Costs in Flint Water Crisis are Rising

by Gord Hume

There are an increasing number of costs associated with the Flint, Michigan water crisis. 

It will be many years before we understand the damage that may have been done to the health of the children who were forced to drink the polluted water that came through city taps for months.  This is undoubtedly the most serious and horrific cost associated with this astonishing government debacle, the fall-out from which continues to ripple through the United States.

The Flint crisis has prompted more testing of other water systems in Michigan, and the results so far are not good.  Testing recently has found more children with elevated levels of lead living in other cities.  The presumption at this time is that water is still being delivered through lead pipes to (some) homes in Michigan.  That again is a serious cost.

The third cost is, inevitably, financial.  The price for repairs to the Flint water system has already climbed over the $200 million mark, and will likely go up from there. 

A state-commissioned report that the Detroit Free Press obtained listed several "immediate" needs:

  • replace 13 miles of water mains every year for the next 50 years
  • repair or replace 5 dams
  • replace at least 2,000 lead water lines to homes every year for the next five years

The report estimates at least 10,000 lead pipes that carry water to homes and businesses must be dug up and replaced.  The report by a local engineering firm in Flint puts the price tag for the immediate' work at $214 million.  And that will not be the end of the costs.

While all municipalities understand there is some loss of water from leakage and water main breaks, usually in the 5-15% range depending on the age and condition of the system, the numbers from Flint are stunning: in 2010, Flint's water loss was 43%!  But wait in 2015, the water loss was 65%!

The culprit is primarily water main breaks, which speaks to the damage and disrepair of their entire water system.  The number is staggering, and of course means higher water bills for local residents who are already paying extraordinarily high water rates.  As the population declines with the economic chaos in Flint and the lack of jobs, the cost to the remaining homeowners will only go up.  It is a bleak forecast for a city already in a despondent economic situation.

The final costs to the city and the state, and inevitably the US federal government that will have to contribute tens of millions of dollars, will not be known for many years.  This crisis may force changes in regulations for American cities, just as the Walkerton water crisis changed municipal regulations in Canada.  That will also be an added cost to all cities and their ratepayers.  

There is also a cost to the reputation of Flint, Michigan.  And, in a broader sense, potentially another cost of lost opportunity and economic investments because of the lack of focus and commitment to infrastructure in the US and Canada that has resulted in badly-aging cities at a time when they have to compete with the rising global economic reality of new cities being built in Asia, India and Africa.    

Why would companies invest in cities that don't have drinkable water, or roads that eat your car (hello, Ottawa), or a city that isn't delivering reliable and reasonably-priced electricity, or supporting broadband service or a city that doesn't offer a great quality of life through its parks, libraries, public places and spaces and the local public realm? 

As someone who has been writing and speaking about this for many years, it is a sad situation when it takes the risk of children's health to get political action.

It is undeniable that our civic, provincial, state and federal infrastructure deficits in Canada and the United States are immense.  I continue to maintain that we are badly underestimating the true municipal infrastructure deficit in Canada.

This is a NOW problem, as Flint residents found out too late.  What is it going to take happening next to spark faster and larger commitments from government?  Another bridge collapse?  Blocks of concrete falling from overpasses?  Another tainted water scandal?   Industries choosing Asia over North America for their next plant expansion?

This is a perilous journey for our elected leaders.  For years politicians at all levels have ignored, delayed, obfuscated and covered their heads when spending on infrastructure was needed.  We are paying the price now, and our children certainly will in the future because costs are only going to rise.  That is the price we will all eventually pay.

Gord Hume


Gord Hume is recognized as one of Canada's leading voices on municipal government and is an articulate and thoughtful commentator on civic government and community issues. He is a very popular public speaker, an advisor to municipal governments, and a respected and provocative author.

Gord was elected to London City Council four times. He has had a distinguished career in Canadian business, managing radio stations and as Publisher of a newspaper. Gord received two “Broadcaster of the Year' awards. He is now President of Hume Communications Inc., a professional independent advisor to municipalities.

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