The suburban model of development makes everything more difficult.

America’s water infrastructure is aging. It’s playing out right now in Flint, Michigan. After deferring maintenance for over a decade, many towns, like Flint, have found themselves in a bad place. Once again proving that you can only 'kick the can' down the road so far.

The Flint water crisis is a national emergency and has brought media scrutiny to America’s infrastructure. Turns out, according to a report by the New York Times, that Flint isn’t alone when it comes to unsafe lead levels in tap water:

Although Congress banned lead water pipes 30 years ago, between 3.3 million and 10 million older ones remain, primed to leach lead into tap water by forces as simple as jostling during repairs or a change in water chemistry.
— New York Times Report

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the cost to upgrade lead-based pipes is approximately $50 billion. This number could balloon to $384 billion by 2030. Fixing this problem is going to take a tremendous amount of hard work, political will, and money. We can face this challenge head-on, but we are going to have to accept some hard realities.

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Places like Flint need to contract. That’s right. Their urban footprint needs to become smaller. When Flint was building most of the city’s current infrastructure, it had a robust local auto industry and a booming population. Over the next 50 years, Flint lost 100,000 residents (about half its peak population).

Flint has fewer than 100,000 residents but is paying to maintain infrastructure designed for over 200,000; much of which is post-WW2 low-density sprawl. This model of housing development, coupled with industrial decline, has made this problem of maintaining necessary water systems exponentially more expensive.

The same can be said about places like Detroit, Youngstown, and countless other small cities and towns across the country.

Now, picture all of the aging lead-based water pipes built prior to 1985 that crisscross the nation. This number includes countless low-density, low-ROI suburban development that now find themselves in decline (see: It’s not an Annexation, it’s a Bailout).

The Flint water crisis came to light at the same time another story here in Minnesota was breaking. The small, exurban town of East Bethel gambled with growth and got burned. It built a $28 million water works system anticipating doubling its population. The results are heart-breaking:

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Both parties agreed the ambitious growth forecasts in 2010 used to justify the project are unrealistic. Initial projections figured by the city and the regional planning agency indicated the population would more than double from 11,600 in 2010 to 23,500 by 2030.

Looks like another Strong Towns case study establishing that an incremental approach should be our way forward. There are two facts you must consider when examining this bad decision:

  1. It was made in 2010 (not 2006). This was a decision made after the housing market and local growth had halted to a stop. It was reckless decision-making in the area that was the local ground-zero for the foreclosure crisis.
  2. Original growth projections were off target by only 102%. That’s right. East Bethel didn’t double in size, it actually lost people.

East Bethel would eventually be bailed out by the regional government, which one Star Tribune commenter shrewdly labeled as schizophrenic: “Quite honestly if the Met Council was a person it would be diagnosed with schizophrenia.  On one hand they were pushing in-fill growth, yet on the other they were building more sewers [in faraway exurban communities].” This isn’t completely true, but it’s not wrong either.

This is how we do business in America. We’ve dedicated our resources to building new things with little regard to fixing it first.

Let’s go back to Flint. It’s a city that is roughly the same age as the Twin Cities. While the cities find themselves in much different economic situations, the lead-based pipes running through the ground are likely very similar.

Imagine if we would have allocated those $28 million to replacing old, potentially hazardous pipes in existing areas instead of literally building water infrastructure that no one will use. This is a misplaced priority with potentially dangerous consequences.

Fix it first, right-size infrastructure, and grow incrementally. These are three key things we need to do moving forward to avoid situations like what we're seeing in Flint.

(Top photo from Wikimedia)

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