Flint water crisis spurs Mott’s effort to transform water management programs

A row of corroded water pipes.
Corrosion of old water pipes, like these in Flint, can contaminate municipal drinking water systems with lead, a known neurotoxin. The problem affects hundreds of communities across the United States. Photo: Kelsey Pieper and Min Tang/Virginia Tech University

The Flint water crisis focused attention on the nation’s aging infrastructure and the devastating health effects of consuming water contaminated by lead and harmful bacteria. It also revealed that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) had largely overlooked the types of water infrastructure issues that led to a drinking water emergency in Flint.

“When Flint residents began complaining about the drinking water, there were very few institutions, outside of universities, that were ready and able to offer support,” said Jumana Vasi, program officer at the Mott Foundation. “If this situation had been a violation of the Clean Water Act, because someone was polluting a lake or stream, environmental NGOs would have been able to respond quickly, offer technical expertise and help implement immediate solutions.”

Wastewater treatment systems are vital to protecting public health, but leaky pipes and other problems can release pollutants into groundwater, lakes and streams.
Wastewater treatment systems are vital to protecting public health, but leaky pipes and other problems can release pollutants into groundwater, lakes and streams.
Photo: Dmitri MA/Shutterstock

That gap in water infrastructure expertise and assistance programs prompted the Mott Foundation to launch a new area of grantmaking. Over the next three years, the Foundation will provide a total of more than $4 million to about 15 grantees to address the types of water infrastructure issues that erupted in Flint, but also are a challenge in other older, industrialized cities in the Great Lakes region.

In Flint and most other Great Lakes cities, drinking water, storm water and wastewater systems are handled by separate administrative entities, governed by separate regulations and supported by separate funding sources. As a result, there are missed opportunities to share information, coordinate conservation practices and reduce costs.

“The Flint water crisis taught us that the prevailing approach to managing drinking water, storm water and wastewater is disjointed, ineffective and inefficient,” said Ridgway White, president of the Mott Foundation. “We’ll work to change that by promoting a new, holistic approach to managing all water-related infrastructure.”

To advance this approach, known as integrated water management, Mott’s grantmaking will build expertise within environmental organizations, support research and policy analysis, provide technical assistance to communities and citizen groups, and increase public engagement regarding the importance of drinking water infrastructure.

The decision to fund this initiative followed a year of in-depth discussions that Mott staff had with leaders in Flint and water experts across the country, including engineers, public health representatives, environmental advocates, government officials and policy specialists.

Officials at the US Water Alliance, one of Mott’s newest grantees, said integrated water management can strengthen communities by bringing more diverse voices into key discussions about water and infrastructure.

“Integrated water management unites utilities with community groups, as well as environmental and agricultural interests,” said Radhika Fox, CEO of the US Water Alliance. “Bringing community groups into the conversation, and ensuring utilities are good community partners in project design and contracting phases, can benefit cities across the country, including Flint.”

That approach could improve water quality at the tap, increase water efficiency, enhance protections for nearby surface waters, decrease the cost of treating and distributing water, and reduce flooding, Vasi said.

Case in point: Leaky water mains cause a typical city to lose 10% of its water annually. Flint has been losing roughly half of its water since 2009 through leaky pipes, according to government data. Collectively, the 55 public water systems in the Great Lakes basin lose an estimated 66 billion gallons of water annually via leaky pipes.

Leaky sewer pipes can allow waste water from households and businesses to contaminate drinking water wells, aquifers and nearby surface waters.

To compensate for lost water, cities must process and distribute more water, which consumes more electricity and drives up operating costs, Vasi said. Integrated water management uses a number of approaches — such as leak reduction programs and natural systems that trap and filter storm water — to decrease operating costs and better protect public health and the environment.

“The Flint water crisis has helped people realize that public engagement is required to ensure safe, affordable and efficient water systems,” Vasi said. “When communities seek to upgrade their water systems, Mott can help ensure there will be knowledgeable environmental organizations that are willing and able to help.”

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