Howes: Flint water reversal puts city back at start

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

It was all so unnecessary — the rashes and brown water, the sickness and anxiety, the declining property values and international derision for a city victimized by dumb management and even dumber politics.

Three years to the month after Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager ordered the city to pump water from its namesake river to save money, Mayor Karen Weaver is moving to ensure her city draws its water from the Detroit-based Great Lakes Water Authority for another 30 years.

So much for the years-long effort, spearheaded by the rival Karegnondi Water Authority, to separate Flint’s water supply once-and-for-all from the clutches of Detroit. Instead the GLWA formed from Detroit’s bankruptcy is being touted as reassurance to Flint residents traumatized by a bureaucratic calamity that claimed at least a dozen lives, sickened more and irreparably damaged the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder.

Under terms of the deal, GLWA will grant Flint a $7 million annual credit equaling its bond payment to the KWA “as long as the city keeps current on its debt service payments,” GLWA CEO Sue McCormick said in a statement. The deal also enables Flint to redirect money from water plant improvements to updating the city’s water distribution system.

Three years on, they’re back to where they started. The cruel irony is surpassed only by ... what? So much. Start with the breathtaking incompetence of multiple levels of officialdom — the governor’s office and the state Department of Environmental Quality, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and management of the city’s water department, Genesee County and Flint.

Yes, they’re back where they started — water-wise, anyway. Or they will be, should Weaver successfully persuade a majority of the City Council and the Flint Receivership Transition Advisory Board to back her plan to stick with the Great Lakes Water Authority.

They should, if Flint and its residents are to begin closing yet another sad chapter in the city’s post-war history of de-industrialization, courtesy of General Motors Co. and its predecessor. There, years of disinvestment, depopulation and chronic incompetence in City Hall are punctuated by a disastrous string of state-ordered emergency managers selected, stupidly, from Flint’s political ecosystem.

The decision to return to a status quo that existed before the switch to Flint River water in April 2014 smacks of bureaucratic butt-covering. It’s also a plain reading of the politics of water, namely that Flint’s incipient recovery would be hampered by nagging anxiety about its water should it move ahead with complex plans to start drawing water from KWA.

The Weaver administration knows this. The state knows this. The EPA knows this, too, witness its February letter questioning the timeline for the switch and the necessary “corrosion control” studies to guard against yet more lead contamination.

Among the many casualties of the Flint water crisis, trust is at the top of the list. Following close behind are governmental competence and the gnawing sense that something like this always seems to happen to Michigan’s minority-majority cities.

Pumping Detroit water through Flint’s pipes for the next three decades will not absolve the current generation of bureaucrats and elected politicians from their culpability; will not change the fact that the Legislature is talking more than it’s doing; will not erase the hits to the images of Flint and Michigan across the country.

This entirely preventable fiasco erupted on the cusp of a presidential campaign in which the industrial Midwest generally — and Michigan in particular — emerged as a central battlefield between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Trump prevailed here. But the callousness of Flint’s predicament became a rhetorical club critics used to question the narrative of Michigan as “The Comeback State” and to illustrate the Big Mitten Two-Step: two steps forward, then one (at least) back.

Nothing associated with the Flint water crisis bolsters the comeback narrative, including this week’s move to institutionalize the city’s return to Detroit water through its proposed compact with GLWA.

It won’t help the kids harmed by lead poisoning, won’t boost depressed home values, won’t resurrect the unfortunate souls felled by the Legionnaires’ disease outbreak associated with the tainted water. But it may enable the community to start moving on — and that’s a start.

(313) 222-2106

Daniel Howes’ column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHowes_TDN, listen to his Saturday podcasts, or catch him at 3 and 10 p.m. Thursdays on Michigan Radio’s “Stateside,” 91.7 FM.