On a Saturday afternoon in early May, Gertrude Marshall stood on a sidewalk in front of Flint City Hall holding a hand-printed sign that declared, “We Need Affordable Water.” A 48-year-old grandmother with a kind face and determined eyes, she had come alone to protest the city’s skyrocketing water rates. In the month of April, the city had issued shutoff notices to 378 customers who could not afford to pay their bills.
In some respects, Flint’s water affordability crisis is difficult to fathom. Michigan is “The Great Lake State” after all, a place surrounded by 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, suggesting that water should be extremely affordable. But as in Detroit, its more famous sibling city to the south, water has become a high-priced commodity that too many residents can no longer afford. With average household charges nearing $150 a month, Flint’s water and sewer rates are among the highest in the United States.
Nor is price the only water problem facing the people of Flint. Since the city’s emergency manager switched the city’s drinking-water source in April 2014 from Detroit’s system to the Flint River—a move that was billed as a cost-saving windfall—residents have endured a series of water-safety scares. First came the three boil-water warnings, which the city issued after finding evidence E. coli and other nasty bacteria in the city’s water supply. These were followed by nine months of dangerously high levels of total trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic byproduct of chlorine, which put the city in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act; the city had ramped up the chlorine in an effort to kill the E. coli and other gut-busting microbes. Along the way, people have complained about rashes, hair loss, bad smells and worse, leading a group of them to file a lawsuit on June 5 to force the city to stop getting its water from the Flint River.
More recently, an internal Environmental Protection Agency memo obtained by the ACLU of Michigan raised concerns about the possibility of widespread lead contamination after the water in one family’s home was found to be contaminated with lead at a level of 13,200 parts per billion (ppb). A lead level of 5,000 ppb is classified as hazardous waste. The EPA memo asserted that the lead issue was the direct result of the cash-strapped city’s inability to handle the job of water treatment.
Much of Flint’s water woes—both in terms of quality and cost—can be tracked to its crumbling infrastructure: 600 miles of poorly maintained pipes plagued by hundreds of water main breaks a year. The whole system is in desperate need of repair, but the city, which is just now exiting receivership, isn’t in any shape to foot the bill—and no one else is stepping in to help.