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Flint's water system is falling apart. Fixing it could cost $100 million.

Marc Edwards/Flint Water Study
Virginia Tech's Marc Edwards exposed an iron nail to Detroit water (above) and Flint River water with no corrosion control (below.)

Remember all that smelly, brownish-orange water that was coming out of people’s taps in Flint?

That was Flint’s water system – the actual pipes – corroding and breaking down, at a rate 15 times faster than they normally would have, says Virginia Tech engineering professor Marc Edwards. 

“In essence, [the system] was being held together with bailing wire and duct tape,” Edwards says. “It was in bad shape. But putting all that corrosive water in there really just pushed it over the edge.”

A Flint resident holds a jug of tainted Flint water.
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A Flint resident holds a jug of tainted Flint water.

For more than a year, the city pumped corrosive Flint River water through its system. Then, on top of that, it failed to add corrosion control. We’ve all heard what that did to the lead service lines in Flint, at a devastating human cost.

But now it looks like the wider system is also breaking down. That means Flint has to figure out how to fix a whole water system, without making residents foot the bill.

Because if nothing changes, water bills are on track to keep climbing: they’ll double in 5 years, a state-funded study finds. That would make the average water bill in Flint around $100 a month.

Water main breaks double in 2014 and 2015; city’s losing half its water

So why is this water system getting more and more expensive?

Part of the reason is simple: the system is aging, it hasn’t been well maintained, and it’s falling apart. The average water main in Flint is more than 80 years old.

Then there’s the “water loss.”

That’s the term for water that just mysteriously disappears from a city’s system. It gets pumped through the system, but doesn’t actually wind up being billed to customers.

Leaks, faulty water meters, flushing, theft, and water breaks are all possible reasons, though no one’s sure exactly why Flint’s water loss is so astoundingly high.

"A typical city loses about 10% of its water. But Flint has been losing 40-60% of its water since 2009."

A typical city loses about 10% of its water. But Flint has been losing 40-60% of its water since 2009.

That’s water the city buys or treats, but never actually bills anyone for.

And water main breaks doubled in 2014 and 2015, to almost 300 a year.

“You see water main breaks all the time, everywhere,” says Flint resident Edward Fryer. “I came home from work and water was in front of my house, trickling. But I mean you have to realize, the infrastructure’s old and raggedy. What can you do? Rebuild.”

A recent study drafted for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality attributes the surge in main breaks to “bitterly cold winters” those years and old, shallow water mains that weren’t buried deeply enough.

But others say it’s one more effect of the water crisis.

“I attribute that mostly to the corrosive water,” Edwards says of the increase in water main breaks. “There’s two manifestations of the damaged infrastructure. One is main breaks, but also, these little leaks. You know? These pipes are leaking like an underground sprinkler system.”

"There's two manifestations of the damaged infrastructure. One is main breaks, but also, these little leaks. These pipes are leaking like an underground sprinkler system."

General Mike McDaniel, who’s doing crisis management and recovery planning for the city, says he also believes the water crisis played a role in the infrastructure breakdown.

“I don’t know if his numbers are perfect,” McDaniel says of Edwards. “But there is clearly in my mind, there is a connection. You think about it, and a lot of the older pipes are going to be cast iron. Those are the kind that corrode the most, and I think that’s a huge problem.”

Rebuilding the system could cost $100 million

General McDaniel now believes a massive, unprecedented rebuilding of the city’s water system has to happen.

“Absolutely,” he says. “No doubt, we have to replace, I can’t give you an exact percentage, but it’s going be somewhere between 60 to 80 percent of the total mains.”

So how much does it cost to do something like that?

“Probably about $100 million.”

McDaniel isn’t the only one estimating that kind of price tag. That study for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the one that pointed to cold winters as a big driver of water main breaks? It also recommends replacing the neighborhood distribution mains for six areas of Flint – and estimates it will cost around $120 million, spread out over anywhere from 10 to 50 years.

And Professor Marc Edwards did a “back of the envelope” estimation and found that “for Flint, it is quite possible that the damages from corrosive water could ultimately be in the range of a hundred million dollars or even more.”

So does General McDaniel think Flint will be able to get that kind of money?

“I haven’t seen any sign that we are,” he says. “I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful that this won’t sort of fade into memory as the ‘old’ Flint water crisis, because it’s still an ongoing crisis.”

Flint’s residents just can’t afford these kinds of big fixes

McDaniel says the city absolutely cannot fix its problems on the back of a shrinking population.

"If we don't replace [the water system infrastructure,] nobody's going to live here."

“If we don’t replace [the water system infrastructure,] nobody’s going to live here,” he says. “The city’s going to continue to decline. But first and foremost, you have a population with lower income, trying to generate the revenue. It’s a non-starter. You can’t stay where we are.”

Meanwhile, Edward Fryer, who lives in Flint, says he had no idea water bills were projected to double in the next five years.

“I had no idea they were going up so high!” Fryer says. “But you know, they have to get the money from somewhere. They ran all the people out of town. Pretty soon, where are they going to get the money? People can’t afford it.”

So for now, General McDaniel says, the city is doing what it can.

His first goal? Move forward with replacing lead service lines, and hopefully speed up the replacement of old water meters as well.

“If we replace the meters with working, modern meters, then we will have a better sense of lost revenue,” he says. “Then you have to convince people to trust their water, use their water, and then third, pay for that water. And even if you do that, you won’t have enough money to update all the lines in the system that are needed.”

"These are towns that have been left behind. And are we, as Americans, going to allow them to lose civilization as we know it?"

Still, McDaniel says he sees the city starting to make progress. He says the mayor now has more staff, he’s got additional help, and things are slowly coming together.

“We’re sort of moving forward in baby steps. It’s very frustrating. But at least we’re moving forward.”  

Meanwhile, Marc Edwards, the Virginia Tech professor, says what happens in Flint will have “important lessons for what we do around the country.”

“Flint’s ahead of the curve in terms of dealing with this problem,” Edwards says. “We have these towns, these cities with insufficient population left to pay for their vital infrastructure,  to support basic levels of civilization,  and to some extent, you have to look at it from the perspective of these are towns that have been left behind. And are we, as Americans, going to allow them to lose civilization as we know it?”

So for now, Flint is trying to do what it can, and hoping to get more help. But Flint is clearly not alone in needing a massive infrastructure overhaul.

Yet the water crisis took it from being another struggling, post-industrial city, to a kind of symbol for whether a city, with enough help, can really fix an entire system.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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