted by farm runoff, sewage, and decades of industrial effluent. To make matters worse, the river’s water is highly corrosive to lead (19 times more than Detroit water!). Yet the state refused to add a required anticorrosive element, costing just $9000. As a result, the water corroded lead throughout the system, including lead pipelines connecting homes to city water mains and lead solder used to fuse copper pipes. This lead then leached into Flint’s water supply.

Almost immediately, residents complained about the cloudiness, colour, taste and smell of the city’s water. However, the effects were more than cosmetic. Many reported that the water was “making them sick”, causing rashes, hair loss, headaches, eye irritations, and other health problems. After a flood of warning signs, the city council called on the emergency manager to switch Flint back to Lake Huron water in January 2015. But the calls went ignored. [Outrageously, only GM received a “special hook-up to clean water” after car parts showed corrosion].

The EPA started to grasp the grave danger in summer 2015. In a June memo, an employee wrote “Recent drinking water sample results indicate the presence of high lead results in the drinking water”. Moreover, “The lack of any mitigating treatment for lead is of serious concern”. Still, a state of Michigan spokesperson advised Flint residents to “relax”, claiming that test results just didn’t hold water.

By late summer, however, the poisoned water supply became undeniable. Researchers from Virginia Tech found that some Flint water samples contained 13,200 ppb of lead – far above the EPA limit (15 ppb) and even the threshold for hazardous waste (5000 ppb)! Likewise, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha compared children’s blood with earlier samples, proving elevated lead levels.

But it wasn’t until October 2015, after months of denial and deception, that Michigan officials acknowledged the environmental nightmare. Governor Snyder switched Flint’s water back to Detroit’s system at a cost of $12 million.

Already, the damage was done. Besides the visible impacts, the lead has likely caused significant neurological damage, particularly in Flint’s 8,657 children under 6. According to the World Health Organization, lead exposure affects brain development resulting in “irreversible” effects like reduced IQ, behavioural changes (such as shortened attention span and increased antisocial behaviour), and reduced educational attainment! It can also cause anaemia, hypertension, renal impairment, and toxicity to the immune and reproductive systems.

The economic impact is also significant. Many victims now require costly healthcare and social services, including special education. The city’s $2.4 billion in home value has gone “down the economic drain”, leaving numerous residents with “a net worth of zero”. Moreover, many companies are struggling to stay afloat in Flint, while others are avoiding the city altogether.

Like Flint water, the solution to the disaster remains unclear. Under the current state of emergency, officials are using $5 million in federal funding to provide water, filters, water test kits, and other necessary items. Non-profit groups, like the American Red Cross and Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, are joining in. Furthermore, the Michigan National Guard and police are going door-to-door delivering water…and warnings.

Once basic needs are met (in the world’s richest country!), attention must turn to fixing Flint’s water system. Simply switching back to Lake Huron water was not enough, as the pipes are now severely corroded. Some suggest recoating the pipes with anticorrosive element but this could take over six months. Flint’s new mayor, Karen Weaver, argues that “we have been emotionally traumatized and need new pipes” (costing up to $55 million). Others call for a compromise: gradually replacing every lead service line, while coating pipes with phosphates.

Over the long-term, the government will need to fund various health and social services for victims. In the words of Dr. Hanna-Attisha, we need to throw “all of these wraparound services at children” or risk “lifelong, multigenerational consequences”. Governor Snyder is currently seeking $195 million for this purpose. Finally, come hell or high water, we must identify and prosecute the perpetrators of this fatal fiasco. Already, hearings are underway on Capitol Hill. In addition, the Department of Justice, FBI, and Environmental Protection Agency are investigating possible crimes, including misconduct in office and involuntary manslaughter.

Do your part! Please complete an Op4G survey for the American Red Cross, or donate to: the Food Bank of Eastern Michigan, the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, or the United Way of Genesee County.


The US Water Crisis: Can America Quench its Thirst?

stream5Following its driest year on record, California is experiencing the worst drought in recorded state history (and perhaps 500 years). According to the US drought monitor, approximately 70% of California is in a state of “extremely drought” while 22% is in “exceptional drought” – the highest possible level. In response, Governor Brown declared a state of emergency on January 17. Furthermore, both the state and federal government have approved drought relief packages for California, the most populous and agriculturally productive state in the union.

But California is not alone. As a result of pollution, diversion, mismanagement, and consumption, major water bodies across the mid- and southwest are running dry. The Colorado River, for example, has reached its lowest flow rates in 1200 years. The Ogallala Aquifer, supplying almost the entire Great Plains, has endured a depletion of over 300 billion cubic meters. And the Rio Grande is no long “grande”, as less than 1/5 of its historical flow now reaches the Gulf of Mexico.

Unfortunately, the US crisis is only expected to worsen. Climate change will reduce water supply by causing increased evaporation, decreased snow pack, and changes in river runoff. A rising US population will likely increase absolute water demand, despite dropping per capita use. Moreover, changing settlement patterns, causing disproportionate growth in America’s southwest, will only add to the stress of the water-poor region.

charity water
Thus, the US can pursue several options. To reduce water demand, Americans can employ low-water use technologies, such as drip irrigation systems. They can farm more bioengineered crops, which require less or brackish water. Also, they can lower personal consumption, currently ranked as the highest in the world. These practices are becoming increasingly prevalent across the United States. However, trends suggest that they alone will be insufficient to solve the water problem.

Instead, efforts may need to focus on increasing the freshwater supply. One option is cloud seeding, in which aircraft or artillery spray silver iodide or dry ice into clouds, encouraging water vapor to coalesce and precipitate. To date, authorities in places like China, Israel, Australia, and the United States have practiced cloud seeding. While some claim success, the precipitation is often limited and inconsistent. Furthermore, a recent study from Tel Aviv University suggests that such precipitation actually results from “changing weather patterns”, not seeding.

A second option is wastewater reclamation, or purifying sewage water using chemicals, natural and artificial filters, and UV light. In the US, wastewater reclamation is used to produce non-potable water in San Antonio, Austin, San Diego, Tucson, and St. Petersburg, as well as potable water in Orange Country, California and Fairfax, Virginia. But the practice does face high costs (particularly up front), and public skepticism about the technology’s ability to remove all contaminants.

Third, the US can desalinate, or remove salt from sea water through distillation, membrane technology, reverse osmosis, or electrodialysis. Desalination is indeed “on the rise” in the United States. In fact, US municipalities (particularly in Florida, California, and Texas) built 117 new desalination plants between 2000 and 2010. However, the desalination process remains highly energy-intensive. It also produces brine – super salty water that requires costly disposal. Thus, except in states with low salinity and energy rates, desalination is generally “the most expensive option” and used as a “last resort”.

Given these limitations, some have suggested that the US pursue a further option: diverting or transporting freshwater from water-rich regions. Of particular interest is Canada. In recent years, for example, President Bush stated that Canada and the US must develop a “comprehensive water strategy” as “water will forever be an issue in the United States”. Former Ambassador Paul Cellucci called for a “fresh debate on bulk water exports from Canada to quench the growing thirst of the U.S. south and midwest”. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. asserted that “Canada is going to find tremendous pressure from the U.S. to sell or share water”. And just two weeks ago, Ambassador Gary Doer stated that Canada must prepare for diplomatic water wars with the U.S within 5 years.

Why Canada? With 20% of the world’s freshwater and only 0.5% of the world’s population, Canada currently withdraws less than 1/10 of its available water resources. Canadian freshwater would also be “dependable and of high-quality”. Furthermore, due to its proximity, water transfers from Canada could be economically competitive with US sources.

Such water transfers could occur through various means. Large-scale diversions could channel Canadian water to the US via dams and pumping stations. Proposed diversion schemes include the North American Water and Power Alliance, the Central North American Water Project, and the Great Recycling and Northern Development project. Water pipelines are a further option. These pipelines could traverse North America, much like those for oil. Finally, there is the potential for water shipments between Canadian and US ports. Shipments could occur via supertankers or massive polyurethane “water bags” pulled by tugboats (as in the Greek Islands).

However, large-scale water transfers from Canada to the US face strong opposition. Environmental groups note that the transfers would have serious environmental impacts on donor and recipient basins. For example, they would “create or escalate threats to critically endangered species, wetlands, and protected areas”. They would facilitate the spread of invasive species and pollution. Moreover, if the transfers involve dam construction, they would disrupt environmental flows and block migrating fish.

Additionally, Canadian governments have opposed freshwater exports since the 1990s. In fact, they have cancelled several freshwater export contracts, including one with California’s Sun Belt Inc. to ship water to the American southwest. They have also imposed bulk freshwater removal moratoria, effectively banning water exports. In large part, these decisions were motivated by the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), particularly the National Treatment clause. According to the clause, once freshwater is sold in bulk, the Government of Canada must afford investors from the US and Mexico equal access to the “commodity”.  This implication has raised sovereignty concerns across Canada.

In closing, freshwater scarcity is a serious and growing problem in the United States. While certain practices and technologies—such as cloud seeding, desalination, and wastewater reclamation–offer some hope, they also face limitations. Thus, water transfers between Canada and the US are a growing possibility. To ensure that all interests are met, Canada and the US should start taking the necessary policy actions now.

For more information on the current US water crisis, and potential solutions, please contact: The Freshwater TrustFreshwater Society, or our partner, the Ocean River Institute.

Flickr Photo Credit: Wendell

New Ocean Cleaning Device Making Waves!

13Imagine a device that, in just a few short years, could clean the world’s oceans. Well soon, the “Ocean Cleaning Array” could be a reality! Invented by Boyan Slat, a 19 year old engineering student from the Delft University of Technology, the array could be strategically situated near the ocean’s 5 gyres (massive concentrations of garbage created by the oceans’ rotating currents).  It could remove an estimated 7,250,000,000 kg of surface plastic over a 5 year period.

So how does it work? The array is composed of floating booms and a processing platform, anchored to the seafloor. The booms surround a gyre and, due to their angle, funnel the plastic garbage into the platform. Inside, the garbage is filtered out of the water and stored for eventual collection. The entire process is powered by energy from the sun and waves passing through the platform. No nets or mesh are used, ensuring “virtually no by-catch” of sea life.

Despite a relatively simple design, the array’s benefits could be massive. Every year, plastic in the world’s oceans directly kills millions of aquatic animals (due to entanglement, consumption etc). It also helps spread harmful algae, invasive species, and pollutants (like PCB and DDT) throughout the food chain. Finally, plastic garbage can damage sea vessels and, when washed ashore, impact tourism. As a result, governments and organization attempt to remove plastic at a cost of millions of dollars a year.

The Ocean Cleaning Array has another key advantage. If the plastic collected from the array is sold for recycling, it could generate $500 million annually. In the words of Mr. Slat, “We estimate that by selling the plastic retrieved from the 5 gyres, we would make in fact more money than the plan would cost to execute. In other words; it may potentially be profitable”.

But the array invention is still just a concept. It is currently undergoing a feasibility study and requires financial backing and several key experts. To help secure such resources, Mr. Slat established the Ocean Clean-Up Foundation, a non-profit, earlier this year.

Furthermore, the array is not a panacea for the world’s garbage problem. While the array’s plastic remediation offers real promise, it must be paired with on-land prevention. This means that humans must reduce their consumption of disposable plastic items and manage waste responsibly, though reuse and recycling.

To learn more about the array, please visit the official website. To help clean our oceans, please support our partner, the Ocean River Institute.

Flickr photo credit: Warren Antiola