Your water could soon cost you a lot more

I’ve been trying to follow the ramifications of the Flint, Michigan water crisis.  It’s a tangled web of political influence-peddling, State and local agencies at cross purposes, and a refusal on the part of many people, from the Governor of Michigan down to the local water department, to accept responsibility for their part in the scandal.

What I hadn’t considered was that the crisis in Flint is a bellwether for the same problem in countless other US cities.  Fortune reports:

Lead pipes are prevalent in cities that were developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, meaning all the major metropolitan areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and California … The American Water Association, a group representing utilities nationwide, recently gave the Associated Press an estimate that there are 6.5 million lead pipes in use in the U.S.

. . .

Before American cities can accelerate their lead-pipe replacement plans, as recommended by the EPA’s drinking-water council, they’ll need to answer one major question: Who will pay for all this work?

Most U.S. cities, according to Michael Deane, executive director of the National Association of Water Companies, have budgeted in terms of a “300-year replacement cycle to replace the pipes in the ground.” But the American Society of Civil Engineers say pipes reach the end of their useful lives in 95 years. In other words, cities’ budgets are woefully inadequate for replacement needs. The ASCE said some studies estimated an additional $1 trillion should be spent over a 25-year period for the most urgently needed pipe replacements—lead and otherwise.

Most cities take a piecemeal approach, replacing sections of lead pipe only when they fail. That may heighten the risk of water contamination. And some research suggests that removing some lead pipes can cause leaching from others nearby.

If cities don’t “get ahead” of the aging pipe problem, they will end up paying in the long term, Deane warned in an interview with Fortune some months ago. “Replacing infrastructure gets very, very difficult particularly in urban areas…. It’s very, very difficult to dig up pipe and very costly. Too often, there’s a disconnect in people’s understanding…. [To] receive the water delivered by that infrastructure, they as customers need to pay for that infrastructure.”

. . .

Modern water crises have been anticipated in places such as Israel, California, and Australia, all of which prioritize water planning. But if it can happen in Flint, a stone’s throw from the largest bodies of freshwater in the world, a crisis like this can happen anywhere.

There’s more at the link.  It’s well worth reading the entire article in full, to gain a broader understanding of the problem.

One trillion dollars to upgrade older water pipes?  And that’s only the most urgent and immediate need?  How many more trillions will be required to fix non-urgent, non-immediate problems?  When you put that sort of money together with the sums bandied about to repair other elements of our infrastructure, plus that needed to upgrade and secure our electric grid . . . the figures become even more mind-boggling.  We could be looking at multiple trillions of dollars over the next couple of decades – and that’s just to fix the most serious problems.

Where’s that money to come from?  You guessed it:  out of our pockets, the taxpayers of this nation.  You say it should come from business taxes, rather than taxes on consumers?  Well, just how do you think businesses calculate the prices they charge us to buy their goods and services?  They factor their tax bills into those prices.  Taxes on businesses are just another way of taxing the consumer who buys from those businesses.  What’s more, I’m willing to bet that the most seriously affected cities and areas will demand Federal subsidies to help them pay for the work.  Given that they represent concentrations of voters, they’re likely to get it.  That means that those of us who don’t live in those cities and areas, but who pay Federal taxes, will end up subsidizing them, whether we like it or not – even if we live in a different state.

Not a cheery prospect.



  1. And, ironically, many of those jobs are NOT college-degree employment…. And with all the "college-ready" pushes there are in HS, they will likely move to import blue-collar workers to do those jobs. *sigh*

  2. Reason magazine has A+ coverage of the flint water issue. The latest was The new pipeline was failed job creation plan, that did not make economic sense. And the water treatment from the local river also was done for job reasons.

    For the lausd schools, I wonder if it's a lead solder issue vs actual lead pipes.

    Another big issue is braking water mains in la. The library flooding of a ucla library was the most well known.

    Another anon

  3. Yet another reason I have a reverse osmosis system for my drinking water. It rejects >99% of those heavy metals. Figure that our government won't do what is needed until the VIP's manage to squeeze the most graft possible, so protect you and yours as much as you can.

  4. Having been in the water industry for many years, the Flint problem had some familiar overtones. My utility had deep wells; we used to say that 3 feet of limestone will clean up water very well. The water was, of course, 'hard'. This hardness was the main factor for keeping lead from being absorbed in the water. Flint switched to river water, which is typically 'soft' water. Soft water is more aggressive and will leach lead. So, yes, there should have been more treatment to the water.
    As far as the dirty water being flushed from hydrants? Well, all water mains should be flushed regularly, and doing this process at night has certain 'optic' advantages,

    1. Flushed? Water mains should be flushed…regularly? What does that entail? To my…moderately immature, uninformed ears, it sounds simultaneously frightening and awesome…I'm picturing giant sprinklers and such. …what? No, I didn't grow up. Or at least I didn't entirely grow up. 😛

  5. What choice do we have but to pay it ? Imagine life without water from the tap. Many 3rd world countries take this as a matter of course – Americans (most of us anyway) would find it intolerable.

    There was an internet source (Sad Irons) which told of the slow electricalization of the rural U.S. during the Great Depression. The work of walking to a water source to draw water for cooking – cleaning – sanitation. DAILY. Huge amount of time and effort.

    We have it so good right now.

  6. I live an hour from Flint so this issue is local news. So many people would rather use this as an excuse for partisan politics. Michigan has a republican governor but the big cities around here (Detroit,Saginaw and Flint) are failing cities with democratic governments. It is easier to blame Governor snyder than it is to address the fact that Flint has its own mayor, city council and supposedly professional water department that should owwn the majority ofthis issue.

  7. Ignoring the graft issue for a moment , the US is in a weird place.

    Basically its culture limits the amount of revenue from all sources it can raise to about 20% of GDP at the Federal level. This is an expression of the Laffer Curve called Hauser's Law. Note its quite a bit lower than say France and also more prone to graft and overruns.

    Also important to note is the limit also includes all forms of mandates, probably including State ones. A nation founded on tax cheating and by anti social and misfit immigrants, descendants of slaves and more recently economic refugees from low trust 3rd and 2nd tier countries is not going to be operated like a Scandinavian one

    Its compounded by a political system that simply cannot agree on appropriate levels of spending on philosophical grounds, can't agree on regulatory action to handle corruption and economic decline or cost overruns either.

    So we end up with all tax revenue we raise barely paying for retirement and the military, borrowing the rest.

    As such it seems to me that US can't keep its infrastructure running or if it wanted to have an effective welfare program for the same reason the UK can't put a man on the moon , the political system doesn't work.

    Let me explain the later,

    Assuming Apollo program costs , adjusted 110 billion diverting or taxing a mere 3% of the 2015 budget for a decade would pay for the entire program and than some. Adjusted for technological improvements and such it might be possible to have a reusable space vehicle and a moon shot.

    The brain power is certainly there but the political capability is not and its of course never going to happen.

    And note massive US tax increases won't help, they won't raise nearly as much money since wages have been forced down drastically per worker (about half since 1973) and graft is high.

    For that reason the US cannot manage to make the drastic trade offs or to make actual economic growth and as such will slide to a second tier and possibly 3rd tier infrastructure in a few decades unless someone can actually lead the country rather aggressively in the right direction.

  8. I don't know what the geology of the Flint area is, but I doubt it is majority limestone. As a consequence, surface water will tend to be more acidic. In Middle Tennessee, you live in a Karst area, so whether the water is from a well, or river, it will be hard water (Where I lived north of Nashville, our raw water source was Old Hickory Lake and the water is hard). Flint's problem could be solved by ph adjustment. A lime feed would cure it. Here in Cherokee, NC, that's what we have to do and it's no big deal.

    The Dims are in high flight over something that is their responsibility. DimoKKKraps are racist to their core, and utterly irresponsible.

    I doubt the water distribution system has lead pipes in it. It has long been known that lead leaching is a danger, and few lead pipes were used in that application. Houses are a different thing, however. Old houses do have lead pipes, and even the lead solder can be a hazard. neutral, or near neutral, ph prevents even house pipes from being much of a hazard. In all likelihood, the people that should have been watching things allowed the ph to get out of hand. If it leaves the drinking water plant at a ph near 7, there should be little problem. That is one parameter our plant operators monitor because it can be problem even in the distribution system. Most of our distribution pipes are ductile iron and acidic ph is hard on them as well.

  9. I'm currently under contract with a water company, I (and a fair number of people I may or may not know on the job) have little patience with the 'who should pay question'. Who should pay? Frankly, the person who is using the water.
    I'm on private well water, in a house with old pipes. Who paid for replacing the lead pipes, who pays for replacing the broken pipes, h— who pays if the well fails and a new one has to be drilled to the tune of tens of thousands in this area? I do. Not the taxpayer. Though, I'll bet my property tax will go up. And I don't have as high quality water as that which the company supplies. It certainly isn't tested on a daily basis (which my employer does)
    So if people want water that is high quality, safe, and always comes out of the tap? They need to pay for what it actually costs. They didn't want to do that in Flint. They don't want to do that now or in the future. —- them.

  10. 4:20 it would be a lot easier to get people in Flint to pay for the real cost of water when they weren't subject to so much economic arbitrage.

    Flint in the past was a wealthy city but automation, free trade and yes demand issues have really hurt its primary industry.

    This makes modest increases in the cost of water quite painful

    I don't know how to fix this to be honest, the political will isn't there anyway

  11. A.B. Prosper, I agree with you that Flint's downturn has hurt it. And that makes increases in the cost of water painful. (It is also painful to drill a new well while living in an economically depressed area, but if you are on private water…)
    But until people are actually paying the real cost (whether for water or to take another infamous example, healthcare) they will continue to expect miracles, government benefits, and cheap water all at the same time.
    We don't have an unlimited budget, despite what the government and the majority of citizens think, and we have to make choices. In addition the arcane government subsidies here, there, and back there make it impossible for people to accurately judge the cost of the infrastructure. And part of the cost, when it is shown to the rate payer, should be clearly marked: actions/staff required due to governmental behaviour.

  12. I KNOW my water is going to be costing me quite a lot more in the near future. They've been hemming and hawing for the last 20 years about what they want to do as the city grows. As the town has more than doubled in size they finally decided to contract with a neighboring city instead of building their own water treatment plant. Even though it's the less expensive alternative my water bill will likely double in the next two years. On the positive side I'll get better tasting water and it won't be as harsh on my appliances. I probably won't need that new water softener I put in last year though.

  13. Isn't one of the issues being 'overlooked' that, as stated (at least in Philly as cited as an example), most of the affected lead pipes are actually owned by the individual consumers/property owners and not the supplier (in this case the city)?

    On reading the news it is phrased (intentionally presented?) almost as if the supplier uses massive lead 'mains' pipes and it is here the issue exists (and contamination arises), which is wrong (I'd guess if they remain non-upgraded they are aged iron pipes). The lead is present (reading between the lines) 'only' in service-lines (from the mains to a property) and inside properties (ie. Owned and maintained by the consumer).

    So just why should customers (tax-payers) en masse (including those who've upgraded at their own expense) have to pay for those who haven't? If you hadn't upgraded your wiring for a hundred years and you experienced difficulties, how is that the utilities/city's/everyones problem? And why is 'the city' at unique fault when the issue is arising because 'private' water pipes are the cause (admittedly newly so due to the city changing source, but …)?

    Admittedly I'm a 'damn furriner', and my 'experience' is second-hand and apocryphal at best (my father worked for decades for the local water board) but our (UK) water supply goes back even further (my father brought shards of 'probably' Roman pipe home regularly) and yet our pipes (excepting the period of, not surprising, nationalisation of the industry) have been regularly and extensively replaced/upgraded (and home/property owners were required to upgrade/remove lead-pipes at the same time).

    As an outside it just 'seems' that it's yet more of the usual 'let's blame someone else' when it's the individuals own fault (not that the city council/utilities don't seem to deserve as much opprobrium). It's like the home-owners have diesel generators running, unvented, in their living rooms and then complain that the city has poor air quality measures – Duh!

    More of a question, seeking clarification on the situation there, more than an opinion is all.

  14. A construction project I worked on in the mid 80's in Chicago used a lead pipe to connect the building to the city supply. It is much easier to layout and bend a lead pipe, even one about 6" in diameter, than to use rigid pipe and fittings.

    The pipe was supplying water to the whole building, or about 16 professional offices. The building itself was an old brick 2 story, rebuilt after being gutted by fire as offices.

    So lead pipe was still being used routinely, despite any known risks.


  15. Quartermaster: the Flint water system absolutely has lead pipes in the distribution system. Every city in Michigan seems to have them. I live outside Lansing, they had problems with lead in the water discovered about 2004, they started a program to replace them. They still have 400 lead pipes in the ground, supposed to be done next year. (reference Lansing State Journal article last week)

    I read an article that claimed that city building codes "REQUIRED" lead pipes until late last century, and as example they provided Chicago still required them in 1994.

    You are right about the lime feed adjusting pH and minimizing lead uptake. The issue, as I understand it, the EPA reqs are murky regarding exactly when that must be done, the State DNR said to run it a few months and see if lead problems develop (which might have been totally within the regs for a city of 50,000, but not for a city of 99,000 like Flint). The (D) city was in bankruptcy and had a (R) emergency manager with full control of budgets. Someone at the Water department thought they should be doing the pH conditioning, but the EM wouldn't agree to spending $200 a day for lime.

    Kids were getting sick, eventually a water researcher at Virginia Tech did some testing. One sample they pulled was (from my memory) 3000 ppb which legally made it hazardous waste (the limit is 15 ppb). The State was notified, they denied it, claimed bad testing, water was fine.

  16. I live in a mid-size city in Southern Michigan, and our local paper just ran an article saying that many pre-1978 homes with lead pipes may be at risk for excessive lead in their water. Since we replaced several metal pipes with PVC in our home last summer in order to get better water flow, I suspect we are OK. But the whole situation makes one wonder.

  17. I know of at least one very small local town (Winlock, WA) with serious problems resulting from their municipal water system. They have a hard time attracting business or property sales because of the high price of water/sewer hookups, comparatively. And so of course, they have net losses and fixed overhead to cover and the situation gets worse.
    I'm glad I have a well in what seems to be (knock wood) a strong aquifer.
    -Erik from Seattle

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