From Focusing event

Golden Opportunity

What the Cuyahoga River Fire says about the past, and maybe the future

Cleveland, 1969

Fifty years ago this week the Cuyahoga River caught fire in downtown Cleveland.

Observers of U.S. water policy and environmentalism more generally have been celebrating the fire’s golden anniversary all year, because three years after the Cuyahoga River burned, Congress passed the Clean Water Act. The Safe Drinking Water Act followed two years later. The Cuyahoga River Fire is a textbook example of what political scientists call focusing events: high-profile occurrences that suddenly put previously obscure issues onto the public policy agenda.

The 1969 fire is rightly iconic today, but many forget that it was the twelfth time that the river burned. Why did the 1969 fire catch the public imagination? The truth is that nobody knows. But it did, and it changed the way Americans think about water pollution. The fire presaged a series of laws that fundamentally changed the regulation of water pollution in the United States, invested hundreds of billions in infrastructure, catalyzed new technology, and built a generation of professionals dedicated to protection of the nation’s waters.

A new focus

A year ago I called the Flint Water Crisis the Cuyahoga River Fire of our generation. Flint has changed the way that Americans everywhere think about water infrastructure. As with the 1969 Cuyahoga River Fire, Flint wasn’t the first, wasn’t the worst, and wasn’t the biggest drinking water disaster in recent U.S. history, but it’s the one that caught the public imagination.

The Flint story wasn’t just about water chemistry and failing infrastructure—it was also about bureaucratic organizations and partisan politics. And it was about poverty and race: Flint showed America that water infrastructure is an environmental justice issue. That’s expanded the political coalition focused on water infrastructure. There’s a growing consensus that existing infrastructure funding arrangements are failing.

I’ve worked on water system management, regulation, and finance for more than 20 years and have never seen this kind of public attention to the issue. As recently as two years ago I dismissed the idea of a trillion-dollar federal program for water infrastructure as politically unviable. But something has shifted. Last month Congressional leaders and the president began sketching out a $2 trillion infrastructure package—with potentially hundreds of billions for water, sewer, and stormwater systems.

Those talks have broken down, but the fact that they were even happening suggest that we may be an election away from a major federal investment in infrastructure. Whether it’s next year or two years from now, it looks like Washington may soon be raining infrastructure money. That’s music to the ears of lots of activists who cry out that an injection of federal money is needed to fix America’s water systems.

Recovery & reform

Today people paddle their kayaks on the Cleveland riverfront and safely eat the fish they catch there. If the problems weren’t too big then, they surely aren’t too big today.

River paddling in Cleveland has gained popularity with the decline in fires and toxic waste (Jim Ridge, Share the River)

To be honest, I was a little relieved when negotiations between the White House and Congress faltered last month, because the breakdown gives us a chance to pause, take a deep breath, and think systemically. Today, the principal barriers to progress in the water sector are not environmental or technological—they are political, social, and economic. Accordingly, a big federal funding package can and should be used as leverage to reform the institutions that govern water in the United States.

Recently I was asked to speak about water infrastructure at the University of Rhode Island’s Metcalf Institute. With the Cuyahoga River Fire’s golden anniversary on my mind, I proposed five broad reforms to the U.S. water sector that ought to accompany any big federal program. They are:

  1. Consolidation / Regionalization
  2. Regulatory Equality & Transparency
  3. Technological Investment
  4. Human Capital
  5. Water Equity

Later this week I’ll start a series of posts elaborating on these to help get a deeper conversation going. Since this is a blog, I’m going to breeze by a great deal of detail and keep things at a 30,000-foot level. But each proposal is rooted in empirical research, each part is ambitious, but also technically and politically feasible. Over the next 2-3 years we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild and reform water governance. Let’s make the most of it.

Hyperopia at the tap

hyperopia (hīˌpə-rōˈpē-ə). n. A condition in which visual images come to a focus behind the retina of the eye and vision is better for distant than for near objects

Last week I had the pleasure of speaking at the Connecticut AWWA’s annual conference. There I shared a the stage with a team from Providence Water, who told the story of their city’s struggles with lead contamination in drinking water. One of the most surprising things about Providence’s experience is the way that its customers apparently responded to the Flint water crisis.

Lead in Providence

Lead contamination in drinking water is a long-standing problem in Providence. Like many older American cities, Providence has many buildings with lead plumbing. As in Flint, Providence’s water system requires careful corrosion control in its treatment process to limit the release of lead into the drinking water supply. Lead contamination has been detected consistently in Providence’s water system since testing began in 1992—usually hovering just below EPA’s action level of 15 ppb—but it spiked to 30 ppb in 2009 and again in 2013, prompting increased regulatory scrutiny.* According to last week’s presentation, at least one Providence test site yielded lead contamination greater than 200 ppb—far higher than the levels that sparked outrage in Flint. Unlike Flint, where leaders denied and obfuscated lead contamination, Providence has publicly acknowledged and taken steps to address the issue: they’ve changed maintenance protocols and treatment methods, and introduced programs to replace lead service lines in its system.

As part of that effort, in 2014 Providence Water began offering drinking water lead testing for $10 to any customer who wanted it (earlier this year they started offering testing for free). In providing this service the utility also gathers valuable data on its own system. Initial participation in this voluntary testing regime was moderate, with an average of 4.7 customers requesting testing each month over the first two years of the program.

Hydro hyperopia

Then something unexpected happened in 2016: Participation in Providence’s lead testing program skyrocketed—after the Flint Water Crisis grabbed national headlines. Water contamination in Flint made Americans everywhere reconsider what comes out of their own taps. The figure below plots monthly voluntary lead testing in Providence from 2014-2017 (blue line); the utility mails its testing brochure in the May/June billing cycle, and so testing jumps in June and July each year.** The graph also shows monthly average Google News Index for coverage of the lead crisis in Flint (red line). Providence Water’s own lead contamination issues emerged in 2009, but when Flint put drinking water into the national spotlight in 2016, Providence citizens took action locally.

Are the people of Providence responding to events in Flint? It’s impossible to be certain, but the circumstantial evidence is strongly suggestive. A lead crisis 700 miles away apparently caused a 400% increase in lead testing participation by focusing Rhode Islanders’ attention on the contamination that they’d been living with for decades.

Focusing event

The water crisis in Flint is the Cuyahoga River fire of our generation: an event that thrust a widespread but underappreciated problem into the national consciousness. Political scientists call these focusing events: harmful, high-profile occurrences that suddenly put previously obscure issues onto the public policy agenda. One important consequence of the newfound attention to drinking water quality is that citizens everywhere think differently about their own utilities and drinking water. They may not deserve it, but utilities everywhere must now grapple with the Flint Water Crisis’ awful legacy. The effects of the Flint Water Crisis on the people of Providence, Rhode Island show such events afar can transform citizens’ interactions with their own local governments.

*No level of lead is healthy according to the CDC, especially for young children.

**Thanks to Providence Water for providing these data.