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The Crisis of Water Infrastructure in Shrinking Cities

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization. 

By Daniel Hummel
February 23, 2019

Downtown Flint, Michigan (Photo by Daniel Hummer)

Certain cities in the United States and around the world continue to lose population. The City of Flint, Michigan is one of those cities. As a post-industrial legacy city, Flint lost jobs as the automotive industry declined, and the city is now less than half the size that it was in 1960. This unfortunate reality is not the end of the story. There are still more than 95,000 people there who rely upon the city to provide them with services. One of the most important of these services is water.

Shrinking cities like Flint have an overcapacity problem, which affects the functioning and feasibility of infrastructure systems. In water systems, increased vacancy caused by population decline leads to less water usage, which increases the amount of stay-time in the pipes. This corrodes the pipes and increases their bacteria content. This means the pipes have to be flushed more often. This was part of the problem that led to the Flint Water Crisis.

Between April 2014 and October 2015, Flint switched from water provided by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to water from the Flint River, and residents complained about the poor quality. This was after the city fell under emergency management due to fiscal stress. Poor water treatment practices along with the problems of stagnant water in aging pipes allowed the lead content of the pipes to leech into the water. Lead is a known toxin. Throughout most of the 20th Century in the United States, lead from paint, gasoline and tin cans was the source for unusual levels of lead in the body. Even small amounts of lead can damage the brain. Children are most vulnerable to these effects, and the effects are irreversible. A sizable portion of the water pipes in older cities like Flint were made from lead.

Following the water crisis, Flint has received federal and state funding to replace the lead and galvanized steel lines. In this process, Flint has sought the aid of the Lansing Board of Water and Light (BWL), which replaced the lead and galvanized pipes in the Lansing, Michigan area. It is one of two cities in the United States that has done this. The other city is Madison, Wisconsin. The BWL provides technical guidance. Flints’ efforts are also in line with state-level regulations that all water utilities replace their lead lines by 2040. These regulations were passed following the water crisis, and include all service lines. The complication is finding all the lead lines and installing them with limited interruption to water service. The lead lines are being replaced with pipes made of copper.

The problem with delays to infrastructure improvements is that they end up costing residents more than if infrastructure were regularly improved over time. This appears to be the issue in Atlanta, a fast-growing city that has not done this and has one of the highest water and sewer rates in the country. Cities delay infrastructure improvements especially if they are already fiscally stressed, like shrinking cities. Flint has some of the highest water rates among the 500 largest water systems in the country. It certainly has the highest water rates in the area. Half of the water is lost through leaky lines. In addition, the costs related to needed line maintenance are spread out over a smaller population. These increasing costs are particularly burdensome in shrinking cities like Flint because of the higher proportion of the population that is poor. In Flint, the median household income is less than $30,000. This is compared to the nationwide median household income, which is more than $50,000.

Water rates cannot be increased in Flint to pay for these improvements. The state and federal governments have funded the pipe replacement there. In other shrinking cities that need to improve their infrastructure, including their water systems, these costs might be shouldered by the residents. This was the case with the BWL and its improvements. Can the residents of these cities afford the rate increases to do this? How will this affect the trends in population decline? Higher taxes and fees may push more residents to leave. These cities hope they will attract a younger and more educated workforce. This appears to be happening in places like Detroit, where the population has higher incomes and earning potential. This might allow those rate increases. Cities like Flint so far have not been able to do this.

Investments in this infrastructure will increase city expenditures. In the absence of rate increases this will increase fiscal stress. The decisions are increasingly difficult for these cities in the absence of significant intergovernmental aid. This is why Anna Clark, in her recent book, “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy” observed that, “The Flint water crisis illustrates how the challenges in America’s shrinking cities are not a crisis of local leadership – or, at least, not solely that – but a crisis of systems.” These systems are old and built for a much larger population. In Flint they were also built for an industry that is largely absent today. The pipes need replacing and the infrastructure needs reducing to accommodate a smaller population.


Author:Dr. Hummel is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the Public Administration Program at the University of Michigan, Flint. He teaches classes on public policy, intergovernmental relations and public administration. His office # is 810-237-6560. His email is [email protected]. You can also visit his website: www.hummel-research.com.

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