By Jan Worth-Nelson
The City of Flint’s twisted path to the Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline appears to have changed today, with Mayor Karen Weaver announcing the recommendation that the city stay with water from the Great Lakes Water Authority — what has been called “Detroit water” — as its primary source of water instead.
In what struck many in the City Council chambers as a surprising development — including, it seems, members of the City Council — the mayor seemed to be making a drastic turn from years of controversy, contentious negotiations, and millions of dollars in construction during years of water crisis turmoil.
The Karegnondi pipeline, bypassing Detroit and going directly to Lake Huron through another route, began with groundbreaking in 2013. Its 67-mile route originally had been scheduled for completion and for water to begin flowing this summer.
The switch away from Detroit water in 2014, a move originally billed by a series of emergency managers appointed by the state as a way to save money and supported by then-Mayor Dayne Walling, was part of the chain of events that led to the use of Flint River water while the city waited for the KWA pipeline to be completed. Instead of using pre-treated water from the Great Lakes Water Authority, city officials spent millions to upgrade the long-dormant city water treatment plant to handle Flint River water.
Ultimately, that was followed by the debacle that has dominated Flint’s place in the news ever since. When the lead crisis exploded in the city’s aging pipes with the corrosive river water and inadequate water treatment practices, the city switched back to GLWA water in October, 2015, in an extreme moment for the city. Since then, lead levels in Flint’s water, according to most measurements, have steadily declined.
The announcement raised more questions than were answered in the press conference Q&A. But it appeared to represent a coming-together of top federal, state, county and local partners, including the KWA. Present in a phalanx at the front of the room with Weaver were Governor Snyder’s senior advisor Richard Baird; EPA acting Region 5 administrator Robert Kaplan; GLWA CEO Sue McCormick; John Young, retired president of American Water Works Service Company; Keith Creagh, director of the state Department of Environmental Quality; and, last but not least, Jeff Wright, Genesee County drain commissioner and CEO of the KWA.
Fourth Ward city councilwoman Kate Fields said the council had heard of the decision only early this morning, when Council President Kerry Nelson and Councilman Scott Kincaid were called into the mayor’s office at 8 a.m.
Some in the audience — including longtime water warriors like Tony Palladeno, who have never trusted what they believed were suspect political machinations behind the KWA project — cheered loudly at the announcement.
“Yes! No KWA!” Palladeno shouted, and when Weaver said, smiling, “Wait, let me finish,” he added, “Ma’am, my heart’s in my throat, Mayor.”
Weaver said public health, regulatory experts and city officials “did not want to subject residents to another switch — this means Flint doesn’t have to change its water source again, relieving fears and anxieties, especially now that the water is meeting federal standards.”
“Health is our number one priority,” she emphasized, adding that social and economic concerns also were paramount.
Noting that the city has been “losing 35-40% of our water in leaks” from aging infrastructure, she said staying with GLWA facilities would assure a modern, more efficient water delivery system.
“We all win with this,” Weaver said.
One more complicated element of the turnabout is the city’s prior agreement with the KWA, a 28-year, $7 million per year bond payment. Weaver said the new plan “will eliminate Flint’s current 28-year, $7 million bond payment to the KWA” but later it was explained the bond payment will be picked up and absorbed by the GLWA. The implications for the overall cost for Flint’s water — and for residents’ notoriously high water bills — was not immediately made clear, though Weaver said staying with GLWA water was “the lowest cost option that would minimize water rates in the future.”
Baird, a Flint native who offered gratitude as he often does for how the city had provided him rich opportunities as a youth, said, “I want to reaffirm the state’s commitment to the city of Flint and its residents. We are here not just to help in the water crisis, but to work with the residents of Flint on the quality of life issues, jobs, economy, education, infrastructure and safety — we are here for the long haul.”
“The complexity and moving parts that needed to come together to enable this announcement and strategy is nothing short of outstanding,” he said. He said the recommendation would put Flint in a position to build a state-of-the art, 21st century water delivery system, right-size the infrastructure, and install technology around the city designed to monitor the composition of the water. Coupled with new pumps and other innovations, he asserted, the agreement would “position Flint to be the bellwether when it comes to infrastructure and water delivery. It’s a very big deal.”
A chart offered to media at the press conference showed a dozen options which Weaver said had been analyzed, though it left some media scratching their heads and asking for further clarification. One reporter urged city finance director David Sabuda in particular to find a way to explain the economics of the recommendation in clearer language to regular Flint residents.
A 30-day comment period for the public begins with a town hall meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at the House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church, 1851 W. Carpenter Road.
Contacted later in the day, former Mayor Dayne Walling said, “I want what’s best for the community and there’s a lot of new information to consider. I agree that public health and reducing any future risks have to be the top priority.
“There should be at least a 60-day public comment period to make sure information is made available and independently analyzed,” he added. “The process must be fully transparent for the final decision to be trustworthy otherwise the tragic mistakes of the past could be repeated.” Walling was on the KWA board as mayor and memorably flipped the switch in April 2014 to move to Flint River water.
In summing up the journey to the recommendation, Weaver said, “This was truly a partnership. This collaborative effort did not start out well. We argued, We fussed, we blamed each other, we pointed fingers. But when everybody came to the table…We had one common goal: and that was making sure that the residents of Flint have access to clean, affordable drinking water. This plan is a win for the residents of Flint as well as every partner — we all win with this.”
During the press conference, the mayor moved around the podium awkwardly, nursing a leg from recent foot surgery. Watching her deal with the wheeled scooter, Baird commented, “It has a very good forward, but the reverse doesn’t do so well.”
Within earshot, no one made it a metaphor.
EVM editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.