Just like lead has leached into the water of homes in Flint, Michigan, the city’s water crisis has found it’s way on to the front pages of national outlets across the country.
By now, most people know the general timeline: in the spring of 2014, the city switched its water contract from one with Detroit to taking water from the Flint River instead. The water from the river, however, wasn’t treated properly, and Flint residents started complaining of the color, smell and taste. In October of 2015, the city switched back to getting water through Detroit, who uses the Huron River as its water source, however the damage was already done.
“What’s going on in Flint is that for literally months, the water system has poisoned residents of an American city,” says Charles Fishman, author of The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water.
Not only has the water ruined the health of Flint residents, he explains, but it has also ruined property values.
Situations like the one in Flint arise, amongst other reasons, because tap water is something that is hidden, Fishman says. People take it for granted.
In the city of Philadelphia, for example, the average age of water pipes is 78 years. The typical pipe was installed back in 1937.
“We aren’t using phones from 1937, or radios from 1937, but every day, people in Philadelphia are using water that comes through pipes from 1937,” he says.
He explains that water, just like any other city infrastructure, needs to be updated and carefully maintained. And considering what we pay for water, that shouldn’t be too hard — the average American family of four pays $34 a month for an unlimited supply of clean, fresh tap water.
“We can afford to increase our water bills, just a little bit,” he says. If we did, we could devote that money to upgrading the system.
And bottled water wont save us either, he explains. In Flint, people are donating water by the case, and residents are bathing in this water, drinking it and cooking with it. But that bottled water is a bandaid, covering up a larger problem. As a country, we pay $26 billion a year on bottled water, and only $46 billion on the water system. If we used some of the money we used on bottled water for our water system instead, that would make a huge difference, Fishman says.
But not every city is falling flat like Flint has. In San Antonio, Texas, residents voted in a tax in which they have a one penny sales tax for every $8 they spend. This money, which accumulates to $40-50 million a year, goes towards protecting their watershed and aquafor. The government also gives people water-saving toilets, because giving them away is cheaper than getting water for old, out-of-date toilets.
Regardless of the steps forward, “there is no ‘one’ solution,” Fishman says. We have to be having an active conversation about the state of our water systems.
Listen to the full interview above.