Flint — Flint Mayor Karen Weaver said Tuesday she is recommending the city keep getting its drinking water from the regional Detroit-area water system for the next three decades to avoid problems and save millions of dollars after the lead contamination crisis.
It was a reversal for Weaver, who last year said the city of nearly 100,000 residents would stay with a plan to draw from a Karegnondi Water Authority pipeline to Lake Huron that remains under construction. Switching water sources was too risky and could cause disruptions that residents don’t need, the mayor said.
The public health problems started in part when the city drew water from the Flint River starting nearly three years ago as an interim source after deciding to switch to the fledgling Genesee County regional system and sever its ties to the Detroit system, now known as the regional Great Lakes Water Authority.
Officials are still not advising residents to drink the water without a filter even though it complies with federal standards, preferring to wait until all of the city’s lead service lines are replaced.
“At the end of the day, I believe this is the best decision because one of the things we wanted to make sure we did was put public health first,” Weaver said at a press conference attended by county, state, federal and Great Lakes authority officials.
“We have to put that above money and everything else. That was what we did. And that was what didn’t take place last time was public health. We’ve done our due diligence.”
The 30-year contract with the Great Lakes authority keeps Flint as a member of the KWA, a move that is supported by state, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Genesee County officials. But the long-term deal still requires the approval of the Flint City Council and Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board, a panel appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder that monitors finances since the city shed state emergency management in April 2015.
City Councilman Eric Mays said Tuesday he will be asking tough questions Wednesday when he and his eight other colleagues will be briefed on the plan. There is also a Thursday town hall in Flint to take public comments.
Mays said he is concerned the city may be “giving up ownership” in the new Genesee regional authority, something he opposes.
“I will be scrutinizing this,” said Mays, who was a critic of the original water switch. “That’s a valuable asset to the city.”
Public comments sought
Weaver has said she personally wanted to review the earlier decision. It comes after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in mid-March gave Flint $100 million in federal funding to address the water disaster. The EPA is requiring the city to have a 30-day public comment period.
Weaver said she expects some initial opposition from the community, but emphasized “I’m not going to make any decisions until I get some public feedback and public opinion.”
Flint returned to the Detroit-area system that sends water to Flint from Lake Huron in October 2015 after the discovery that Flint River water was not treated with corrosion control chemicals for 18 months.
Flint remains under contract to make $7 million annual bond payments over 28 years to the Karegnondi Water Authority. But the Great Lakes authority said it would pay a $7 million “credit” for the KWA debt as long as the city makes its debt service payments.
There was no indication how the deal would affect water rates. But the Great Lakes authority said Flint customers would save a projected $1.8 million over 30 years compared with non-contractual charges they would have paid otherwise.
In return, the Flint area authority would become a back-up system for the Detroit area authority, saving it an estimated $600 million over prior estimates and ensuring Metro Detroit communities would still get water in the event of an interruption in Great Lakes authority service.
Robert Kaplan, the Chicago-based EPA’s acting regional administrator, said he signed off on the deal because the agency believes it protects the health of residents.
“What’s best for public health is to stay on the water that’s currently being provided,” Kaplan said.
Jeff Wright, KWA’s chief executive and drain commissioner of Genesee County, said the recommended plan not only allows Flint to remain with the Genesee regional system but to be a back-up water supply, which “is critically important to the safety of Flint’s residents who have not had a back-up system since the beginning of the Flint water crisis.”
“Whether Flint ultimately chooses high-quality Lake Huron water delivered through the newly constructed KWA pipeline, the highest quality treated water from Genesee County’s Water Treatment Plant or any other EPA-approved alternative, we will continue to assist Flint residents as they strive to recover from the Flint Water Crisis,” Wright said.
Keeping Detroit system
The Great Lakes Water Authority embraced Weaver’s recommendation. “Flint residents can be assured that they will continue to receive water of unquestionable quality, at a significant cost savings,” authority CEO Sue McCormick said in a statement.
One prominent Flint area lawmaker also welcomed the decision.
“Conceptually, I think it makes a lot of sense,” said Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. “It provides us a long-term safe water source that we know is reliable. KWA could do the same thing, but this is an answer to help deal with one of the major parts of it.”
Ananich said the recommended move to stay on Detroit area water is “another example of the emergency manager sort of making a short-term terrible decision that’s cost us taxpayers half a billion dollars, if not more.”
In a tweet posted just after Weaver’s announcement Tuesday, citizens group Water You Fighting For said it supported a return to the Great Lakes authority.
“The Mayor of Flint decided against switching to the KWA!! The Karegnondi Water Authority is an experiment that we have been fighting against since Jan 2015. Another water switch to an untested, untreated source would put us right back to where we began, if not worse. The KWA opens the door to privatization and we do not want or need that. Today is a good day.”
Emergency managers appointed by Snyder decided with the approval of the Flint City Council to switch to the Flint River water in part to save money. Flint officials said they thought Detroit water system price hikes were too high.
For more than a year, the EPA has delayed any switch to KWA because of deficiencies including that the Flint treatment plant isn’t equipped to properly treat water.
Staying with the Great Lakes authority may be an initial tough sell because of the city’s history, Weaver said, but she is trying to get residents to move on. A town hall is scheduled for Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at House of Prayer Missionary Baptist Church in Flint for public feedback.
“I can’t change what happened,” Weaver said. “All I can do is move forward.”
Staff Writers Jonathan Oosting contributed.