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Flint nears anniversary of switch to Flint River for tap water

On April 25, 2014, Flint officials toasted each other as they flipped the switch to the Flint River.



Saturday marks the first anniversary of the city of Flint’s switch from Detroit water to the Flint River. It has not been an easy transition.  


“Here’s to Flint," Mayor Dayne Walling said as he raised a glass of water during a small ceremony at Flint’s water plant last April.  


“This is an historic step for us," Walling told a WNEM TV reporter after he threw the switch, cutting off water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. That left the Flint River as the city’s sole source for its tap water.    


The plan, put into place by Flint's emergency managers, is for the river to be a temporary bridge until Flint can get cheaper water from Lake Huron.  


Now, a year later, Mayor Walling concedes there have been plenty of problems since the switch.  


Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Flint's water system has dealt with a series of problems since switching to the Flint River



“It’s been a challenging process," Walling says. "There were a number of unanticipated issues. There were certainly times where you look back and say, 'we should have done this or we should have done that.'”  


It wasn’t too long after the switch last April before Flint residents started complaining about the smell and taste of their tap water. The water was also often cloudy.  


Last summer, Flint residents were told to boil their water several times because of the presence of e-coli. Then, residents started complaining about skin rashes and their hair falling out, likely caused by the chlorine used to kill the e-coli.   On top of that was the presence of a disinfectant byproduct called Total Trihalomethanes, or TTHM, at levels so high it violated the Safe Drinking Water Act.    


Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Flint residents lined up for water at numerous free giveaways during the past year

Dozens of free bottled water giveaways have helped many Flint residents get through the crisis. News photos of those water giveaways have been a public relations nightmare for city officials.


Flint officials have gotten an earful during the past year, from marches and rallies downtown to packed public meetings.  


“Look at that water," a woman said at one meeting, holding a milk jug of brownish water. "None of you white people would drink that water."  


Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
"Look at that water!" this woman shouted during one of many community meetings on Flint's water situation

Florlisa Fowler manages a Facebook page called Flint Water Class Action Group.  

She says she and her kids have suffered burns and hair loss after taking showers in their Flint home. Fowler and other Flint residents got letters earlier this month assuring them their water is safe. But she says there are still problems, especially with things like hardness.  


“I just got my water tested, the day after we received the letter in the mail, and the water in my home is no better than it was before," says Fowler.    


As the first anniversary of the switch nears, Public Works Director Howard Croft insists the water meets federal and state standards. He also says the city plans to spend $5 million on improvements, including a new filtration system that should be online late this summer.     


Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The city of Flint is spending millions of dollars to improve its water system

Croft says it’s important the city improve communication with those Flint residents still having issues with their water.  


“We continue to pursue every avenue for those that are still commenting that they are experiencing that," says Croft. "We need to get out there and test. We need to get out there and find out where there is a concern, so that we can address it. We can identify it and we can act on it.”  



The ultimate solution to Flint’s water woes is the new pipeline being built from Lake Huron. ButtheKWApipeline is not expected to be online until sometime in 2016.     


Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Construction of the KWA pipeline is moving quickly, but it's not expected to be completed until next year


Critics say that’s too long.   


In the next month, a group of Flint pastors plans to go to court to force the city back to getting its tap water from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department.  


Flint officials say the city cannot afford to go back to Detroit water even for a short period. But the city could still pay a price.   


Attorney Trashelle Young represents the Flint pastors in what may turn into a class action law suit. She’s talking now with people who claim their health or property has been damaged by Flint’s water.  


"It’s not happening right now … but that is possible," says Young. "It depends again on the numbers that we get and whether or not we can amount a class action.”


 Saturday, people in Flint will mark the anniversary of the switch by demanding the city switch back to Detroit water.  

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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