Higher Education, Nonprofits, and Sustainability

Foundation asks GVSU researcher to study Flint water crisis

January 19, 2016
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Foundation asks GVSU researcher to study Flint water crisis
Alan Steinman. Photo via gvsu.edu

A local researcher who’s involved in a year-long water-research project based in Flint has been asked to include the current Flint water crisis in his study.

Alan Steinman, director of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University, said he was asked last week by the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation to include the Flint crisis in his study, which is considering how the state of Michigan could manage water differently from how it’s being done today.

“Jumana Vasi (program officer at the Mott Foundation) asked me to consider how this water crisis could fit into the scope of work they are currently funding, regarding how we manage water in the state of Michigan in a different way,” Steinman said. “Although drinking water infrastructure wasn’t part of our original scope, we certainly want to try to address this. Nobody wants to see this issue arise in the future anywhere — worldwide or in this country.”

Steinman’s original proposal involves examining the use of integrated watersheds to manage water.

He said he’ll now integrate the Flint crisis into the study, though at this time he doesn’t know exactly how it will be included.

Steinman said drinking water and wastewater infrastructure should be a major concern in the U.S., but they're largely being ignored.

“We used to have a revolving fund that would deal with infrastructure problems,” he said. “People don’t want to pay the taxes for this kind of stuff. As much as it’s a technical issue, it’s also a societal issue. What are we prioritizing?”

He noted the EPA has recognized drinking-water infrastructure as an area of concern, and the American Society for Civil Engineers releases a report on the infrastructure funding gap related to drinking water and wastewater every four years that has pointed to substantial underfunding.

According to the latest report by the Society for Civil Engineers, released in 2013, drinking-water infrastructure in the U.S. has a grade of D, as does wastewater infrastructure.

The report says most of the country’s drinking-water infrastructure is nearing the end of its life, and it identifies an $84.4-billion gap in funding that would need to be made up by 2020.

The report identifies three areas for investment: upgrading and replacing old treatment plants, replacing and repairing pipes and wet-weather management.

Steinman said it’s hard to get people to care about drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, because it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”

“We can’t even get roads improved and people can see that,” he said. “Imagine how difficult it is around drinking water and waste-water problems.”

He noted if people could actually see the water leaking from the outdated pipes, particularly from outdated sewer lines, there would be a much different level of concern.

“I guarantee people would be willing to pay taxes to have these problems fixed, but because it’s underground and people don’t see it, they aren’t willing to pay the money to get this kind of infrastructure fixed,” he said.

Steinman said the problem in Flint could occur elsewhere, if infrastructure issues aren’t addressed and new solutions aren’t found.

He added there aren’t a lot of people doing work around this issue.

“There are no watershed councils emerging to deal with this like there are with lakes and streams,” he said.

He said that's part of the reason he’s been asked to include the Flint crisis in his existing study, because despite the media attention, the Mott Foundation has not received any proposals from researchers looking to conduct studies related to the issue.

“We really need to think hard, creatively, strategically and targeted about how we can resolve these kinds of problems,” Steinman said.

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