We all deserve to have confidence in our water

Photo by Marcin Szczepanski

Water. It touches everything we do. How many of you touched water today, and with confidence that the water was of good quality and would not cause you or your loved ones harm? If you:

● Brushed your teeth

● Took a shower

● Flushed a toilet

● Had a bowl of cereal, or

● Turned on a light

….you touched and/or benefited from water. Some water is easy for you to see and touch — it flows freely out of faucets and down drains; other water was used to make or distribute the things we eat or use in our daily lives and is called virtual water. Either way, the water you used today is mostly if not completely coming from the available freshwater on Earth, which makes up ~0.5% of the World’s water. We live in the water rich Great Lakes Basin, which holds 20% of the World’s available freshwater reserves.

20%!

So how is it, then, that within the most freshwater rich state in the country and among the most freshwater rich places in the world can we have something like the Flint Water Crisis?

The Flint Water Crisis came to be named in the aftermath of a fateful decision to change water sources without considering the condition of the Flint treatment plant and distribution system, and without using appropriate treatment methods to produce safe drinking water.

One consequence of the change in water source was inadequate corrosion protection, which resulted in lead release into drinking water and exposure throughout the Flint population. Lead — a neurotoxin for which no exposure is considered safe, especially for the most vulnerable among the population which includes the babies, young children and pregnant women.

Other consequences from inadequate treatment of the water source inevitably resulted in other public health-related events, such as: too much disinfectant causing harmful byproducts; too little disinfectant possibly allowing for pathogens to survive and regrow in the system; water quality conditions that lead to a Legionnaires’ Disease outbreak; and evidence of a spike in pneumonia not identified as Legionnaires’ Disease. These are conditions that immune compromised individuals and the elderly can be vulnerable to.

Eventually, the city returned to receiving treated water from its original source — Lake Huron. But significant damage had been done to the underground water distribution system and household premise plumbing — a system that was already old, frail, under-maintained, and under-invested. Furthermore, as far as I know, the extent of the damage is still not completely known. But the water distribution system wasn’t the only thing that was damaged: public trust in government officials and technical subject matter experts plummeted. It remains low today.

So, the Flint Water Crisis continues as we consider the consequence of a lack of trust in those who manage, distribute and communicate about the city’s water. It’s not enough to just treat water to a point that meets the guidelines laid out in the Safe Drinking Water Act, a Federal law (indeed, an imperfect law) that regulates drinking water treatment and distribution for communities. Yes, everyone deserves to have safe water; however, I also argue that:

Water consumers deserve to have confidence in their water

Flint residents deserve to have confidence in their water

The challenge of low confidence in water is not unique to Flint. There were concerning issues about the condition of Flint’s drinking water system before the Crisis, and they remain after the crisis because the crisis was not just about lead. And it’s not just Flint that suffers from inadequate information about the condition of their water system, how investments in their system are managed, and the quality of the water it produces. It’s true in other parts of Southeast Michigan (Detroit and surrounding areas), and Benton Harbor, and Toledo, and….there’s a long list.

There are legacy infrastructure issues affecting “shrinking cities” (cities that are losing population over many years) that can negatively impact the quality of and confidence in drinking water. But, there are other factors that contribute to a lack of confidence:

● a lack of communication about infrastructure issues and what to do about them,

● a lack of transparency with the public,

● a lack of consideration for how water access and infrastructure investment can vary within a single city to create infrastructure investment disparities,

● a gap in knowing how to effectively communicate about this information with the public, who has a right to know.

Confidence in water is especially important for children. Not only in Flint, but also in Detroit and other communities, we are raising a generation of children:

● who question the quality of tap water,

● who fear their water,

● who do not have confidence in the safety of the water in their homes, their schools, their communities.

As a result, they are likely to drink less water and, instead, turn to alternatives that are perceived to be safer (bottled waters with additives, sugary drinks) but are certainly not healthier.

Water consumers deserve to have confidence in their water

Flint residents deserve to have confidence in their water

Kids deserve to have confidence in their water

The question is: how do we re-establish trust and faith in drinking water? I contend that we have to think beyond just treating to regulatory limits (given that we have flawed regulations in some very visible cases — including with lead) and understand why it’s not helpful to dismiss questions about a water’s safety just because the water meets existing regulations. Monitoring community water systems beyond minimal regulated contaminants, developing partnerships with trusted community leaders, and sharing information with community partners and elders who help to translate and share the information with their community can be a helpful (if not critical) step. This is an approach that partners I have worked with have used in Flint.

Flint is an example of a community where point-of-use treatment devices became necessary, but it puts a tremendous burden on residents and is subject to errors. It is these concerns that lead community organizers to approach our team to ask us to partner with them to develop an accessible Train-the-Trainer’s program for community members to gain skills in installing, operating and maintaining PoU filters. Those individuals who go through the training can, in turn, train or assist their neighbors.

This program was recently shared by trainers in Flint to community leaders in Benton Harbor. We (water treatment subject matter experts) co-developed information with community partners in a format useful to the community, coached selected members of the community on how to use the training program, and then remained available to help from behind the scenes when needed. The community trainees implemented the program themselves within their community and assisted other communities.

This program is an example of co-production that addressed a specific issue of concern that was identified by the community as needing a solution. We, technical subject matter experts, focused our energy where the community identified it was needed. This is an example of a program that contributes in a small but important way to increase knowledge capacity and empowerment in a city that is reluctant to trust its water.

The training program is a nice story, but it reflects a short-term band-aid (that shouldn’t be needed, frankly) on a larger problem that requires investment in infrastructure, and resizing and redesigning distribution systems to be flexible, to keep water moving and fresh, and to fit the communities they serve.

Overall, it is right for users of water to have more agency over their water, for it to be less “invisible” in their lives, for them to be more aware of where it comes from, how it is treated, how to protect it, and what constitutes safe drinking water. Governmental and scientific subject matter experts (like me) need to learn to listen to community-based subject matter experts, to work in partnership with communities and community grass root leaders, to share information and knowledge openly and with transparency. Indeed,

Water consumers deserve to have confidence in their water

Flint residents deserve to have confidence in their water

Kids deserve to have confidence in their water

We all deserve to have confidence in our water.


This is a talk I gave at the Michigan State University UNICEF Water Walk on April 20, 2019