The water crisis in Flint, Michigan

By Kim Smiley

The quality of tap water, or rather lack thereof, in Flint, Michigan has been all over headlines in recent weeks. But prior to a state of emergency being declared and the National Guard being called up, residents of the town reported strangely colored and foul tasting water for months and were largely ignored. In fact, they were repeatedly assured that their water was safe.

Researchers have determined that lead levels in the tap water in Flint, Michigan are 10 times higher than previously measured. Forty-three people have been found to have elevated lead levels in their blood and there are suspected to be more cases that have not been identified. Even at low levels, lead can be extremely damaging, especially to young children under 6. Lead exposure can cause neurological damage, decreased IQ, learning disabilities and behavior problems. The effects of lead exposure are irreversible.

The water woes in Flint, Michigan began when the city switched their water supply to the Flint river in April 2014. Previously, the city’s water came from Lake Huron (through the city of Detroit water system). The driving force behind the change was economics. Using water from the Flint river was cheaper and the struggling city needed to cut costs. Supplying water from the Flint River was meant to be a temporary move to hold the city over while a new connection to the Great Lakes was built within a few years.

The heart of the problem is that the water from the Flint river is more corrosive than the water previously used. The older piping infrastructure in the area used lead pipes in some locations as well as lead solder in some joints. As the more corrosive water flowed through the piping, the lead leached into the water.

A Cause Map, a visual root cause analysis, can be built to document what is known about this issue. A Cause Map intuitively lays out the cause-and-effect relationships that contributed to an issue. Understanding the many causes that contribute to an issue leads to better, more detailed solutions to address the problem and prevent it from reoccurring. The Flint water crisis Cause Map was built using publicly available information and is meant to provide an overview of the issue. At this point, most of the ‘whats’ are known, but some of the ‘whys’ haven’t been answered. It isn’t clear why the Flint river water wasn’t treated to make it less corrosive or why it took so long for officials to do something about the unsafe water. Open questions are noted on the Cause Map by including a box with a question mark in it.

This issue is now getting heavy media coverage and officials are working on implementing short-term solutions to ensure safety of the residents. The National Guard and other authorities are going door-to-door and handing out bottled water, water filters, and testing kits. Michigan Governor Richard Snyder declared a state of emergency in Flint on January 5, 2016 which allows more resources to be used to solve the issue. However, long-term solutions are going to be expensive and difficult.

The city’s water supply was switched back to Lake Huron in October 2015, but it will take more than that to “fix” the problem because there is still a concern about lead leaching from corroded piping. Significant damage to the piping infrastructure was done and the tap water in at least some Flint homes is still not safe. It is estimated that fixing the piping infrastructure could cost up to $1.5 billion. A significant amount of resources will be needed to undo the damage that has been done to the infrastructure of the city, and there is no way to undo the damage lead poisoning has already done to the area’s residents, especially the children.