In Flint, Money to Fix Water Woes Not Flowing Fast Enough
By Matthew Dolan
Replacing 13 miles of water mains every year for the next 50 years. Repairing or replacing five dams. Switching out at least 2,000 lead service lines every year for five years.
Those are some of the "immediate needs" for the city of Flint's ailing water system that go far beyond removing lead particles from the contaminated drinking water supply, according to a state-commissioned report obtained by the Detroit Free Press.
The new infrastructure recommendations from Flint-based engineering firm Rowe Professional Services also come with a price tag of more than $214 million, including $80 million needed to dig up and replace roughly 10,000 lead pipes carrying water to homes and businesses. The new cost estimate to replace lead-based water service lines alone is more than three times the $25-million funding request submitted under the proposed budget from Gov. Rick Snyder.
And the problematic lines would not be rooted out anytime soon. The process could take as long as eight years, according to the report, if the city decides to unearth and replace leaching lead, as well as damaged galvanized steel pipes, which have been discovered to absorb lead particles almost like a sponge.
Those who first sounded the alarm about the Flint water crisis are growing impatient with the pace of providing money for the city's recovery.
"For over two years, the people of Flint have been drinking through lead-painted straws," Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha told a business-led public policy meeting on Mackinac Island last week. She is the Flint pediatrician credited with bringing the city's crisis to the public's attention after state agencies initially dismissed her concerns.
The Flint water crisis drew widespread attention last fall when government officials finally acknowledged a dangerous level of lead in water supply was likely caused by failing to add corrosion controls to a new water source.
But Flint's aging water system has suffered from a lack of investment for years, a problem exacerbated by an ill-fated switch to the Flint River as a drinking water supply in mid-2014. The city switched back to its original Detroit water source late last year and added chemicals to attempt to recoat its pipes to prevent lead contamination.
"The water main infrastructure has been severely damaged," Virginia Tech Professor Marc Edwards, an expert on lead in water supplies who drew national attention to Flint's troubles, said during an appearance last week. "We have to get these water mains upgraded so they they are not being fixed on failure."
Cost of inaction
The price of inaction could be high. Water bills for Flint residents, which are among the highest in the nation, are now projected to double over the next five years if the system is not upgraded and certain costs remain fixed, the Michigan Department of Treasury reported last month. That's even if the city switches to a new regional water source billed as a cost-savings measure for the city.
The newly disclosed 63-page study from Rowe chronicles a city water system beset by a declining customer base and thousands of gallons of missing -- but paid for -- water that mean higher rates for customers who make up the difference. Other problems include a rising number of breaks among water mains nearly a century old and water-quality problems culminating in lead contamination after the ill-fated switch to the Flint River.
While the costs to repair and reconfigure the entire system could approach hundreds of millions of dollars, the state and feds have yet to appropriate anywhere close to that amount of funding to an economically struggling city.
One of the biggest immediate problems is that no one still knows how many lead service lines the city has.
Retired Brig. Gen. Michael C.H. McDaniel, who has been advising the city and Mayor Karen Weaver, said in an interview he is now working under an assumption that Flint may need to replace an estimated 15,000 damaged lead and galvanized steel pipes. At a lower estimated price of $5,000 apiece, the total cost could be $75 million, more than $20 million above Weaver's $55-million estimate for her Fast Start lead pipe replacement program, he said.
"One of things that was very clear early on," McDaniel said. "is that city records are incomplete and possibly inaccurate."
Subsequent studies of the system have cast even further doubt on reliability of city records, officials say, leading Rowe to guesstimate how many problematic lines they city might have.
Holding to lower figure
Despite the uncertainty, Gov. Rick Snyder's top aide on the Flint water crisis said he thinks that a lower cost estimate for pipe replacement still stands.
"I still think that the $55 million is a pretty good number and in fact, it may be even less than that," said Richard Baird, Snyder's adviser and leader of the state's Mission Flint working group.
The Rowe 2016 Water Reliability Study serves as a companion to another report from the firm last month that showed the average cost for replacing a service water line in the city through a pilot project that ended this month was $7,500. That's almost double the average cost of $4,000 for each replacement estimated by the state Department of Environmental Quality at the beginning of the water crisis last fall.
Baird and McDaniel in separate interviews said those figures should not necessarily be used as a sign of costs to come. The new strategy for pipe replacement will be concentrated by neighborhood and awarded in part on who has the lowest bid, they said.
It is possible, though, that the city's desire to farm the work out to several local firms to boost local jobs could increase costs, officials said.
McDaniel added that the city's related fees -- an additional $2,400 per site on average -- should also be much lower as Flint scales up the project and digs fewer holes to repair more pipes.
The city hopes to replace as many as 500 pipes using $2 million from the state. Flint officials will accept bids for the work intended to target areas of the city with the most at-risk population for lead exposure. But the project's goals count on bids to come in around $4,000 per pipe replacement, nearly half the amount charged for replacing the first 33 lines in a pilot project that ended last month.
Though Weaver and Snyder pledged to remove all of Flint's lead lines, McDaniel said last week that not all of the city's lead and galvanized lines may need to be taken out.
A block with only one or two occupied homes may instead receive an in-home water filtration system rather than new pipes, he said. Another idea under consideration is putting a permanent coating on the pipes to prevent any attached lead particles from flaking off.
Baird said Flint's systemic problem -- a water system nearly double the size necessary for the city's population -- could be right-sized by changing its configuration, possibly using a model embraced by some shrinking European cities.
Too little money
Flint's dilemma -- pressing infrastructure needs and few dollars committed to pay for them -- is hardly unique.
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates there is only $5.6 trillion in funding available for $10.7 trillion needed infrastructure repairs through 2040. Without near-term fixes including to water systems, the nation's economy could be drained of almost $4 trillion over the next decade, resulting in 2.5 fewer million jobs, according to the association.
"If you have been coming to this conference for 20 years, you probably spent 18 of them talking about roads," Snyder said in his keynote address on Mackinac Island on Thursday. But the governor lamented that the group of political and business leadership in the past didn't talk about infrastructure systems like water that remain largely unseen "and we should have and we need to."
Residents have noticed.
Infrastructure topped a list of public-policy concerns voiced by a quarterly Michigan State University survey earlier this year. Snyder in March set up a commission to examine infrastructure across Michigan. But the governor's $165-million request to launch a statewide infrastructure fund has received little traction so far among legislators in Lansing.
Beyond Flint, getting lead out of water systems is also a nationwide and costly problem.
Almost 2,000 additional water systems spanning all 50 states have shown excessive lead contamination in testing over the past four years, according to a USA TODAY investigation. The rating company Fitch in March estimated the cost of replacing the nation's lead pipes in water systems as high as $50 billion.
The Rowe report examined Flint's water system across 34 square miles that uses 13.2 million gallons of water on an average day serving nearly 100,000 people.
The city's system includes a treatment plant, a elevated storage tank, three reservoirs, four pumping stations, five dams, and over 500 miles of distribution water main. But the city's water system was developed to provide service for a city twice Flint's size.
As a result, the cash-poor city that spent years in a fiscal emergency has had a hard time investing in its water system.
The average age of the city's water mains is 83. The recommended life span is no more than 100 years, but main replacement has occurred at an average rate of less than a mile per year over the last 16 years.
The future for Flint's water system is increasingly perilous. The city is forecasted to lose about 20% of its population between 2015 and 2040, leading to a corresponding drop in water customers.
As the city has struggled economically, staff levels in the water department took a hit. There were as many as 76 budget positions according to a 2013 study of the city. But that number has since dropped to 35 people.
Roughly 25% of the parcels in Flint are vacant or unoccupied and scattered throughout the city. Because water usage has dropped in part as a result, the age of the water in the system has increased, leading to health-related problems stemming from poor water quality.
"The corroded and pitted interior of cast iron piping can collect sediment and debris and support microbial growth, thus decreasing water quality further than the health concerns created through main breaks," the Rowe report found.
Federal officials remain concerned about the city's ability to maintain safe water. The federal Environmental Protection Agency wrote to Flint and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on Friday, worried that the city and the state might not be unable to push an important disinfectant through the system and if so, "will not be capable of maintaining chlorine residuals that follow best practices and are protective of public health."
"With the onset of warmer weather, the situation is urgent," the EPA wrote. The letter was first reported Sunday by Mlive.
Water paid for by Flint but not used by an actual customer has also led to higher costs that are passed on to ratepayers. Part of the reason is from leakage through water main breaks as well as other mechanical problems and even theft.
A typical system loses between 5% and 15% of its purchased water. Last year, Flint's water loss was 65%, up from 43% in 2010. One likely culprit? Water main breaks. They more than doubled in Flint to 296 in 2015 from 134 in 2010. (The number fell slightly to 259 last year.)
Overall, the state has spent more than $20 million on the Flint water crisis, according to the Associated Press. About $63 million more will be spent. But a subsequent request from Snyder for almost $200 million to aid Flint has not cleared the Legislature amid new concerns about reduced state revenue.
During the month of May, Snyder's office pledged to pay for all Flint water used in the month as part of an effort to persuade residents to flush their pipes. It was designed to speed the chemical recoating of damaged pipes and remove particulate lead from the system.
And it may be working, officials said. More testing of the water due later this summer could show whether lead levels have reached federal standards.
Baird said "there has been a material uptick" in water usage during the month and "directionally, it looks like it's made a difference." He added that specific numbers about water usage will not likely be available for several weeks. Officials said it is likely that the ban on pregnant women and children younger than 6 drinking filtered Flint water may soon be lifted.
But no city, state or federal officials has yet to promise a date by which Flint water will be safe to drink again without the use of a filter.
"I don't know when that is going to happen," Baird said, adding that outside scientists studying the city's water quality will help guide the final decision. "I don't think that's going to happen for a period of months."
(c)2016 the Detroit Free Press