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This Water is Our Water – A Different Perspective on the Flint Water Crisis

As an advocate for the health of our rivers and the water that flows through them, my attention is periodically drawn to places of crisis. For a couple of decades now, maybe more, I’ve allowed my focus to sit with a place somewhere in the world for sometimes months on end, following the news, listening for the factors that contributed to the crisis, and looking for the heroes who stand up and move the crisis towards hope. I am always fascinated by these people and the critical role they play.

For much of the last two years, I have quietly paid attention to the water issues in Flint, Michigan. What began as concern gradually matured into crisis, leaving a trail of broken trust and health issues that will last a generation. The crisis in Flint has become one of national interest, including quite a bit of attention during the Democratic Debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders (3/6/2016). Perhaps more than ever before, the promise of the Safe Drinking Water Act to ensure compliance with federal drinking water standards by public water systems was on center stage. But so too was the failure to fulfill our public health obligation for the people of Flint and the importance of holding government officials accountable for their actions.

In Flint, the river isn’t the problem – the pipes are the culprit. And sometimes rivers can be corrosive, even if they are healthy. Just like every river has a unique natural hydrologic regime – the specific magnitude, frequency, duration, timing, and rate of change of water flow – every river also has a unique chemical signature. And if we don’t know what these unique regimes are, it can be hard to say that a river is out of balance or define what treatment and processes are needed before it flows through our faucets.

At the debate, it was refreshing to hear both candidates focus their comments on need to address the source of the problem in Flint – the lead in the pipes – and provide the citizens of Flint with confidence in the quality of their water and the ability of their public officials to serve their interests. They noted that what was happening in Flint could be a problem in many other places, both in terms of lead and potentially other toxins, and that we deserve better, and so do our children and the generations that come after us. This is all good stuff, but I think that they missed something very important.

The people of Flint stood up for their right to clean water. They knew that something was wrong and they kept up the fight until answers became clear. They didn’t stop when their health department, utility, and elected officials didn’t address their concerns. They didn’t stop when it seemed that no one was listening. They continued to ask what was wrong with their water and demand action. They did not take silence as an answer. They rallied and even gained media attention to make sure their voice was heard. It shouldn’t have been this hard – they should have never been exposed to such danger. But their determination is why what was going on in Flint became a topic of national discourse.

We want people to be empowered to protect the waters of this country. Everyone should know where their water comes from, how their utility brings this water into their homes, and have the tools to understand the quality of this resource and when it is in trouble. We want our citizens to understand the relation between our rivers and their lifestyle choices and water use. But we also need our public officials and regulatory agencies to listen and investigate when they hear something is wrong.

News from Flint has focused on the stories of LeeAnn Walters, a mother of four whose family began experiencing health effects of lead exposure soon after the city switched it’s water source, EPA’s Miguel Del Toral and local doctor Mona Hanna-Attisha who called attention to health issues, the citizens who marched in protest, and the VA Tech professor Marc Edwards who proved that lead leaching from the city’s pipes was the problem. These people, along with the staff at the Flint River Watershed Coalition who knew that it wasn’t about the river, all played a critical role in identifying what was going on with Flint’s water. It just took too long. And it is not over yet.

If we want a future of clean and ample water for people and nature, we need more people who are willing to stand up for the quality of their water and the health of the rivers (and groundwater) where this water comes from. We need local non-governmental organizations willing to work with regulatory agencies and utilities, force action when appropriate, and search for new solutions. And these champions need our help, our support, and our encouragement. Join our network, get involved, find your local river and watershed organization, and lend a hand. This water is our water.

by Nicole Silk, President of River Network