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The Water and the Iceberg

Jack Lessenberry

Since the year began, there’s been a deluge of horror stories about the drinking water in Flint. Residents have complained it’s discolored and smells and tastes funny. Authorities say it is safe, but admit it contains a byproduct from the disinfectants used to treat water from the Flint River.     

To add insult to outrage, Flint residents are paying some of the highest water bills in the nation. The city is in the process of switching to a different provider, which is building a new facility to supply water from Lake Huron. Eventually, this should mean cheaper and better water.

But this isn’t the whole problem. The pipes are old, rusty and leaky. Earlier this week, Governor Rick Snyder awarded Flint a $2 million dollar grant to find leaks in the water lines and replace an old wastewater incinerator. 

Mayor Dayne Walling said he was grateful, but that this wasn’t nearly enough. He estimated his system needs at least $50 million in improvements.

Flint, of course, doesn’t have the money. It is a largely impoverished industrial town that was hit very hard by the recession and the loss over decades of tens of thousands of General Motors jobs. The city needs federal and state help, but we aren’t living in a political climate where that tends to happen.

The legislature hasn’t even been willing to act to do anything about the most visible part of our crumbling infrastructure, the roads.

What’s happening in Flint is a wake-up call.

What matters is not precisely how much money is needed to fix their water system. What matters is realizing that what is happening in Flint is happening all across this state and nation.

We have a collection of cities and counties whose water and sewer systems are failing, aging and falling apart. More than a decade ago, the then-director of Detroit’s water and sewerage system told me some parts of it dated back almost to the civil war.

Detroit, of course, has had a nationally publicized water crisis connected to the bankruptcy. Most of the news centered on people whose water was being cut off because they couldn’t pay.

But water main breaks are also increasingly common there.

Last August Bay City might have run out of water if a giant water main leak hadn’t been discovered and repaired.

The week before, poisonous cyanobacteria in Lake Erie actually made the water in Toledo undrinkable for several days. 

More such crises are certainly coming. Politicians don’t like to spend money on infrastructure that isn’t visible. Mayors don’t like posing with brand-new sewer pipes. But either we get serious about this, or our entire civilization is threatened. For too long, we’ve allowed our politics to be poisoned by silly anti-tax ideologues.

It is now time for grownups. Yes, we all need to pay more in taxes, maybe lots more, if we want to preserve the pathways of our civilization.

We have a collective responsibility to prevent both ourselves and future generations from being poisoned by our own waste.

Half a century ago, everybody understood that. Today, we seem to be a lot dumber. We need to make massive investments and fix our infrastructure. By any means necessary.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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