Flint's Brown Water Blues

Flint, Michigan, transitioned from the clean drinking water system they had been using for decades to drawing water from the toxic Flint River. Why would the city of Flint begin sourcing their water from what is known to be one of the most polluted rivers in the state?
07/10/2015 12:09 pm ET Updated Jul 10, 2016

On April 25, 2014, with the push of a button, Flint, Michigan, transitioned from the clean drinking water system they had been using for decades to drawing water from the toxic Flint River. Why would the city of Flint begin sourcing their water from what is known to be one of the most polluted rivers in the state?

The switch was not made willingly. Flint, like Detroit and other struggling cities in Michigan, was taken over by an emergency manager, appointed by Michigan's Governor, Rick Snyder, in 2011. The emergency manager holds all the decision-making power for the city, leaving the mayor and city council as little more than powerless figureheads.

In 2014, Flint's third emergency manager thought he could cut costs by an estimated $5 million over two years by disconnecting the city from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and providing city residents with drinking water from the Flint River instead.

Almost immediately, residents from across the city noticed changes. Within the first six months of sourcing water from the Flint River, multiple boil water advisories were issued. Residents were experiencing brown or bluish-green tinted water, often laden with sediments. Water tests showed high levels of lead, copper and toxic chemicals known as total trihalomethanes (TTHMs), which are produced when chlorine combines with organic or inorganic material. In fact, the city has been in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act since the beginning of the year because of high TTHM levels.

Hair loss, lead poisoning and problems related to high levels of copper in the water, like osteoarthritis, are just some of the public health consequences that residents could face. The city sent notices indicating that people with compromised immune systems, the young and the elderly should consult a physician before drinking the water. Just two weeks ago, the University of Michigan, Flint advised students to only drink bottled water after their own tests revealed high levels of TTHMs at several locations on campus. Even Flint's largest employer, General Motors, won't use Flint water to make their cars, due to high chloride levels causing corrosion.

To add insult to injury, even though switching to polluted Flint River water was supposed to save money, water rates have risen dramatically, leaving many Flint residents with bills averaging $150 per month, with some residents billed over $500 for a six-week period.

Michigan sits right in the middle of 20 percent of the world's available fresh surface water, yet is experiencing water shut-offs in Detroit and Highland Park on top of toxic tap water in Flint. It is unjust that people surrounded by so much water don't have access to basic human rights like safe drinking water and sanitation. To highlight this atrocity, water warriors are walking the 65 miles from Detroit to Flint to talk about the water crises happening in their cities and around the state, and demanding solutions from lawmakers from the local level to Lansing.

The problem is devastating, yet the solution is simple: reconnect Flint to DWSD.

The city is finally out from under the reign of emergency management, giving the mayor and city council back the authority to govern the city. In fact, the Flint City Council voted 7-1 in favor of reconnecting to Detroit's Water and Sewage Department at the end of March this year. So why are so many suffering so needlessly when all that needs to be done is to push a button?