Flint water worries seep into gardens

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Sheila Sanders was raised by her grandmother, who taught her how to make soap, angle for fish and grow a garden.

Sheila Sanders says she intends to set out buckets to collect rain water to keep her plants irrigated. Sanders says she doesn’t trust that Flint water is usable.

As she has in previous summers, Sanders intends to plant a garden and grow produce such as greens, tomatoes, peppers, corn and okra. But Sanders, who lives in the northeast part of Flint, won’t use her hose to water her garden.

“Oh no. I don’t trust it,” said Sanders, who intends to set out buckets and collect rain water to keep her plants irrigated. “I just don’t trust that the water is usable. They lied from the beginning, and I just can’t trust the government anymore.”

Sanders is not alone in having concerns about using Flint’s water for gardening as the growing season gets underway. Lead contamination was found in the water after the city switched its supply to the Flint River two years ago, and it took months for officials to declare a problem in spite of residents’ complaints.

That’s why Edible Flint, a group that tests the soil of residents planning edible gardens, is expanding its reach this season.

Normally, the group tests the soil of 50 new gardens in the community, but this year that number has jumped five-fold in response to concerns about the city’s water and how it will affect their vegetables.

A $15,000 grant from the Michigan Department of Agriculture will pay for Edible Flint to test the soil of 250 Flint residents and distribute 150 hose filters to screen lead out of the water sprayed on gardens. The filters cost $5 each.

“It’s just to ensure our food gardens are safe for planting,” said Terry McLean, an educator with Michigan State University Extension and point of contact for Edible Flint.

“There are still some concerns about the safety of the drinking water. We don’t have 100 percent certainty that the water isn’t contaminated and we have gardeners who are just anxious. If we can lower risk in any way, let’s do it.”

Vegetables do not readily uptake lead from the soil or water, McLean said, but she advises against planting a garden if lead levels in the dirt exceed 400 parts per million, the upper end of the Environmental Protection Agency’s range for low-lead soil.

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Two years into the crisis, officials have advised that pregnant women and children younger than 6 should still use bottled water, but everyone else can use filtered water from their taps. Even so, some remain concerned.

Edible Flint has been testing the soil of new and existing gardens in Flint since 2010, and so far has tested a total of 250 gardens. Mostly it has been to check the lead levels of the soil based on what was previously on the land, such as historical areas that used lead paint or an industrial use.

Of the 250 gardens it has tested over the years, Edible Flint has suggested to only 12 prospective gardeners that lead levels were too high to grow vegetables.

It takes about two weeks for residents to get results from the Edible Flint testing, and they must sign up in advance.

Meanwhile, not everyone is leery about the lead in the water as the planting season begins.

Jim Craig has been working with his church, Asbury United Methodist Church in Flint, to plant orchards and community gardens on vacant parcels throughout the community. This month, church volunteers planted 40 fruit trees and three large gardens near the church.

Volunteers use rain water that is collected in large bins to irrigate the gardens and orchards — mostly for economic reasons — since Flint has some of the highest water rates in the nation, Craig said. But sometimes they use hoses to get water from a house or the church.

“We try, where possible, to use and harvest rain water,” Craig said. “But we would use the water from the faucet. They have recommended because of the lead contamination we not drink it. They do say it’s OK to bathe in it, and it’s OK for washing clothes. In a pinch, we will use city water for watering the gardens but the preference is to use rain water whenever possible.”

With the help of volunteers at Asbury United Methodist, Jim Craig says they collect rain to water gardens, mostly for economic reasons. Of the 250 gardens Edible Flint has tested over the years, lead levels were too high to grow vegetables in 12.


Soil tests, hose filters available

For $5, Edible Flint will test the soil of gardens in Flint. There is a maximum of two gardens and 3,000 square feet. Garden hose filters also are available for $5. Order by filling out the application here.

Source: Edible Flint