Flint Michigan

By U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, photographer not specified or unknown – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library

The crisis in Flint Michigan with their water supply brings back bad memories for me – my family and I lived a similar experience the last year I was in the Navy. We were living on the Yorktown Naval Weapon Station in base housing and our water suddenly became undrinkable – it came out of the tap as a deep brown liquid. Just the thought of drinking it was enough to make people sick – and it was summer when the standard dress uniform was white.

It had started out as a good thing – the base was built in 1917 as part of the buildup for World War I – and that included the water supply. In over 80 years the piping had become corroded – not enough to leak significantly – all water systems leak to some degree – but enough to reduce the pressure of the water coming out of the tap. So the base hired a contractor with an innovative technology – they shot plugs through the piping to clean them out.

The plugs ranged from hard cores with ¼” bristles to soft foam plugs – designed to first scrap the pipes of debris and finally to push everything out the end of the pipe. The company even had videos of what they would do showing a pipe with nothing coming out, then a thick sludge (think chocolate syrup) pouring out and finally the plug itself coming out with clean water following.

It was an innovative way to clear the piping without having to dig it up and replacing it – it would save lots of money and inconvenience.

EXCEPT – cleaning the pipes changed the resistance to water flowing in the pipes – which caused the flow patterns to change. The result was the rust that had been scrapped loose was being diverted into the taps of the housing instead of being flushed out of the system.

Now iron – in the form of rust – is not necessarily dangerous. There’s really no limit but – when your wife is trying to prepare dinner or she is preparing to wash your white uniform and the water is brown – there’s a problem.

The base health officer insisted there was no risk to health. And being military sometimes you’re at a disadvantage, but our next door neighbor, a Marine colonel, had the perfect response. He took a mason jar of the tap water into the health officer who insisted the water was safe. Our neighbor settled the argument with one directive to the health officer, “Fine, you drink it!”

The next day we started receiving 5 gallon bottles of water at each home. Later whole house filters were installed with charcoal filters to remove the rust – but the filters would be clogged within a day from the amount of rust in the water – and I mean a ¼” covering of rust on the filter in a day. Back to the bottled water.

The crisis in Flint Michigan will ultimately be laid at one or two people’s feet but the real problem is that you had a system that was trying to solve problems without considering the broader consequences. It saved money to get water from the river rather than from Detroit – that was the overriding objective. And there was little or no understanding of the effect of the water’s composition on the lead piping. After all, the pipes that been doing their job for decades – as much as a hundred years – and they hadn’t been a problem.

The underlying assumption was that everything had been OK yesterday, so they’ll be OK today.

But they weren’t the same and so you have a crisis.

A physicist by trade, author by choice, a born teacher, a retired veteran, and an adamant problem solver, Frank has helped the White House, federal agencies, military offices, historical museums, manufacturers, and over 250 technology startups get stuff done, communicate effectively, and find practical solutions that work for them. In his spare time, he makes sawdust and watches Godzilla movies.