The Great Lakes, a source of fresh water so great it accounts for over 20% of the surface fresh water on earth. Yet, some American cities along the Great Lakes have had to go without water due to toxic contamination of the public water supply. In 2014, Toledo shut down its water supply for two days due to the toxicity created by polluted runoff and the consequential algal blooms, a completely foreseeable event. Now in the first month of 2016 we see the National Guard hauling bottled water to Flint Michigan – a city within one hours drive of the greatest concentration of fresh water on the planet.
Yes, Flint is a poor city, and does not have deep resources, but they too need safe potable water. Nationally, and even globally, there is great interest in advancing how water utilities are managed, for they are a conservative industry facing many new challenges. But the case of Flint Michigan highlights the risk of a management regime that prioritizes cost savings over engineering and science principles. It is dangerously easy for a business case analysis done by accountants or business managers to mis-calculate the risk of their decisions without knowing the basics of water chemistry.
Reform is needed within the industry, without a doubt. But that reform goes beyond the utility manager, it reaches out to the politicians, regulators, as well as the ordinary citizens. All have a responsibility to expand their appreciation and relationship with water. The basics of where our water comes from, how water is treated, delivered, and reclaimed is not beyond our comprehension. Gaining this appreciation is the first step in making sure your town, village or city does not end up relying on the National Guard to make sure you have safe water to drink. Many utilities have struck a firm balance, but with new challenges and threats every day that balance is easily, and quickly upset.