By Paul Rozycki
At the beginning of every year, Lake Superior State University selects a list of the past year’s least favorite phrases and words, which have been overused and misused, and should be banished. The list is fun, interesting, and they are usually on target.
In Flint, perhaps one New Year’s resolution that we should all make is to stop using the endless water metaphors in discussing our water crisis. It was entertaining (for a while) to see headlines that read: “Flint Water crisis boils over,” “Protestors flood into city hall,” “Information drips out of Lansing,” “Water crisis drowns Flint’s budget,” and “Taxpayers soaked for water costs.”
To a lesser degree we also endured sentences that urged us to “get the lead out” or were warned of “leaded and unleaded water.” Enough is enough. But once you get started with this stuff it’s hard to stop.
But, with or without the water-drenched phrases, 2016 should give us both good and bad water news for Flint.
First the bad news
Banishing overused words won’t end Flint’s water problem. The bad news will keep flooding, trickling and boiling over for much of the year. (I told you it wouldn’t be easy to stop.) Every day seems to reveal some new reason to distrust those who made the decision to switch to Flint River water, those who tested the water, and those who chose not to inform the public of the high lead levels. Most likely, the next year will give us a stream of new revelations and leaks about who knew what, when they knew it, and why they didn’t inform the public about Flint’s problem. Restoring a modest level of trust in those agencies and individuals will be a long, slow glacier-like process.
But even as the water-logged catch-phrases go down the drain, and the unsettling revelations about the unfolding of Flint’s water crisis continue, there is room for some optimism and hope for the future. Our other New Year’s resolution (and certainly the most important one) should be to successfully manage the water crisis.
Now the good news
A few recent events offer a small droplet of hope for 2016. In a press conference about a month ago, Mayor Karen Weaver announced her 100-day plan for the city. While much of the program needs to be fleshed out, one key theme emerged. Because of the water crisis, “Flint should be declared an ‘emergency disaster area’ and be eligible for significant federal aid.” The idea has more than a few detractors and skeptics, but gradually it has gained traction with both the county and the state. And now it has produced the federal disaster relief requested, but after many months of frustration, and too much silence from the city and state, it is a strong symbolic move. At the very least, Mayor Weaver’s actions have captured the attention of state and national leaders and show her commitment to work with them to solve the problem.
We have now made the switch back to Detroit water and that should gradually improve the quality of our water in the upcoming year. (Though all the experts advise that it’s not time to turn off the filters, or stop buying bottled water yet. After the experience of last year, it’s better to be safe than sorry.) Also, the Karegnondi water line from Lake Huron seems to be on schedule and should be ready by mid-2016 and ought to deliver cleaner water as well.
Shortly after Mayor Weaver’s press conference, Michigan Radio’s “Issues and Ale,” hosted by Jack Lessenberry, held a panel discussion on the water crisis, with State Senator Jim Ananich, Hurley Hospital’s Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, Professor Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech and Michigan Radio reporter Steve Carmody. In the midst of a great deal of gloomy news on Flint’s problems, a few hopeful signs emerged. Most significantly, Marc Edwards said that it might not be necessary to replace nearly all of the pipes in the Flint system (a huge financial burden) and that, with some time and the correct water treatment, the lead problem could be minimized as the pipes built up a scale, or coating, on the inside.
Similarly, Dr. Hanna-Attisha indicated that the use of appropriate medical and dietary measures might reduce the impact of lead in children. Neither of these are a magic solution to the problem, and they won’t solve everything, but at least they were a small light at the end of what has been a very dark tunnel.
Finally, if it’s any consolation, or perhaps in the “misery loves company” category, the Bridge online magazine published a map showing that Flint is hardly alone in finding elevated lead in its children. Areas of Grand Rapids, Jackson, Detroit, Saginaw, Muskegon and Holland (among other cities) all measured higher levels of lead than Flint. Those elevated lead levels were probably caused by lead paint rather than water. Lead is a much bigger issue than just water and remains a statewide (and nationwide) problem in spite of decades of efforts to minimize it. If there is anything positive about this, perhaps Flint might find some allies in the battle to reduce our lead levels. We may have indeed been the “canary in the coal mine” and now it’s time for the whole nation to take a serious look at the lead issue, from whatever source.
Otherwise, we’ll be “Drowning in debt,” “Facing a rising tide of protests,” “Seeing our future float away,” or “Swamped with lawsuits.” You get the idea.
Let’s hope 2016 is the year we drain the lead out and mop up the water mess – so we won’t be flooded with washed-up water metaphors. (Maybe they’ll just dry up and blow away?)
Paul Rozycki is a retired professor of political science from Mott Community College. He has lived in Flint since 1969 and has been involved with and observed Flint politics for many years. He is author of Politics and Government in Michigan (with Jim Hanley) and A Clearer Image: The History of Mott Community College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.