Water: In Praise Of Cities

By Kathleen Ferris

Flint, Michigan has been on my mind a lot lately.

Like so many others, I am outraged by the ineptitude that sent lead-poisoned water coursing through the city’s water system and through its citizens and children. This negligence, which appears to go all the way up to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, starts with a cost-cutting move by a state-appointed emergency manager to switch Flint’s drinking water source from Lake Huron to the more polluted Flint River.

This is Kathleen Ferris’ 100th AMWUA Blog post and her last before stepping down as Executive Director.

The malfeasance continues with the failure to add needed corrosion-control chemicals to the much harder and more corrosive Flint River water (which would have cost a mere $50,000) to prevent dangerous metals from leaching from old pipes.  And it ends with neurotoxic levels of lead being consumed by Flint residents, 40 percent of whom live in poverty. 

Except it doesn’t really end there because children exposed to these levels of lead in their water will experience life-long disabilities. 

People, this is America, not some third-world country.

Like the air we breathe, we cannot survive without water.  That is why those responsible for providing water to homes and businesses must guarantee their customers a clean, safe and reliable water supply. 

As the Flint fiasco demonstrates, government’s influence over water is necessary and profound.  According to the U.S. Geological Survey, public water systems (cities and other municipalities) serve about 86 percent of the country’s population.  The horror of Flint serves as a cautionary reminder that each municipality has unique sources of water, with individual issues and needs.  That’s why local control of water systems is essential. 

A lot goes into delivering clean, safe and reliable water day in and day out.  The biggest cost is infrastructure, including treatment plants that ensure our water is safe for drinking, and the miles and miles of pipes that take it to customers.  As cities age, so does their infrastructure.  The disastrous situation in Flint was, in fact, precipitated by a decision to construct a pipeline from Flint to a new regional water system.  In most cases, aging systems don’t result in lead poisoning, but they do result in the waste of our precious water and in disruptions to the quality service and safety we demand.  Ultimately, the cost of replacing systems is greater than the cost of maintaining them in the first place.  That’s why cities must continue to invest in their water systems and must have the right and ability to do so.

As a country, we generally take for granted the remarkable job that most cities do in meeting the obligations to deliver safe, reliable water.  We turn on the tap and expect water to flow.  We expect to be able to drink it without worrying about its quality.  And we expect it to be reasonably priced. 

Which brings me from Michigan back to Arizona and the cities I’ve had the privilege of serving for nearly three decades.  

In the past two years, I’ve written here about the efforts of the AMWUA cities to provide quality service to their customers.  AMWUA city water managers continually test and monitor water quality.  They plan for growth and acquire new water supplies as necessary.  They store unused river water and treated wastewater underground to increase the long-term reliability of our water supplies.  In the process, they often create beautiful riparian areas that are enjoyed by humans and wildlife alike.  They develop conservation programs that include rebates for removing turf and for switching to more efficient appliances.  They educate their citizens on wise water use and offer classes on low-water-use landscaping.  They engage in efforts to improve state water laws to ensure sustainable water supplies for Arizona’s future.  They set rates for water that are expected to be high enough to prevent waste, but still make certain that this life sustaining liquid is affordable to every citizen.

All of this is possible only because of the dedication and professionalism of our cities’ water departments whose employees would never tolerate a Flint, Michigan on their watch.  As I step aside as AMWUA’s Executive Director, I thank them for their commitment.  The next time you drink a glass of water, you should, too. 

For 46 years, Arizona Municipal Water Users Association has worked to protect our member cities’ ability to provide assured, safe and sustainable water supplies to their communities. For more water information visit www.amwua.org.