A Fix for Flint, and Other Cities Too

But Congress might be able to.

Photographer: Sarah Rice/Getty Images

Congress has finally come up with a sensible way to help Flint, Michigan, clean up its drinking water -- and its plan could also benefit any American city that needs to get the lead out of its water supply.

Flint’s problem is a special emergency, but lead pipes are a persistent concern for many other cities. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have an exact count, but between 6 million and 11 million American homes still draw their water through lead pipes, some dating back to the 19th century.

Flint made its problem worse by running corrosive water from the Flint River through the system for 17 months. But even when water supplies are properly treated, the lead in such pipes can leach out. And when children drink that water, it can cause convulsions, brain damage and even death. So it’s important that lead service lines eventually be torn out and replaced everywhere.

The plan from the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works -- which needs approval from the full Senate -- would do two things. First, it would offer $100 million in loans for any water utility in a state of emergency (a category that includes only Flint). This loan would be administered by the state of Michigan, and could be used by Flint to help pay for replacing the lead pipes that run to people’s homes from water mains under the streets.

The city may well have preferred a simple grant, given the poor condition of its finances. But if Flint were unable to repay, the state would be on the hook for the loan, so the corroded pipes could be replaced no matter what.

The second part of the Senate deal would apply to cities beyond Flint. It would put $70 million in seed money into an existing program that lets water utilities borrow from the U.S. Treasury at low interest rates for up to 35 years. (Congress created this program under the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act in 2014, but has yet to significantly fund it.)

The WIFIA program can lend as much as $60 for every dollar it has in capital, so that the $70 million allocation could provide for $4.2 billion in loans -- enough to provide long-term financing for lead-pipe replacement in many places.

Other cities have found the work is affordable if they can pay for it gradually. Lansing, Michigan, for one -- a city in economic straits similar to Flint’s -- has been able to replace more than 13,000 of its 14,000 lead pipes since 2005, at a cost of about $3,000 per house. Madison, Wisconsin, has likewise replaced virtually all of its 8,000 lead pipes, financing the effort partly from ratepayers and partly with revenue from telecom companies that pay to put antennas on water towers.

If the Senate deal passes and so many cities take part as to exhaust the initial funds, Congress could increase the amount available. The financial cost of acting shouldn’t stand in the way of making sure all U.S. drinking water is lead-free.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.