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3 Years After Ill-Fated Switch, Flint Mayor Recommends Using Detroit Water

Flint, Mich., Mayor Karen Weaver recommended on Tuesday that the city use Detroit's water supply long-term. Flint was using Detroit water before switching to its own system in 2014 to save money.
Ariel Zambelich
Flint, Mich., Mayor Karen Weaver recommended on Tuesday that the city use Detroit's water supply long-term. Flint was using Detroit water before switching to its own system in 2014 to save money.

After three years of confusion and chaos, Flint, Mich., residents may go back to the water source they used before lead contamination showed up in their drinking water.

In a press conference today, Mayor Karen Weaver recommended the city get its water from Detroit's system long-term. Flint was using Detroit water before switching in April 2014 to water from the Flint River as a cost-saving measure.

Using Flint River water was characterized as a temporary switch until the city's pipeline connecting to the Karegnondi Water Authority was complete. City officials didn't immediately treat the river water to ensure it didn't corrode pipes. Tests in 2015 showed elevated lead levels in the city water supply, and Flint switched back to Detroit water – but many pipes had already been corroded, and leached lead, because of the untreated water.

The recommendation to stick with Detroit water (now known as the Great Lakes Water Authority), which Flint has been using since switching back in October 2015, is a reversal of the mayor's previous plan. In November, Weaver told the Environmental Protection Agency that Flint planned to use KWA water, but the EPA insisted on a number of upgrades before it would permit the city to do that.

As a condition of the $100 million federal grant the city was awarded last month to fund drinking water infrastructure upgrades, The Associated Press reports that Flint was required to reevaluate the decision to use KWA water:

"Nine options were explored, and Weaver said staying with the Great Lakes Water Authority under a new 30-year contract and using the local county as a backup would be the cheapest, costing $269 million over 20 years. Flint estimates it would save $58 million by not upgrading its own troubled water plant, more when it is closed operationally. The savings could be used to instead update other infrastructure in the aging and deteriorating system, including replacing lead service lines."

In a statement, Weaver said the decision was based on a number of factors, including public health and fiscal responsibility. (Weaver was elected mayor in November 2015, after vowing to fix the city's water problems.)

"Continuing with GLWA means Flint would not have to switch water sources again," Weaver said. "This will help protect residents from any issues that could occur and it would eliminate the fears or anxieties people may have about another major change taking place with our water."

There will be a 30-day comment period before the proposal goes to the city council for approval, according to the AP.

As NPR's Merrit Kennedy reported last month, recent tests showed lead levels in the water to be within federal limits, but "residents are still advised to use filters. Many still don't trust water coming from the tap and prefer to drink bottled water."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.

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