The real map of Flint, Michigan

There have been a few articles depicting just how difficult it’s going to be to locate and dig up Flint, Michigan’s poisonous service pipes buried several feet deep underneath the city. Flint is starting to put together pieces and gain traction as leaders finally begin to hustle up a solution for residents who deserve to have one. 

A team volunteered to develop a geographic information system (GIS) pipeline map of Flint. The map will essentially be the key to guiding the engineers and work crews tasked with the repiping process in Flint.

“Since everything exists in time and space, GIS is applicable to almost any situation. Almost everything is mappable,” said Dr. Marty Kaufman, earth and resource science professor who oversees the GIS mapping process of Flint in the GIS Center at the University of Michigan – Flint. 

During a recent volunteer trip to Flint, Michigan, Plumbing Engineer team members met with Dr. Kaufman about the current repiping work.

GIS technology originated in Canada in the late 1960s. A GIS is essentially an intricate, interactive map that allows users to create searches, enabling them to display, analyze and output spatial information. Spatial data are data that have a geographic reference — things like addresses, zip codes and state names. The key is the location and/or extent in space-time.

The subset of GIS that the plumbing community is most familiar with is Automated Mapping/Facilities Management (AM/FM) mapping, which allows users to digitize, manage and analyze utility network data. Things like the location of property lines, pipe location and infrastructure are key data components in this subset of GIS.

Though the GIS Center’s data is complete, the information has yet to be delivered to the public and utilized by the city. The GIS team — as well as Flint and the rest of the watching world — eagerly await news of how the city will use the findings, which have narrowed down the city blocks of children with highest blood levels of lead. 

Since the average age of a home in Flint is 74 years (and lead was outlawed in 1986), there is really only one area of the city that experts are confident doesn’t contain lead, or other corrosive materials. 

“Every possible combination of service connection is present in Flint. There are still several hundred lead lines that exist from the middle of the street and into a house. There’s copper that goes from the street to the curb box. And then from the curb box and into the house, it might be galvanized or something else. All combinations are possible,” Kaufman said.

Initial studies on the effects of lead in Flint's water were undertaken by Civil Engineer Dr. Marc Edwards and Hurley Pediatrics Program Director Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. After hearing about the definitive correlation between Flint’s water levels and lead levels in children’s blood, Dr. Kaufman and others from the U of M – Flint’s GIS Center approached the city and volunteered their services to map the lead lines of the city. To Kaufman and other GIS staff, this pursuit was beyond personal. Those affected were students and friends. 

Kaufman said, “While it’s true that the most acute problem is the lead found in children living in Flint, particularly African-American children, the extent of this problem goes beyond Flint’s borders. My colleagues and I drank the water during those 19 months that Flint was connected to the Flint River. The city estimated that between 30,000 and 50,000 people came to Flint everyday, as day workers and students. That’s not the same 30,000 to 50,000 people each day. That’s tens of thousands of people who were exposed to this in addition to the residents of Flint.”

Kaufman touched on what Dr. Marc Edwards has referred to as a, “corroded public faith in science.” Kaufman said, “Once we began learning about the failure of government and denigration of science and medical evidence that came from the state, then the anger set in. The attitude and dismissal of non-controversial data. Marc Edwards and Dr. Hanna-Attisha did not propose an alternative form of the universe. They used testing results that have been used literally millions of times. And they were denied. It’s an understatement to say that was disappointing.”

Kaufman and other GIS Center staff members, such as Troy Rosencrants, center manager, and Greg Rybarczyk, associate professor, met with water department officials in Flint. The GIS staff was to translate smeared information of the city laid out on 3 by 5 index cards and written in the 1950s. Flint’s water department had transferred some of the cards and loaded them onto paper maps, then scanned and tagged them as image files. There was a total of 240 of these files. The GIS Center team had to knit together the files into one large file, georeference to existing coordinates in Flint, and use the map as an overlay on top of a valid parcel database to transfer the codes that existed on each individual parcel or property. There are 56,000 parcels in Flint. 

The GIS team hired eight students and various community members. They completed the process in three weeks. What they found from the results was that there were several parcels, even on one block, which had no indicator of what type of service connection existed. On the GIS map, between each parcel, there are markers that indicate whether there are lead and copper service lines, labeled with an “L” and “C.” The parcels without indicators, because they are unknown, were left empty. Of the 40,000 residential parcels in the city, about 25 percent them are missing, and there’s a good chance that some of them point to lead.

Though the map is done, no one knows exactly when an estimated $55 million will arrive and where it will come from. Flint’s desperate need for funds is currently being tossed around by an indecisive Congress. The wait is uneasy for residents with severed trust.

“People need to have closure in order to recover from a loss of confidence in the water supply. If this city is ever going to be viable again, it’s going to need to be rid of its stigma associated with contamination,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman pointed to the 1993 Milwaukee Cryptosporidiosis in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the largest waterborne disease outbreak in documented U.S. history. During this outbreak, roughly 400,000 people were affected, and 69 people died. The immediate response was a renovation of facilities. It took a long time for the public to heal, but with transparency at every level, it was done. What’s more is these improvements in Milwaukee have led to the city being a leader in water quality and water testing.

Kaufman said, “We need to do a thorough evaluation of the system here. I think we need a water audit to section off those areas in the city that we know are leaking the most water. We need to use leak noise correlators to find out where in the pipes are the weakest links. And then we need to go all the way to the tap and work backwards to the lake, look for the lead and remove it. Only then, will people begin to have confidence about returning to their water supply.”

On February 10, Flint experienced its first major pipe rupture, which knocked out service to the north side of the city. 

“Our pipes are at the end of their lifecycle. They are telling us they’re done because we’re getting at least one pipe rupture a day in the mains,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman points to two instances in this country that demonstrate proactive measures in terms of lead service line replacement. One was in Madison, Wisconsin, where the city replaced 8,000 services between 2001 and 2011. Lansing, Michigan is the other shining example. According to Detriot News, Lansing has been successful in, “removing lead from 13,500 pipes at a cost of $42 million during the past 10 years — some of which was passed on to customers. Lansing has only 700 service lines left to be replaced later this year.” 

Virgil Bernero, the mayor of Lansing, has offered assistance and consultation to Flint. One of the faster, more cost-effective measures currently being tossed around is sliplining, which Kaufman refers to as “arthroscopic pipe surgery.” Sliplining is one of the oldest methods for trenchless rehabilitation of existing pipelines. The most common size pipe is 8-60 inches, but sliplining can occur in any size given appropriate access and a new pipe small or large enough to install. 

“The city is looking at the data right now. We anticipate that results will help guide the workforce. We truly hope that Flint becomes a sort of archaeological, ‘dig site,'” Kaufman said.

He continued, “I’ve been getting calls and emails from all over the world, offering assistance, supplies and equipment. We have had optical character reading companies who have done work for the CIA and other intelligence agencies who have offered assistance in reading the index cards. We had a vendor from San Diego volunteer to scan all 45,000 cards for free. The first phone call I received when this project, so to speak, went national was from a plumber in Long Island, New York who told me, ‘I can get a crew on the ground in a couple of days.’”

The GIS Center continues to analyze clusters of lead pipes and correlate those with known values of high lead in the water and in children’s blood. The center is also interested in looking at transient levels of pipes and also pumping issues with respect to cost.

Kaufman said, “As corrosion increases, pumping costs go up. I’d be interested in seeing records from the utility in terms of what’s happened in the 19 months that Flint was using river water and if pumping costs were going up.”

The GIS Center’s work has been pivotal in what it means to be a part of a university where being connected to the world outside the classroom is the hallmark of education’s real value. U of M-Flint’s University Outreach program, which has been instrumental in advocating for the GIS Center’s work, has also connected other important city-wide initiatives to the Flint community’s needs. University Outreach has been hosting free courses for the Flint community in the wake of the water crisis. Kaufman recently lectured on the “Science of Water Delivery” on February 12. 

In trying to relay what happened at this lecture, Kaufman needed a moment to recollect himself. The raw emotion of the event set in. 

“It was beyond tough seeing the community’s reaction,” Kaufman explained with tears in his eyes.

The people are at the core of this situation. Those who live and work in Flint still have a long battle ahead, and will need our continued support. Though Flint’s on the leading edge of infrastructure problems in this country, many more cities have not taken proactive measures and will experience consequences.

Kaufman said, “Flint will be referred to as the 'first,' but other cities are going to start to have these problems as well. Many of the cities in the U.S. grew at the same time Flint did. The lifespan of major amounts of pipe in this country are now essentially coming to an end. In fact, the American Water Works says that we’re now in the ‘Era of Replacement.’” 

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