We Can't Let Flint Contaminate Tap Water's Reputation

The situation in Flint poses the danger of contaminating the image of tap water. And that would be a shame.

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My older brother brings an insulated jug of water along when we go fishing. On it he has written “BWIFI” in bold black marker.

It stands for: Bottled Water Is For Idiots.

What has this to do with the water situation in Flint, Michigan? Actually, something pretty important. One thing that’s happening around the country since the Flint disaster is that people are asking questions about the tap water quality in their own communities.

From news accounts I’ve received, utilities are being questioned about whether their water is safe and, in particular, whether it contains lead. Furthermore, no less a figure than environmental activist Erin Brockovich has been going around raising alarm about tap water safety.

She was in Hoosick Falls, New York, where a chemical linked to cancer has been found in the water near a newly designated Superfund site. A couple of days later, she was all the way across the country in Stockton, California, raising questions about that city’s use of chloramines for disinfection (which of course is a pretty common practice).

What all this means is that the situation in Flint (and a few other places) poses the danger of contaminating the image of tap water in general. And that would be a shame.

It’s not just that mistrust of tap water might drive people to bottled water (about which, by the way, I agree fully with my brother — I find it nonsensical to put water in bottles and ship it hundreds of miles and sell it in stores, at absurd cost per gallon, when perfectly good water comes right out of our taps).

No, the real shame would be the mere fact of the public losing trust in utilities that have spent decades earning it — and deserving it. That would be a fracture of a something nearly sacred. What, after all, is a water utility for if people have to go out and buy bottled water to drink, or install and maintain filtering devices under their sinks?

If people can’t trust the water from their taps — without qualification, without backup measures — why should they trust any local government entity? Or any government entity at all?

Here’s what I fear most from Flint: That people becoming aware of the problem ask their local utilities what’s in their water, find out it contains a part or two per billion of something, be it lead or an organic compound of some kind, and conclude their water is also contaminated.

If measured by a standard of zero parts per billion of anything remotely considered harmful, almost any tap water would be suspect.

So this is the time for water utilities to engage with the public. Document how good the water quality is. Demonstrate investments in sophisticated treatment processes. Introduce the people who take such exceptional and personal interest in delivering a quality product.

Whether that gets done through open houses, plant tours, displays at public events, news releases, YouTube videos, classroom talks, TV news segments, mascots, whatever — it doesn’t matter. It’s simply essential to do it.

The goal must be to get past this crisis so that people come away convinced, not that every utility is a little bit like Flint, but that Flint is a horrific, once-in-a-generation exception to the rule, and that their community’s water is just fine.

Maybe it would be nice if the vast majority of people truly appreciated their tap water and believed, with my brother (and me), that: BWIFI.


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