Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan: What Can Utilities Do to Avoid Such Disasters?

The contamination of drinking water with lead in Flint, Michigan, is one of the worst drinking water quality crises in recent U.S. history, second only to the incident in Washington, D.C., that exposed about 640,000 people to elevated levels of lead in 2004. In Flint, corroded pipes leached out lead (U.S. EPA limit for lead is 15 ppb) into the drinking water on route to about 100,000 residents, including children who are most vulnerable to lead poisoning. The crisis, which was first reported about a year ago, began when state officials made the error to switch to more acidic water from the Flint River to reduce costs. Prior to that, Flint received its water from Lake Huron, Detroit’s water system. After the switch, water managers opted not to use chemicals that would prevent pipe corrosion and allowed lead to seep into the water supply. The biggest failure in Flint was to not monitor lead levels during distribution and at the end user after switching to the new source. To add insult to injury, the state now estimates that replacing Flint’s water piping could cost up to $1.5 billion, which may do little to control the contamination at the point of use, as these costs don’t include the piping under and inside homes.

The incident at Flint can’t be considered a one-off situation and is most likely not limited to this city. There are some 3.3 million utility lines and about 6.4 million connections containing lead in the U.S. Ripping out and replacing infrastructure is a costly option and generally the last resort, particularly for cash strapped cities. Municipalities need to strongly consider moving toward remote and continuous monitoring of drinking water and wastewater discharge. There are several companies in the analytics market that have been automating process control to prevent such contamination issues. Companies like Aqua Metrology Systems (soon to be profiled), Intellitect, Optiqua, and ANDalyze (client registration required for all), which recently received a $1.1 million grant from the Department of Energy and National Science Foundation (NSF) for its continuous monitoring system, are packaging their sensing platforms with data services to help utilities track historical data and proactively respond in the event of a contamination.

By: Abhirabh Basu