Flint Water — A Scarce and Scary Resource

Just two days ago, I was privileged to have been invited by our own State Rep. Bill LaVoy to join him for Governor Snyder’s State of the State Address. The main topic of the speech was Flint Water.  The water in Flint, Michigan is lead contaminated and creating some major health concerns, never mind the national headlines. While the governor was speaking we could hear protesters chanting outside. I understand there were over 1000 of them, but I did not see them. The governor apologized to the people of Flint but did not accept full responsibility for the disaster. The Rev. Jesse Jackson was there and called this issue a ‘disaster’, not an ‘emergency’

As I listened to the speech, the thought that kept reoccurring in my mind was: “this sounds like something that would happen in a ‘Third World’ or developing country, is this happening in America, the greatest country in the world?” Needless to say, I was incredulous!

I have lived in three developing countries during my lifetime and just returned from one less than two weeks ago. While I have heard of contaminated water in villages, I have not heard of contaminated water being supplied to an entire city. Yes, developing countries have numerous utilities challenges such as constant blackouts and water shutoffs, but contaminated city water? I need to get a better understanding of how this happened in the greatest country in the world.

In case you are unfamiliar with this situation, here is a synopsis.

  • March 2013, the Flint City Council voted 7-1 (one person knew something was not right) to switch from the Detroit Water and Sewage Dept. to the Flint River as a cost cutting measure
  • April 2013 – Flint decides to use the Flint River as a water source
  • June 2013 – Flint begins using the Flint River as an interim water source
  • July 2014 – Flint begins first six-month monitoring for lead and copper
  • January 1, 2015 – Flint conducts second six month monitoring for lead and copper
  • March 2015 – reports show lead in water
  • September 2015 – communication that corrosiveness of Flint River water is causing lead leaks into the water through pipes, reports disputed by DEQ
  • October 2015 — DHHS confirms lead problem and residents urged not to drink the water
  • October 2015 – Flint reconnects with Detroit Water and Sewage (they still have the same corroded pipes as a result of Flint River water)
  • December 2015 – Flint Declares emergency
  • January 2016 – President approves emergency and request for federal aid but denies declaration of major disaster.

As an economist, I have always argued that most, if not all, of life’s problems are the result of economics – the struggle for scarce resources. Good water is a scarce resource, hence it is not freely available. If it were, we would not have this problem in Flint. Let’s see how this issue develops, knowing that it is always the most vulnerable of our population (children) who suffer the most when things go wrong. Water in Flint now is not only scarce, it is indeed scary.

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