Water infrastructure in the USA: lessons from Flint

By Rosie Renouf Thu, 03/17/2016 - 09:51

Flint: crisis and opportunity

Taps and toilets: that’s often what it feels like working in WASH boils down to, even if we know that it’s not really that simple. It’s easier to explain it that way to other people, for whom water and sanitation are confined to their kitchen or their bathroom. Waste is taken away at the push of a button and clean water supplied at the twist of a tap. So when situations like Flint arise, it’s no surprise that they provoke a storm of analysis and recriminations. Almost 5% of children tested in the Michigan town of Flint have high levels of lead in their bodies, which could impact their health permanently – and it came from the pipes in their homes and schools.

While Flint is a tragedy, it is also an opportunity. It opens up space to talk about infrastructure that embodies the phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’. It begs the question of what those pipes that bring us water actually look like, and whether or not our ‘taps and toilets’ infrastructure is fit for purpose today, let alone for a future of enormous population growth. The Flint crisis is the culmination of several specific issues that are not necessarily present across the USA, but the funding gap between government and utilities regarding water infrastructure is a problem that goes beyond the Midwest.

Photo: Jake May/The Flint Journal/AP

The state of America’s pipes

The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a ‘report card’ for the USA’s infrastructure every four years; wastewater and drinking water infrastructure were both graded ‘D’ in 2013. This isn’t just because of the preponderance of lead-lined piping installed before the material was phased out of pipes and paint, but also because of leakages that lose billions of dollars-worth of water per year, and old treatment facilities and pumping stations that need to be repaired or replaced. 

Since Flint, several theories have been proposed about why the world’s only superpower has such poor standards of infrastructure (this blog is a good place to start). It’s partly political: a reluctance to fund large projects and suspicion of extensive regulation amongst those wary of federal overreach (the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water office’s annual budget has fallen by 15% since 2006). And it’s often a combination of both politics and economics on the state and municipal levels: politicians don’t want to ask their constituents to pay more for a service that many understandably view as a right rather than a privilege. At any rate, even if political support were there, the costs are staggering: it would take around $3 billion just to treat all the children suffering from high levels of lead across the United States. Ensuring that Americans will be able to access safe drinking water will cost an estimated $1 trillion over the next 25 years.

The infrastructure funding gap

Water is now managed mostly at the state and local level. This was not always the case: the Clean Water Act of 1972 committed federal funds to replace and construct water treatment plants nationwide. However, in the 1980s those grants became revolving loans which had to be paid back, which is how the federal government pays for water infrastructure today. In 1977, 3 out of every $4 invested in water infrastructure came from taxpayers, but now state and local spending makes up 95%, most of which comes from utility ratepayers. Between 1977 and 2014, funding for water and wastewater systems was reduced by 80%. This leaves a large portion of costs which are often passed on to consumers. For low-income consumers in areas that are struggling economically (such as Flint), those costs are hard to meet. Only a month before President Obama declared Flint to be a federal emergency, releasing $5 million in federal aid, some consumers were still paying up to $100 per month for tainted water.

Infographic from the Circle of Blue website.

Balancing act

It’s not that consumers shouldn’t contribute to water services: as Flint demonstrates, infrastructure requires consistent investment. How best to ensure that contributing to infrastructure upgrades will not leave poorer families out of pocket? Philadelphia City Council has agreed to set water rates according to income and means: the Income Based Water Affordability Plan (IWRAP) is designed to improve water revenue collection whilst providing income-based payment plans to lower-income families. Pennsylvania’s PENNVEST programme has given $8 billion of grants and low-interest loans to projects since 1988. New York has begun to increase support to clean and sustainable water. Chicago is planning to pour more than $1.4 billion into upgrading its water system (this Brookings report is particularly useful on this subject)Members of Utah’s state legislature have proposed to divert some of the revenue from sales tax to water development projects, which would generate $35.8 million in the coming fiscal year.

Paying for water after Flint

These municipal and state programmes are encouraging but more funding and regulation is needed. Happily, there are indications that the Flint crisis has encouraged the United States to see water as a resource that must be managed properly, with implications for willingness to pay for water services. The Value of Water Coalition’s annual survey of American attitudes towards water makes for interesting reading, particularly as it was undertaken when the Flint crisis was unfolding. Most Americans agreed that water infrastructure must be improved, and once they were provided with further information about water services, respondents were willing to pay more for their water bill. Whether public support for increasing funding to water infrastructure and the impetus gathered by the Flint crisis can translate into concrete policy actions on a national level remains to be seen.