Pallets of bottled water arrive in town to the relief of nearly 100,000 residents who can’t trust what comes from the tap. They’ve lost faith in their local and state governments, their civic reputation is in tatters and their homes have become impossible to sell. They attend community meetings waving samples of brown water and ask when it will be safe for their children to drink.
The situation in Flint, Mich., is tragic. It was preventable. It’s likely to continue for a long time and perhaps occur again elsewhere.
The District’s drinking water is safe. We must not compound the Flint crisis with a nationwide loss of confidence in tap water. Bottled water may be convenient and widely available, but it’s priced hundreds of times higher than tap and exacts a plastic-covered toll on the planet. Tap water in the United States is the envy of many developing countries.
Yet years ago, the District did face a similar lead-in-water issue to Flint’s. What our agency learned in that era is instructive today in Flint and across the country.
Four factors contribute to household water quality: the source water, the water treatment process, the distribution system (water mains in the street) and the pipes that run through your property to your faucet (called service lines), including household plumbing. Almost all reported elevated levels of lead in drinking water come from the service lines or household plumbing – not the source water, water treatment or distribution system.
Hundreds of thousands of homes across the country have lead in their service lines or plumbing. In Flint, a change in the source water and the lack of an anti-corrosion agent in the treatment process increased corrosion of lead service lines and plumbing, elevating the level of lead in the water.
A similar set of circumstances caused a spike in lead in some homes here in the District in the early 2000s. The drinking water disinfectant was changed because of new federal regulations. That change in water chemistry increased lead pipe corrosion - causing elevated lead levels in the water.
In both cases, the lead was already in the pipes. There are other causes too, such as construction that disturbs the pipes, or the accumulation of lead particles in plumbing fixtures over time. The solution is clear: eliminate the source. Lead service lines and plumbing need to be replaced. Any other outcome leaves the risk in place.
The first challenge is obvious: how to pay for it. Many older cities, including ours, have thousands of lead service lines. Many households do not know if they have lead fixtures, or if lead has accumulated in non-lead pipes or plumbing.
The second challenge is the reality that only a portion of most service lines is in the public space. A portion is also on private property. Most public agencies may not use public funds to change private-side service lines and plumbing, are prohibited from requiring private landowners to do it themselves, or both.
While DC Water conducts aggressive community outreach to let customers know about the benefits of replacing lead lines on their own property, many do not. It’s an expensive and tricky proposition that requires shutting off the plumbing and digging up the front yard. Replacing interior plumbing is also expensive and disruptive. Some residents don't do the work because they can't afford it, because they don't believe there is a risk with no children at home, or just don't want the hassle. Some residents choose to filter their drinking water instead, or rely on bottled water.
The answer is before us. Federal lawmakers, who just held a Flint hearing this week, can work together to benefit all of America. New law should require the replacement of lead service lines in the public and private spaces, including an assessment of plumbing. Funding should be available to assist homeowners in replacing private-side service lines, provided on a sliding scale based on need.
We should set a date by which we will have this work done for the entire country: say 2030. We would continue to use treatment chemicals in the meantime to hold the risk in check, systematically rebuilding our drinking water infrastructure while eliminating for risk of lead in the water. We can put some folks to work too.
Our experience shows there is light at the end of the tunnel for communities like Flint. We have worked hard to earn back the trust of our customers. We perform thousands of tests every year to make sure the drinking water in the District is safe – tests that show historically low levels of lead. We also offer free lead testing to customers to identify sources of lead in their plumbing. Most water utilities around the country will do the same. The bottom line is we take lead incredibly seriously and take action whenever something seems out of the ordinary, but we can’t do it all at the local level.
It’s time for safe, affordable reliable drinking water to join healthcare and defense as federal spending priorities. Let’s start that conversation now and stop the next Flint before it happens.
Hawkins is CEO and general manager of DC Water.