Tag: Flint water crisis

Resetting Expectations: the Value of Natural Systems and Government’s Role in Protecting Water

Report author Skip Pruss

This is the second of four policy briefs by former FLOW board chair, and former director of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, Skip Pruss that make the economic case for government’s role in protecting the environment. FLOW will unveil the last two briefs in the coming months.

Click here to read the full 2nd report

And in case you missed it, click here to read the full 1st report in the series and here to access its executive summary.


The health and well-being of our state, our country, and our planet are dependent on maintaining the productive capacity of nature and the services it provides. Though not widely recognized or acknowledged, “natural capital” and the services provided by healthy ecosystems have always been the foundation upon which societies thrive and prosper.

The relatively new science of ecological economics now provides the means of assessing and quantifying the value of natural capital and related ecological services. The science indicates that natural systems endow trillions of dollars of annual benefits that society overlooks and takes for granted, yet undergird all global economies. Determining the value of natural capital and the associated ecological services provides a means of measuring and understanding the economic value of the natural world. Accurate data and unbiased information about the value of nature and the services natural systems provide are essential to inform public policy and legislative action.

Although there are many human impacts that impair and diminish natural systems, reducing the value and economic efficiency of natural systems, no greater threat exists than the warming of the planet caused by the continued emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels. Recent assessments indicate that greenhouse gas emissions will cause future damages of more than $50 trillion by 2050, and the economic burden will disproportionally fall on developing economies. Decarbonization of the global economy by transition to clean energy sources is imperative. The good news is that there is a clear consensus emerging that the energy transition is not only technically and economically feasible, but also that the global economic benefits from decarbonizing the global economy are substantial, including safeguarding the Great Lakes freshwater system from the worst effects of climate change. Government’s role in accelerating the energy transition is essential.

Michigan’s water resources are a rich source of natural capital and provide significant ecological services that will become more valuable over time. Our abundant water resources will increasingly weigh to Michigan’s competitive advantage, but more likely than not, Michigan will face future challenges from states that will be stressed by inadequate water supplies and from water-dependent agricultural, commercial, and industrial interests. Our legal and moral authority to resist appropriation of our water wealth will be a function of how adept and effective we are as Great Lakes stewards in the conservation and protection of our water.

In this, governance in Michigan is failing. The Flint water crisis is a stark lesson in the pitfalls of overriding and ignoring government standards intended to safeguard public health and safety. The PFAS crisis is attributable to the inadequacies of existing environmental laws, exacerbated by failed government leadership that ignored the findings and recommendations of the scientific professionals. Both the Flint crisis and PFAS concerns are incidents of a much larger systemic problem—groundwater contamination that is pervasive, yet is being ignored by policymakers and political leaders.

The water-related exigencies Michigan is experiencing call for broader application of the Public Trust Doctrine to reestablish and reaffirm government’s responsibility to protect and safeguard water resources for the benefit of the public. Recognizing the interdependence of natural systems and the importance and value of the ecological services that water resources provide, the Public Trust Doctrine must be applied aggressively and proactively to address conditions that have the potential to harm or impair commonly held water resources.

Report’s Key Facts

  • Science informs us that nature and natural systems endow trillions of dollars of annual benefits that society overlooks and takes for granted, yet undergird all global economies.
  • Though not widely recognized or acknowledged, “natural capital” and the services provided by healthy ecosystems have always been the foundation upon which societies thrive and prosper.
  • There is not only an absence of tension between environmental protection and economic performance, but in fact, the health of the environment and long-term economic growth and prosperity are mutually dependent and inextricably interconnected.
  • Although there are many human impacts that impair and diminish natural systems reducing the value and economic efficiency of natural systems, no greater threat exists than the warming of the planet caused by the continued emission of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, primarily from the combustion of fossil fuels.
  • Recent assessments indicate that greenhouse gas emissions will cause future damages of more than $50 trillion by 2050 and the economic burden will disproportionally fall on developing economies.
  • Climate changes predicted for the Great Lakes Region include increased precipitation with a larger percentage of annual rainfall occurring in heavy precipitation events causing flooding, increasing soil erosion and nutrient loadings to tributary streams and rivers. More precipitation will also increase the frequency and amount of sewage overflows and further the propagation of algae, including cyanobacteria resulting in declining water quality and beach health. 
  • Warmer lake water temperatures will affect the distribution of fish by advantaging warm-water species over cold-water species, change aquatic plants and benthic communities, and accelerate eutrophication.
  • Decarbonization of the global economy by transition to clean energy sources including safeguarding the Great Lakes freshwater system from the worst effects of climate change is imperative. The good news is that there is a clear consensus emerging that the energy transition is not only technically and economically feasible, the economic benefit of the global energy transition would range from $65-160 trillion by 2050.
  • Safeguarding water resources and the ecological services they provide will become more challenging in a world where rising demand encounters growing water scarcity.
  • Escalating future demand and competition for water resources, intensified by a warming climate, will enhance the value of Great Lakes water, potentially increasing the chasm between the water rich and water poor.
  • Policymakers must come to recognize the importance of applying the Public Trust Doctrine to modern societal needs, the imperatives of evolving science, and to ensure water equity.
  • FLOW advocates for an expanded application of the Public Trust Doctrine to act as a shield for protecting water resources against activities that would reduce the quantity or quality of water or threaten to diminish or reduce the value of the ecological services the waters provide to the public.

Government’s Role in Protecting Human Health and the Environment

Since the 1970s, history has shown that government interventions requiring protection for human health and the environment through more stringent environmental laws have not only improved baseline conditions of our environment like air and water quality, but have also improved overall economic conditions. These studies, some of which were described in the first policy brief in this series, demonstrate the economic value of government-mandated protective standards by quantifying the benefits of protections aimed at improving public health and safeguarding the environment, as well as the high cost to the economy and public health of failing to protect the environment through adequate regulation.

Our politics fail to take into account the overwhelming benefits accruing to the public by the protections and safeguards effectuated by environmental standards. Though the political narrative has recently evolved to the point where some political leaders publicly acknowledge that there is “no conflict between economic performance and environmental protection” recognizing that society can have both, the reality, clearly found in the relatively new field of environmental economics, is that economic prosperity, indeed the world’s economies, are ultimately dependent on protecting the planet and the valuable resources that well-balanced natural systems provide. In economic terms, there is not only an absence of tension between environmental protection and economic performance, but in fact, the health of the environment and long-term economic sustainability and prosperity are mutually dependent and inextricably interconnected.

It is imperative that political leaders, policymakers, and citizens come to understand this critical association.

Five Years after Switching the Water Source, Flint Remains a Tragedy

Photos by Devon Hains for the White Pine Press (NMC student-run newspaper), March 2016

Five years after the crisis began, some Flint residents don’t trust the water coming from their taps, even though the state has declared it safe. They continue to use bottled water for drinking, bathing, and baptizing their children. Their trust in government long ago washed down the drain.

Where bread lines formed during the Great Depression, bottled water lines formed during the height of Flint’s water crisis in 2015-2016.

“We are five years out, and we’re still not fixed. We still have ongoing issues,” Rev. Monica M. Villareal, a pastor at Salem Lutheran Church on Flint’s north side, told MLive’s Ron Fonger, who was among the first journalists out of the gate to cover the water crisis. “For our residents, we really don’t see the change. I think that in the broader community, there is frustration of not seeing more activity” to improve the water system.

Meanwhile, the state’s emergency manager law that limits power of local government and helped cause the water crisis is still on the books.

Villareal and other leaders held a press conference in front of the Flint Water Plant this morning, after which residents boarded a bus to the State Capitol in Lansing. 

A year ago the state stopped distributing bottled water to residents. In came Nestlé, the international giant that pays $200 per year to the state to suck 210 million gallons of water from mid-Michigan aquifers. Nestlé has scored a cheap PR public relations victory by distributing free bottled water to Flint residents, some of whom still pay more than $100 per month for water they don’t believe is safe to drink.

“The injustice of this situation could not be starker,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “At the same time the people of Flint are forced to drink bottled water, the state has authorized a water grab for $200 a year.”

Though national media look for heroes in the Flint water crisispeople like “Little Miss Flint” Mari Copeny, who was heralded on the TV show Good Morning  Americathe Flint water story remains an ongoing tragedy for most residents – impacting their health, homes, and hearts.

It’s a tragedy that has shone a spotlight on Michigan water issuesfrom drinking water in Flint and Detroit, to Nestlé’s bottled water heist, to the Line 5 oil pipeline under in the Straits of Mackinac.

Here’s a timeline of how the Flint water crisis unfolded:

On April 25, 2014, Flint switched its public water source from the Detroit water system to the Flint River. The move was meant to be temporary. A pipeline was being built to the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) which would eventually bring water from Lake Huron. The financially driven move had its roots in an effort by a state-imposed Emergency Manager to save money for the financially troubled city. Switching to the KWA was projected to save the region $200 million over 25 years.

Though the Flint River had a reputation of being less than clean, officials sought to reassure the public.

“It’s regular, good, pure drinking water, and it’s right in our backyard,”  said Mayor Dayne Walling. “This is the first step in the right direction for Flint, and we take this monumental step forward in controlling the future of our community’s most precious resource.”

In the ensuing five years, that decision has generated headlines worldwide as having poisoned an American cityone that’s majority black and where 40 percent of people live in poverty. Thirteen Flint residents have died of Legionnaire’s disease allegedly linked to the untreated water that corroded pipes and leached lead into the drinking water in people’s homes. Thousands of children were exposed to toxic lead levels: the effects on their brain development won’t be fully known for years.

Flint residents complained almost immediately of putrid yellow water in their drinking and bathing water that tasted toxic, burned their skin, and caused headaches. Detections of E. coli and coliform bacteria prompted the city to issue a boil water advisory and to increase chlorine levels. Six months after the water switch, the local General Motors auto plant announced it would stop using Flint River water, fearing corrosion in its machines.

But hamstrung by their fealty to an Emergency Manager appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the city’s response to the crisis was tragically late. The state’s response was tardier later still. A year after the watch switch, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) notified the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that “the city did not have corrosion control treatment in place at the Flint Water Treatment Plant.” On July 13, 201515 months after the crisis beganMDEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel told Michigan Radio “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax.”

It wasn’t until September 2015 that drinking water expert Dr. Marc Edwards and his Virginia Tech students drove a van to Flint on behalf of concerned residents and detected “some of the worst (lead levels) that I have seen in more than 25 years working in the field.” MDEQ’s Wurfel dismissed Edwards’ findings. Later that month Hurley Medical Center’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha went with public with news that the percentage of Flint children with elevated lead levels in their blood surged after the water switch. Her research was also dismissed by the MDEQ.

Flint finally issued a lead advisory on Sept. 25, 2015. Snyder’s chief of staff responded that “some in Flint are taking the very sensitive issue of children’s exposure to lead and trying to turn it into a political football …” On Oct. 16, Flint switched back to the Detroit water supplier, but the damage to residents’ pipes, and to the drinking water supply was already done. 

On Dec. 14, 2015 (nearly 20 months after the crisis began), newly elected Flint mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency. MDEQ officials resigned by the end of the month, and in January 2016, Snyder finally issued a state of emergency for Genesee County. Snyder testified before U.S. Congress in February but sought to deflect criticism toward local and federal agencies and not just his own state officials.

Five years after the Flint water crisis began, some residents don’t trust tap water anywhere, even when they travel outside of their city. Ebonie Gipson told MLive’s Fonger about ignoring a glass of water that was presented to her recently during a meal out of state. She left it untouched.

“For me, it really clicked that I just didn’t trust drinking water any more, no matter where I was,” said Gipson. “You don’t even realize it has impacted you for so long. To this day, I still have to coach myself and say it’s OK.” 

It Is Time to Remove the Grinch from Flint, Detroit, and the Future of Michigan’s Great Lakes Water

The City of Flint, through its city council, just approved a deal to return to and stay on Detroit water, now managed and sold by the suburban Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA).  This decision must be viewed as the next step, not the final outcome.  Even though the city and residents will get the benefit of federal dollars, they lost their autonomy in this process and were under the coercion of a court order and the “carrot” of essential federal funding. 

But the city will be hit twice with water bills. Flint not only will buy water from the GLWA (formerly Detroit Board), but is also required to fulfill its $340 million obligation to the new KWA authority in Genesee County.

Flint bought water from what is now the GLWA for decades before the fast, hurried switch to Flint River water for short-term gain poisoned and endangered Flint residents, and the state and federal EPA dragged their feet to recognize or do anything about it for what looks like more than a year.  Led by an emergency manager appointed by the governor, the city was under pressure to get off of Detroit water back in 2014, and to pick up and connect to the KWA for Flint water as soon as a massive pipeline from Lake Huron was completed.

Under the court order and Flint’s council vote approving purchase contract for GLWA (Detroit water), the residents of Flint now have to pay rates that pay for the $340 million obligation to KWA and for water from the GLWA!  They can’t afford one obligation, let alone pay twice, but that’s basically what has happened.  And what about their health, independent and continuous testing, monitoring, lead line replacement and abatement, medical services, and reparations to what residents suffered?  This must be part of federal aid, but it is also the responsibility of the State and all of those who are responsible for this tragic fiasco of narrow self-interests gone awry. 

But this doesn’t do it either.  We have a huge disparity, inequity, and lack of public oversight and protection of water and health when it comes to Michigan’s water and Great Lakes and our water services to residents.  It is time for Michigan to establish a comprehensive “Public Water, Public Infrastructure and Water Justice Act” for all our cities and rural communities and residents. This is what Christmas and Thanksgiving and New Year should be about.

Let’s remove the Grinch-like selfishness we have seen from government leaders over the past four years from our public water.  It all comes from the single hydrological system of water in the Great Lakes basin.  This water is held in public trust, that is the government, and everyone has a stewardship obligation to assure integrity of water and health for all of the people of Michigan, especially those least able to afford it.


An Overview of the Flint Water Crisis

By Meredith Murray, FLOW intern

What are regulatory agencies doing to fix the problem?

Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting an investigation over the steps taken to address Flint’s drinking water issues following State Representative Dan Kildee (D-Flint) and State Minority Leader Jim Ananich’s (D-Flint) written requests. Along with the EPA investigation, Michigan legislators are pushing for a review of the controversy over the EPA’s oversight on Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

State Representatives Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) and Phil Phelps (D-Flushing) assert that MDEQ withheld information on the water quality from the Flint River in order to meet federal drinking water quality standards. The legislators are also requesting for the dismissal of Dan Wyant as the Director of the MDEQ.

What went wrong?

Flint’s drinking water crisis began in April of 2014 when the city of Flint decided to stop receiving their drinking water from the Detroit water supply. The plan was to switch over to a new water supplier (Karegnandi Water Authority). The high water rates imposed on Flint residents and budget cuts in the Flint financial management plan were the reasons behind the switch in suppliers.

But there was a problem: Karegnandi will not be done constructing their new water lines to draw water from Lake Huron until sometime in 2016. In the meantime, Flint officials decided to temporarily draw their drinking water from the Flint River. However, as soon as the switch was made from the Detroit water supply to the Flint River, Flint residents complained about the odor and coloration of their drinking water.

Resident complaints grew, and ‘boiling advisories’ were soon issued to kill off harmful bacteria  in the water due to the aging water lines. Water tests soon revealed high levels of a chlorination byproduct linked to cancer and other associated health problems.

Even with the drinking water advisory notices, residents were told by city officials that the water was safe to drink.

In September of 2015 – over a year after extracting water from the Flint River – a group of researchers from Virginia Tech tested hundreds of water samples and found 40% of the samples to contain high levels of lead. Due to the corrosive nature of the Flint River water, lead from the aging pipes was leaching into the City’s drinking water, and blood tests of Flint children showed elevated lead levels.

These results clearly indicated that Flint had to stop receiving their drinking water from the Flint River, and reconnect to the Detroit water supply. The switch was made October 16, 2015 to the Detroit water supply with the help of $9.35 million authorized by Governor Rick Snyder.

Is the problem fixed?

The problem to Flint’s water crisis is not resolved. Even after three weeks with the city of Flint reconnected to the Detroit water supply, advisories are being given to hold off on drinking the tap water unless there is an installed water filter. Leaching of lead into the drinking water from old pipes is still possible because the protective layer to prevent corrosion in the pipes is worn away.

Flint residents are also facing the issue of water shutoffs. Many Flint residents stopped paying their water bills once they found out their water was not drinkable. But after Flint reconnected with the Detroit water supply, the city started notifying those residents that they will issue shut offs if bills are not paid.

For up-to-date information on the Flint water crisis you can visit: http://flintwaterstudy.org/