GAO: Other cities face problems that led to Flint crisis

GAO: Other cities face problems that led to Flint crisis
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Numerous cities face financial problems similar to the ones that led to the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis, a government watchdog report found.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) scoured census data and found that about 15 percent of the country’s mid-size and large cities have lost population in the last three decades.

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For many of the cities, that has led to high rates of poverty and economic distress, reducing revenues and necessitating higher water rates to fund infrastructure, similar to what happened in Flint in the lead-up to its lead contamination crisis, the GAO said.

The utilities also face problems with keeping rates affordable, especially when cities are so economically distressed and unemployment is high.

The federal government has mechanisms to help local water utilities with infrastructure needs, but that frequently leaves a large gap that the utilities must fill by raising rates.

“Even with increased rates, many of the utilities we reviewed deferred planned repair and replacement projects and consequently expended resources on addressing emergencies, such as repairing water pipeline breaks,” the GAO said in the Monday report.

Compounding the problem, none of the six federal programs designed to help water utilities pay for infrastructure were formulated with declining city populations in mind, making it difficult to accommodate those cities’ needs, the authors noted.

The report comes amid debates in Congress and nationally about the role of the federal government in ensuring access to clean water when water infrastructure is traditionally a state or local concern.

Water infrastructure bills passed by both the House and Senate last month would set aside money to help cities with drinking water contamination crises such as Flint. But the bills’ differences still must be negotiated before a compromise is voted on and sent to President Obama's desk.