Much is being written about the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan caused by the contaminated drinking water. I will leave to others the extremely important discussions of the short and long-term health impacts caused by drinking the water.
What I would like to focus on in this post is my opinion of how a robust asset management program could have prevented the crisis in the first place.
What is “robust asset management program”?
Let me first define what I mean by a “robust asset management program.” I quantify a robust program as one in which the utility:
- is engaged in the five core components of asset management (asset inventory and its associated elements, level of service, criticality, life cycle costing, and long-term funding);
- has implemented these activities, not just planned for their implementation;
- incorporates these activities as part of their daily practice;
- has the buy-in and support of elected leaders;
- has a communication program with customers; and
- has the involvement of all levels of staff within the utility.
How would a robust asset management program implementation have helped Flint?
The next question is how would implementation of a robust asset management program actually have helped Flint in this particular case? Let’s examine this question step by step.
An asset inventory would have provided the utility with detailed information of where lead service lines were located within the distribution system and the current status of the existing distribution system piping.
This knowledge would have helped the utility in several ways:
- Understanding the type, as well as the condition of the distribution piping, could have alerted officials, engineers, and operators associated with the utility that switching water sources had a high likelihood of having a deleterious effect on water quality. This, in turn, would lead to many investigations into the possible impacts of a switch including testing some sections of piping with the new water before making the switch, to determine the potential for impacts.
- Knowing the extent of lead service lines could have informed the utility that corrosion control would be required, if the utility actually switched to the new source (the Flint River.) [As an aside, the utility had an obligation, on its own, to determine whether corrosion control was necessary, regardless of the state regulatory agency’s position on the matter.]
- Lead compliance sampling could have been targeted to the most susceptible areas and additional sampling, following the switch in sources, could have been conducted in areas identified as potential problems.
- The inventory information could have been used to develop a program to systematically replace lead service lines within the utility. Ultimately, removing the lead pipe from the system should have been a major goal to significantly reduce or prevent even the possibility of contamination.
The importance of establishing levels of service
Establishing levels of service (LOS) would have included a conversation with customers about what service they wanted the utility to provide and what they were willing to pay for.
Industry practice and my own opinion are that water service is not, and should never be, a decision one person makes. It needs to be a dynamic conversation between utility managers and operators, utility decision-makers, and customers.
The reason the word “dynamic” is so important is that the utility decision-makers must listen to their personnel and the utility must be responsive to its customers’ concerns.
The most fundamental level of service that any customer wants is safe and healthy water. Coming closely behind that level of service are two others: reliable service and aesthetically acceptable/pleasing water.
There are circumstances when a water utility may not be able to give any or all of these three things, however, the most important response a utility can take at that time is communicating the problems to the customer.
For example, the discovery of E. coli in the water will lead a utility to inform customers to boil their water. The need to repair water lines may temporarily disrupt service and the utility can let its customers know where and when the disruptions will be happening.
These kinds of conditions are understandable and the utility keeps its public trust by being proactive and continuing the dialog. A utility fully engaged in this component of asset management takes customer complaints seriously and investigates them.
So how could Flint have benefited from implementing levels of service?
Based on my years of industry experience with water utility levels of service (LOS), I have listed below my opinion of how Flint could have benefited from implementing levels of service:
- LOS goals include meeting health-based standards. This goal would have required the utility to investigate – on its own if the state or federal government didn’t make them – what was happening with regard to lead, legionella, coli, or any other health concern.It is important for a utility to remember that it is ultimately the responsibility of the utility to comply with regulations no matter what the state regulatory agency does or does not do. Setting LOS goals helps inform the utility personnel and decision-makers of this inherent responsibility.
- The poor aesthetic quality of the water being delivered to the taps, which was in evidence by many residents, meant the utility failed to meet levels of service related to the aesthetic water quality. Failing to meet these standards would have prompted the utility to take action to improve water quality. The sooner they would have taken this action, the less damage would have occurred.
- One would expect that one of the utility’s LOS goals would have related to addressing customer complaints, particularly those of a health based nature (e.g., the complaints of rashes, hair falling out, etc.) This LOS goal would have required the utility to take complaints seriously, track them, possibly even plot them spatially to determine trends. This information would have further aided the utility in identifying areas of concern within the distribution system.
- An LOS would have required the utility to communicate with its customers in a much more comprehensive way regarding what was likely to happen when the water was switched to the Flint River, including the very real possibility of changes in taste, odor, and appearance. The utility could have communicated information to customers on measures they could take to reduce dangers from lead or other potential contaminants.
I believe that this particular area is probably the most important one regarding the failures in Flint. The public trust has been irreparably harmed.
The residents there will NEVER again trust any officials who tell them their water is safe to drink. The most egregious part, however, is that the public trust everywhere has been shaken.
The water industry has been campaigning very hard to convince the public that they do not have to pay for expensive bottled water but can instead use the unbelievably cheap tap water.
The officials in Flint have not only destroyed public trust in Flint and Michigan, but have weakened it across the entire country.
(Heather continues to share more learning in the post, “Flint Michigan – Is it Too Late to Start an Asset Management Program?“)
READ FURTHER INSIGHTS FROM OUR OTHER FLINT MICHIGAN ARTICLES…