Five years after Flint water crisis began, drinking water issues remain a priority

Mott Foundation, grantees and political leaders seek solutions

Three construction workers work on digging out old lead pipes in a neighborhood in Flint, Michigan in order to replace it.
Aging pipes and other water infrastructure play a key role in the quality and cost of drinking water. Photo: Cristina Wright

Five years after Flint’s water crisis began, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, dozens of our grantees and three newly elected Great Lakes governors are addressing interrelated issues of drinking water quality, affordability and aging infrastructure.

“The catastrophe that happened in Flint sounded an alarm for our region and the nation,” said Ridgway White, president and CEO of the Mott Foundation. “It revealed a trifecta of issues that confront many older, industrialized cities in the U.S. — outdated drinking water systems,  elevated lead levels and soaring water rates.

“It also taught us that there wasn’t enough attention being paid to the quality of drinking water and the equity of access to a safe, affordable supply,” he added.

Prior to the Flint crisis, Mott and many of our Environment grantees were focused on protecting water quality in the Great Lakes, as well as other lakes and rivers that many cities in the region use for drinking water. But few nongovernmental organizations were tracking the quality of tap water in homes, schools and businesses because the extent of drinking water contamination in urban areas was not yet widely known.

A construction worker in Flint carries away an old galvanized water pipe that will be replaced.
Many cities across the U.S. need to replace old pipes, but it’s a costly undertaking that few communities can afford.
Photo: Cristina Wright

In the wake of the water crisis, Mott committed up to $100 million over five years to help Flint recover and rise. We also committed $4 million to a new area of grantmaking aimed at improving management and oversight of municipal drinking water systems.

Today, two dozen Foundation grantees are working to ensure that all residents of Great Lakes cities have access to safe, affordable drinking water, and several are exploring ways to fund water infrastructure upgrades.

The recent discovery of PFAS contamination at numerous sites across the U.S. — in ground water, surface waters and several municipal water supplies — has created additional concerns about drinking water safety and increased residents’ demands for government action. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of persistent, toxic compounds that pose health threats to humans, pets, fish and wildlife.

New and longstanding environmental hazards recently prompted governors in three Great Lakes states to make safe drinking water a priority.

“You cannot live without clean drinking water,” said Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “We need to be laser-focused on cleaning up the water in our state.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers declared 2019 “The Year of Drinking Water.” He pledged to replace lead water pipes in Milwaukee and elsewhere and to address bacterial pollution of well water in rural, agricultural areas.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine is working with the legislature on proposals to generate up to $1 billion over 10 years to address water quality concerns in cities and rural areas.

“It’s great that Governors Whitmer, Evers and DeWine have made drinking water safety a priority for their administrations,” said Tim Eder, a program officer at Mott who manages the Foundation’s freshwater grantmaking. “I hope more governors and premiers in the Great Lakes states and provinces will follow their lead.”

There are plenty of reasons why policymakers nationwide should be concerned. Investigations spurred by the Flint water crisis revealed that nearly 2,000 other communities across the U.S. have had elevated lead levels in drinking water sometime over the past four years. And a recent report by American Rivers, a longtime Mott grantee, found regulatory gaps in the primary federal law designed to protect drinking water.

For instance, the federal Safe Drinking Water Act doesn’t regulate a group of toxins called microcystins, the main health threat in toxic algal blooms that have plagued Lake Erie in recent years and briefly shut down Toledo’s drinking water system in 2014. Nor does the law regulate PFAS compounds, which are being found in lakes, rivers and groundwater at a growing number of sites across the U.S. As a result, the report concluded that “drinking water challenges in the Great Lakes states and across the nation continue to put public health at risk.”

While the federal law doesn’t regulate all known contaminants found in drinking water, it allows states to enact rules that exceed federal standards. For instance, the state of Ohio recently passed a law that requires cities with drinking water intakes in Lake Erie to monitor for microcystins. In Michigan, Gov. Whitmer directed the state Department of Environmental Quality to develop drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals by July 1 — before the federal government sets a maximum contaminant level.

“Prior to Flint’s crisis, not many people thought of drinking water quality as an environmental issue,” said Katie Rousseau, who manages American Rivers’ work on drinking water issues in the Great Lakes basin. “Now that we have a complete understanding of drinking water regulations, we’re exploring how to make them better.”

Mott grantees helped the state of Michigan develop the nation’s strongest protections against lead in drinking water, which require all cities in the state to replace lead service lines. They’re also working on other issues related to drinking water safety and affordability, including:

  • Exploring a water affordability program in the Great Lakes region that could mimic the federal Home Energy Assistance Program, which helps low-income individuals pay electric bills and avoid shutoffs.
  • Studying new funding mechanisms that could help cities pay for costly water infrastructure upgrades.
  • Reducing the volume of polluted stormwater flowing into lakes and streams, where it can threaten drinking water supplies.
  • Rebuilding the Flint community’s trust of water monitoring programs by training and working with local teens to collect residential water samples and show residents how to properly use filters.

“The Great Lakes region has achieved worldwide recognition in the past for progressive environmental programs and policies,” Eder said. “We’re hopeful that our grantees will find solutions to the drinking water crisis that benefit communities across the Great Lakes region and beyond.”