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The water wars in Flint

Mar 26, 2015

If you don’t live in the Flint area, you may be wondering what on earth is going on with the politicians and the water.  For many years, Flint, like many other communities, bought its water from Detroit.  Then, less than a year ago, they switched to save money.

The city contracted with the Karegnondi Water Authority to supply it with water from Lake Huron. But the system to do that won’t be complete until sometime next year.

In the meantime, Flint began taking water from the Flint River. That is when the problems broke out. Some residents who drink and bathe in this water say it makes them sick and gives them rashes. They report it has an oily film on it and stains their drains. Mayor Dayne Walling has said there’s nothing wrong.

But General Motors disagrees. They say this Flint River water almost immediately began rusting and corroding their pipes. And GM promptly abandoned the city water system and connected to one run by a nearby township.

Tests have shown that Flint water is free of coliform bacteria, which is a good thing. What’s not so good is that the water also carries low levels of a by-product of the disinfectants used to sterilize it. Years of exposure to it could cause an elevated risk of cancer, plus damage to the liver, kidneys or central nervous system.

So it probably isn’t any great surprise that earlier this week, Flint city council voted, seven to one, to switch back to Detroit’s water system. However, they have no real power.

Flint is currently under the city’s fourth emergency manager, Gerald Ambrose, and he opposes the move, as does Mayor Dayne Walling. The opponents are essentially legally powerless.

But that doesn’t mean politically powerless. There will come a day when local control will be restored. Yesterday, I talked to Pat Clawson, a former investigative reporter for CNN and a civic watchdog who lives near Flint.

Five years ago, he discovered that former Governor Jennifer Granholm was giving nine million dollars in tax credits to a convicted embezzler out on parole with a phony scheme to sell sanitary supplies to Africa.

Clawson told me that the Flint council was right to attempt to switch back to Detroit water, that their unhappy city was the victim of years of incompetence and corruption.

He’d like to see a new emergency manager without any ties to the existing factions or any stake in the game. Clawson said that while Detroit indeed wants to charge Flint twelve million dollars a year for water, he thinks the city is paying an equivalent sum to treat what comes out of the Flint River.

You have to feel sorry for Flint, a once-bustling metropolis filled with people holding good-paying General Motors jobs. But we also should give some thought to the nature of water. Should it be a human right, something as free as fresh air?

Do we have the luxury of allowing every community to decide where and how to get and treat its water?

The only thing I am sure of is this: Flint isn’t going to be the last community with a water problem. We might want to think about a statewide plan for how to proceed.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. 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.