Flint Water Infrastructure Summit

Leaders and residents gather for a three-day conference that continues one of the nation’s most important conversations around safe water.

The Flint Water Summit, co-chaired by Mayer Karen Weaver and Governor Rick Snyder, was held at the Riverfront Front Banquet in Flint, Michigan, March 7-9. The conference highlighted the critical conversation surrounding our nation’s aging water infrastructure. Attendees from around the world gathered to discuss innovations and new technology, lessons learned in Flint and how to meet the needs of communities across the U.S. The conference also provided the latest update on Flint, including its recent funding toward the three-year pipe replacement process, and the decision that lead the city to choose copper as the piping replacement material. 

Industry attendees included Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI) members Dan Holmes, Barbara Higgens and Ray Valek; National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) International’s Clif McLeannan; Andrew Kireta of the Copper Development Association; and David La France of the American Water Works Association (AWWA), who was a featured speaker at the event.

NSF International and PMI were some of the industry’s first responders in Flint. NSF International, the public health and safety organization that tests and certifies residential drinking water filtration systems, oversaw the filter selection in the lead reduction process. PMI contributed to the relief effort by donating plumbing products to replace older, corroded fixtures.

“PMI is interested in anything having to do with assuring safe plumbing and safe water, and the Flint situation obviously put both of these in the spotlight. Since then, [we’ve] been advocating for restoring aging underground water infrastructure, not only in Flint, but also across the nation. It was good to see momentum building for water infrastructure projects,” said Barbara Higgens, CEO, PMI.

Others have made a similar statement in defining their role as leaders committed to safe water efforts. Conference speakers and exhibitors represented organizations including the EPA, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (DC Water), International Code Council (ICC), Michigan State University, University of Michigan, Purdue University and the American Society of Plumbing Engineers (ASPE).

During the first two days of the conference, Mayor Weaver and Gov. Snyder established the need to work together to communicate with legislators about public and private finance opportunities for continued improvements to Michigan’s water infrastructure. They urged attendees to see the conference as a starting point for the necessary transitions that are needed in order to transform one of this country’s most foundational yet overlooked sectors. 

The EPA was also instrumental in this conversation. Robert A. Kaplan, acting regional administrator, U.S. EPA Region 5, was part of a presentation called “Flint Drinking Water Infrastructure and Response Actions,” during which he discussed the need for a fresh look at the Lead and Copper Rule, the problem of oversized infrastructure, and the concern that comes with larger populations being more exposed to waterborne pathogens.

Kaplan pointed to the EPA’s recently published “Drinking Water Action Plan” and urged attendees to take advantage of the Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Funds (DWSRF), which he said accounts for half of the EPA’s budget.

The Drinking Water Action Plan (bit.ly/2olzrJ2) is a national call to action that urges “all levels of government, utilities, community organizations, and other stakeholders to work together to increase the safety and reliability of drinking water.” The plan works to address six priority areas:

  • Promote equity and build capacity for drinking water infrastructure financing and management in disadvantaged, small, and environmental justice communities.
  • Advance next generation oversight for the safe drinking water act.
  • Strengthen source water protection and resilience of drinking water supplies.
  • Take action to address unregulated contaminants.
  • Improve transparency, public education and risk communication on drinking water safety.
  • Reduce lead risks through the Lead and Copper Rule.

The DWSRF program, as established in the Safe Water Drinking Act, is a federal-state partnership to help ensure safe drinking water and provide financial support to water systems, and to state safe water programs. In this partnership, “Congress appropriates funding for the DWSRF. The EPA then awards capitalization grants to each state for their DWSRF based upon the results of the most recent Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment. The state provides a 20 percent match,” (www.epa.gov/drinkingwatersrf).

During the presentation, “Effective Utility Management: the Next Step Toward Michigan’s Sustainable Water Infrastructure,” La France made a case for restoration of the nation’s water infrastructure, touched on the issue with most of our nation’s water utilities, which are unequally distributed, stating that only 8 percent of the nation’s water utilities serve 82 percent of the population.

Again in the spotlight, Flint touched on its own water utility transitioning. During the third day of the conference, which was open to the public, JoLisa McDay, water plant supervisor for the city Flint, shared a progress report of the city’s infrastructure and water treatment plant through the lens of effective utility management. McDay kicked off the discussion by acknowledging World Water Day, and the need for the country to take action around the nation’s water utilities as they “strive to gain consumer confidence and deliver water that exceeds regulatory expectations and standards.” 

McDay went on to discuss five keys to water management success. She first touched on ways that the utility can lead in organizational excellence through properly communicating with the public and hiring system operators that understand their responsibility in promoting and supporting public health.

“Community meetings have taken place to report progress as we champion more communication efforts and community engagement … Transparency has improved as we talk about ethical conduct, but there’s still much work to do in this area,” McDay said.

Right now the utility has a system in place where it voluntarily reports outliers to regulatory agencies before an excursion or violation even occurs. 

“This [reporting to regulatory agencies] is not a common practice … We’re doing this because it’s the right thing to do. We want to be ahead of the game if something happens,” McDay explained.

Currently, the Flint water plant works with MDEQ, EPA, Arcadis and CDM Smith towards its goal of being “a sustainable and viable division of the Department of Utilities.”

Part of this organizational excellence is realizing that this is not a “one division, one person job.” Efforts need to be made to have skilled and committed people in place who check each other’s efforts. This means that utilities need to make strides in hiring efforts, which are lacking in Flint and in utilities across the country.

“The industry overall suffers for lack of talent, whether it be — electrical utility, water utility, DTE, automotive industries — we’re all competing for skilled workers,” McDay explained. “The City of Flint does not have the resources to compete with the private sector. More and more municipalities and their utilities are developing work practices and certification standards where they can pay their employees more. Flint has an antiquated system of recruiting and retaining its employees.”

Employee development has been cited as one of utilities’ weakness in organizational success. If Flint is to exceed industry standards, it needs to recruit people with the right expertise. 

The city continues to explore partnerships and innovative technology, and participate in community engagement efforts, which is how it will continue to lead in a conversation that hopefully the entire country will continue to listen and contribute to as cities begin to build best practices around water treatment management. 

Day 3 also offered continued drinking water education for residents and allowed them the opportunity to meet with exhibitors with any questions.

Part of this included a presentation by Kireta, during which he explained why the city of Flint decided on copper as the replacement choice and gave residents a chance to interact with topics around this decision. 

Following this city’s replacement decision, the copper industry helped Flint acquire nearly 200,000 feet of copper piping, at a savings of approximately $1 million, for the next phase of the FAST Start program.

Other sessions held for the public included drinking water basics and home management. This concluded the three-day summit in Flint. 

This conversation will continue to make waves across the nation. As it currently stands, Flint will use the recently awarded $100 million grant from the EPA to “accelerate and expand its work to replace lead service lines and make other critical infrastructure improvements.”

Though the EPA has received drastic cuts, the DWSRF has remained fully funded and will serve as a critical base for drinking and wastewater infrastructure. 

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