A Roman-era lead pipe. Photo from Wikipedia.

A Roman-era lead pipe. Photo from Wikipedia.

There is an ongoing debate on whether or not the Roman Empire was brought down, in part, because of lead poisoning. The Roman aqueducts were often lined with lead and many of the pipes used to convey this water was also Pb. While it seems unlikely -- Romans were, after all, pretty sophisticated and there is good reason to believe they used rain water and clay pipes for consumption -- the notion of a string of raving mad emperors living in debauchery while their empire crumbled around them makes for a compelling narrative.

That's because it allows us to think we are so much more intelligent today than those who came before us. We're not as stupid as the Romans were. We're modern. Sophisticated, in contrast to their barbaric ways.

Yet, if your house was built prior to 1980, there's a good chance the joints in your plumbing are soldered with lead. The further back you go, the more likely it is that your pipes are made out of lead as well. Lead was a really easy element to work with. It was pliable, it resisted pin holes and was easy to seal if it ever leaked.

Until the early 1900s and the advent of modern water treatment and distribution systems, people regularly consumed alcohol -- morning, afternoon and evening -- because it was safe, unlike water, which was often contaminated. Even though the health implications of lead were known, the urgent need to provide safe drinking water -- this was the time of prohibition, City Beautiful and other public health initiatives -- rightly discounted the long term risk of lead poisoning.

When water systems are used, over time there is often a buildup of material on the insides of the pipe. I've seen ten inch pipes pulled out of the ground that had so much buildup that less than two inches of diameter remained. This buildup can protect people using old systems by creating a barrier between the lead and the water being transported. 

Apparently, when the city of Flint, Michigan, switched from getting their water from Detroit -- which sourced from Lake Huron -- to the Flint River, the change in pH and chloride from the new water source was corrosive. Lead now shows up in readings where apparently none did before. 

Ostensibly, since Flint has switched back to Lake Huron water, the way this problem is likely to be fixed is to let time restore the buildup that provided protection before the switch. That seems unsatisfactory -- and rightly so -- for the people, including children in the vulnerable early stages of development, who may have to wait a long time for this to happen. Awareness of the problem is perfectly timed to capture manufactured outrage consistent with any narrative.

I've seen two cost estimates for dealing with the lead. The first: $60 million to replace lead service lines. The service line is the small pipe that runs between the city's water pipe and the house. Given the age of Flint's system, it is possible that some of these are completely lead. This would make a significant impact, but it wouldn't address the lead in the pipes within the house or in the city's system.

The second estimate is quite different: $1.5 billion for "fixing" the city's water infrastructure. Given the size of Flint, that number likely includes replacement of much of the distribution system -- which certainly has lead problems -- as well as repairs/replacements to treatment and storage systems. I find this number to be wholly plausible.

Which is a huge problem. A repair cost of $1.5 billion is $14,000 per Flint resident. Given that a median house in Flint is worth just $29,000, the water system in the city is going to be worth more than the houses being served by it. And that's just the water. You have roads, streets, sidewalks, curbs, drainage, sewer as well as gas and electric infrastructure that's all reaching the end of its useful life. A median household income of $23,000 suggests that a conventional approach is not viable.

I'm not sure what can be salvaged in Flint or the thousands of U.S. cities on this same trajectory. (Flint, like Detroit, is a canary in the coalmine, not an anomaly as is widely asserted.) There are, however, a number of things about water systems that are not well understood that, if there were more widely known, could help us hack some solutions.

Photo from Wikipedia

Photo from Wikipedia

Most importantly, the primary function of the water system in your city is not -- as is widely believed -- to provide you safe drinking water. No. If that were the case, the system would be designed much differently with a much smaller price tag. No, the system of pipes that make up your water system are there to fight fires.

Let's say you live on a 50-foot lot and there is a small. eight inch water pipe running in front of your house. There is 130 gallons sitting in that pipe right now. If the water was just for drinking, that's enough for 260 people (half a gallon each). If we counted water for sanitation, it's still enough for 26 people. And that's just in the pipe. There are many multiples of that stored for you in other parts of the system. If the problem is getting people water for drinking and bathing, our current approach is overkill.

In rural areas with bad water -- agricultural areas with contaminated aquifers, for example -- we will sometimes build what I've seen called "rural water systems". These are small pipes under low pressure that provide basic water needs at really affordable prices to widely dispersed populations. You can't fight a fire with it, but if your barn catches on fire, it's not like the fire department is going to arrive in time to save it anyway. It's also not likely to burn down your home.

Flint already has a water system for fighting fires. If Flint is like most of the country, it also overpays for redundant fire fighting equipment, given that it has this water system designed in an era of horse-drawn pumper trucks. It doesn't really matter if there is lead coming out of the hydrant; nobody is drinking from the fire hose anyway. What if all we need to do in these mature systems is to start thinking separately about how we fight fires and how we deliver safe drinking water?

It's possible -- and it's at least worth looking in to -- that large parts of Flint, and many other cities as they deal with this same problem, could be served with really high quality water for drinking and sanitation at a fraction of the cost while preserving the existing, lead-infested system for fire fighting purposes only.

Two systems. Two purposes.

This would require a lot of ingenuity, changes in thinking that would be reflexively resisted by the Infrastructure Cult and their many books of codes and standards on the subject (which, incidentally, are tied to current funding programs). It would probably also be questioned by the Insurance Services Office (ISO), an organization deploying arbitrary standards that can be conveniently cited as important by fire fighting advocates in pursuit of more gear and training.

In the end, however, I think some smart people with a free hand to work creatively could come up with something that would improve people's lives on a budget they can afford. In other words, a Strong Towns approach.

Top image of the Flint River from Wikipedia.