What Flint has Taught Us about Washington

faucetFlint, Mich., used to be a community deeply rooted in the automotive industry. General Motors had several manufacturing facilities in Flint, as did many other automotive and parts manufacturers. But today Flint is known more for its high crime rate and water infrastructure disasters.

This is not a story of suspense; it was only a matter of time for Flint. It is only a matter of time for hundreds of other communities across the country. Unhealthy levels of lead were detected in the drinking water that is carried to homes and businesses in decades-old lead pipes. Nobody can say for sure how long those pipes had been carrying contaminated water. In an effort to save money, proper corrosion resistance measures were overlooked, maintenance was sporadic and testing, well, you’ve heard the news on that topic.

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Those who think Flint is an anomaly, an abandoned ghost town forgotten when big corporations folded and left town, are wrong. There are more than six million miles of lead pipes supplying American homes with water still actively used in communities large and small, rich and poor. Infrastructure issues like Flint can and will pop up any number of places. It’s not a matter of if they fail, it’s a matter of when.

The Flint calamity should teach us something about investment. The financial struggle currently happening simultaneously in the Michigan legislature and in Congress is further evidence of the problem. State governments, like Michigan, must balance their budget every year, causing water infrastructure to compete with schools, police and roads for fractions of the real costs. Congress, which is deeply divided with a strong group of conservatives arguing the federal government has no role whatsoever in the financing, maintenance or construction of infrastructure, is woefully indignant. But if these lawmakers had done something — anything — 10, five, even two years ago, it could have saved millions of dollars and a lot of people’s health. The investment required to prevent Flint from happening is nickels on the dollar when compared to the cost of fixing the infrastructure after the emergency.

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Even President Obama, who has been a verbal supporter of infrastructure investment and the benefits it brings, doesn’t get it. His latest and last budget as president proposes cutting nearly a quarter of a billion dollars from the only dedicated water financing program the government operates, the EPA’s State Revolving Fund program. This program administers low-interest financing to states for clean water and drinking water projects, like the emergency projects underway in Flint. These are real dollars being invested in the welfare of communities’ infrastructure across the country. They are, unfortunately, woefully underfunded.

Studies have shown that more than $2 trillion will be needed to upgrade America’s infrastructure to current environmental, health and safety standards. Lawmakers are both unwilling to invest seriously and will tell you they are unable to invest to make a meaningful difference. So rather than try to solve the issue, they’ve doubled down on making the problem worse. Since the fiscal year 2010 budget, Congress has cut more than $1.2 billion dollars from water infrastructure investment accounts. It’s not just that they’ve refused to help financially; they’ve also refused to help with policy. Making water and wastewater projects exempt from the Private Activity Bond volume cap would allow communities significantly greater tools for financing infrastructure investments. Preventing environmental impact studies from deliberately dragging out time and adding on cost would improve progress of water projects.

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Both could be done right now if Congress were serious about improving our nation’s infrastructure.

Flint has known since 2014 that there was a problem with its water infrastructure; as did the state of Michigan. The nation was updated at the beginning of 2016 and yet neither the state of Michigan nor the federal government have taken steps to ensure these issues don’t happen again in Flint or anywhere else. Yes, there must be money spent to repair Flint, but then what? Wait for the next catastrophic failure?

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Unfortunately, what we learned most from the government as a result of Flint is that there is no emergency plan. There’s no plan to repair. There’s no plan to replace. There’s no plan to expand the infrastructure everyone and everything this country’s economy is built on for the future. The only reaction taken by both state and federal governments so far is to argue about who is to blame and throw money at the problem to fix what’s broken and wait for the next break.

But what if the next break is bigger? What if the next calamity is actually a regional contamination of our water supply? Wouldn’t that significantly impair our ability to drive the economy, ensure the health of Americans and even defend ourselves from attack?

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Our lawmakers must act and must act soon. The rate in which water infrastructure failures occur will only increase the longer governments, state and federal, drag their feet. The costs associated with repairing those failures will only increase.

Will Brown is NUCA’s Director of Government Affairs.

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