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Jeremy Orr is an Associate Professor of Law at Michigan State University College of Law with expertise in water sustainability and access and affordability issues. Orr explains how events like climate change and the aftermath of the Flint water crisis have prompted governments and communities to invest in efforts to conserve water resources and make them accessible to all.
Why is water sustainability a growing concern?
We have seen this problem of an imminent water crisis for some time. Climate change exacerbates the problem. In the West, water is drying up and becoming contaminated, and we face access and affordability issues in other regions where water costs have tripled in the last 10 years. Not only have we seen problems with lead contamination, but we are now looking at things like PFAS contamination.
Why is it such a challenge to get clean and affordable water?
Part of what has made it difficult to fix water infrastructure problems and get pipes out of the ground is the fact that Michigan has had restrictions on how taxpayer money can be spent fixing those problems in places like Flint. We’ve seen the lack of ability to replace things like lead infrastructure in a timely manner.
What solutions are implemented to fix this issue?
Michigan state and local governments are beginning to implement affordability programs and tariff structures that ensure communities have continued access to water at lower tariffs.
If affordable water means the government has to continue to create some sort of subsidy program or we create a range of different tariffs for lower income residents to ensure they have access to water, then that has to happen. We’ve seen these ideas not only circulated, but implemented in communities across the country to ensure residents have access.
How has the Flint water crisis impacted awareness of the importance of clean water?
The impact of the Flint water crisis on this city and its residents is immeasurable. You have a city that is predominantly a black and low-income community that is experiencing a level of environmental degradation not seen in this country in a very long time. We’re talking about an entire city being poisoned by water due to the negligence of its government.
What changes have been made since the Flint water crisis?
The legal ramifications of the Flint water crisis were far-reaching. We’ve seen laws change by state and federal governments regarding the regulation of lead and other contaminants in drinking water. We’ve since seen an abundance of resources, financial support and investment, and changes to drinking water infrastructure, not just in Flint but across the country.
It was truly a situation that brought water to the forefront and not only prioritized the health and wellbeing of people and the environment, but also changed the way we look at laws and policies that protect the health and wellbeing of people to protect people and the environment.