Poor regulation causes scarcity

Hannah writes*

In 2014, Flint was plunged into a water crisis. However, this was not the result of over abstraction or drought. Instead, the city’s water scarcity which continues today was caused by poor regulation. The tragedy in Flint demonstrates the critical role that regulators play in ensuring both the quantity and quality of the water delivered to communities.

Over the last five years, it has become clear that senior officials were aware of the water quality issues in Flint but continued to claim that the water was safe to drink. This inaction had serious consequences including multiple lawsuits and the trial of Michigan’s health director accused of involuntary manslaughter. From the start, much of the blame for the disaster was directed at the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The Flint Water Advisory Task Force Final Report [pdf] from March 2016 said that the MDEQ “failed in its fundamental responsibility to effectively enforce drinking water regulations.”

The failures were not limited to responding to residents’ concerns about the water quality either; the chain of blunders date back to the original switch of city’s water source to the Flint River which triggered the crisis. The report said the shift was rushed, a concern which had been raised at the time by former utility’s administrator for Flint, Michael Glasgow. Furthermore, the report blamed the MDEQ for not treating the river water with corrosion control as is mandated by federal law. A 2017 review [pdf] of the MDEQ by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heavily criticised the state, reporting multiple errors including failing to properly implement key provisions of the Lead and Copper Rule.

While the EPA may be prepared to dish out criticism, they must reflect on their own failures as well. The EPA are supposed to enforce federal safe drinking water laws, but they did not do enough to protect the residents of Flint. When the alarms were first raised, federal officials believed the city was exaggerating in order to get more financial help. Additionally, a report by the Inspector General of the EPA [pdf] found issues in the relationship between the MDEQ and the EPA. For example, a clear oversight role was not implemented, communication between the two organisations was weak and the EPA failed to use all tools at its disposal to ensure the compliance of the MDEQ. Criticism can also be levied at the EPA for the weakness of the thirty-year-old Lead and Copper Rule which has since been revised to strengthen requirements for lead testing.

It is understandable that the trail of lies has resulted in serious damage to the trust of residents in the water and those who are supposed to protect its quality. Some believe trust will never be restored, and it certainly does not help that there are continuing issues with regulatory transparency, communication with the public, and the pace of replacing service lines [pdf].

Bottom Line: The failures of the regulators in Flint demonstrate the critical role that regulators play in ensuring that utilities provide water of sufficient quantity and quality. Both the MDEQ and the EPA failed in their duty to enforce laws on safe drinking water. In theory, a city like Flint should not be short of drinking water since it is located so close to the Great Lakes but the events of the last decade show that poor management can create water scarcity where it never need to be.

* Please help my Water Scarcity students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice 🙂

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

4 thoughts on “Poor regulation causes scarcity”

  1. I’ve been trying pretty hard to convince my colleagues on regulation. Many have the opposing view that regulation is always bad. I’ve always felt at least some form of regulation (need not always be by a government) is required for optimal resource allocation.

    Thanks for this article!

    1. Hi,

      Thank you for your comment. As you say, views on regulation vary because it is a tricky one. In the case of Flint, I think that stricter rules on testing and ‘healthy’ lead levels might have meant that the Flint water crisis could have been avoided.

      Thanks again !

  2. Hi Hannah,

    Thanks for your thoughtful article.

    Let me push you a bit.

    Do you mean “regulation” (as in the title) or “regulator” (last paragraph) as the cause of scarcity?

    In Flint, a few things were at work at the same time. First, and this is where I thought you were going, the Lead and Copper Rule (in effect at the time) was a somewhat novel regulatory scheme. It substituted human capital (expertise and person-hours) for pipe replacement. Rather than force private owners to replace service lines (nearly all of the lead pipes are privately owned, installed and maintained), the rule requires that operators (local gov’t) maintain certain chemical conditions that don’t allow the lead to leach into the water. State and federal agencies, have to keep the expertise (and person-hour capacity) to be sure that the chemical management regime is working. There were failures at all three levels in Flint. My question is this- is the design the bigger problem (design failure), is the system of implementation (rules, reporting, and oversight) the big problem, or is it the failure of individuals?

    The other things operating are the drastic decline in the volume of water moving in Flint’s system-which was designed to serve vast demand from integrated auto manufacturing operations. When that demand left (1980s-1990s), water moved through the system much more slowly that it was supposed to, causing it to leach metals more easily and be prone to biological problems (like legionnaires’ disease). Also, when industry left, so did the tax base, so water bill payments were used to pay for things like police and fire protection.

    Consider how the crisis in Flint might arise from financial distress- particularly as water systems depend more and more on sophisticated expertise. Can you see a set of (connected) positive feedback loops here? How might you design a regulatory scheme that spots problems and has the right “circuit-breakers” to stop them?

    1. Hi David,

      Thank you for your comment and very interesting and helpful questions.

      In response to your first question, I would say that both regulation and the regulator play a role. The Lead and Copper rule, while it existed, had too many loopholes which allowed the MDEQ to hide the reality for too long. Whether this be pre-flushing the water to having slow tap flow to reduce the lead concentration, the LCR left too many opportunities for corners to be cut. The Action Level of 15 ppb is also too high since no level of lead is safe. The regulator, however, also plays a very important role. The MDEQ and the EPA had the information they needed to make informed decisions, but they chose to ignore it. Whether the regulation existed or not, their job is to ensure the delivery of safe water and they failed to do so. The two, regulation and regulator, are intertwined: while the loopholes may exist, I don’t think the body in charge of ensuring safe drinking water should be utilising them to save themselves bad press and hassle. I hope that makes the distinction a little clearer.

      Your second question is a tricky one. Like you say, so many things were at play. As mentioned above, the systems of rules and reporting called for by the written regulation were not strong enough. However, as has come to light through the release of numerous emails from top officials, individuals had been informed of the lead present in the water. They chose not to continue with the ‘Flint water is safe’ storyline. Unfortunately, I’m still considering this one and can’t give you a clear answer. I will keep thinking about it.

      In regard to spotting problems, the obvious answer might be stricter rules and stronger enforcement. However, I also think, particularly in Flint, there is an opportunity for the community to play a really active role. Despite the difficulties that Flint has faced over the years as you mentioned, the community really pulled together during what was an incredibly challenging time. Residents turned into scientists and campaigners and did jobs which officials should have been doing. A good start to identify problems before they spiral out of control could be to talk (and listen to) locals.

      I hope I’ve answered your questions. Thanks again !

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *