By Shea Howell
January 30, 2016
The dimensions of the failure by Governor Snyder to respond to the water crisis in Flint are still emerging. Over the last week important questions have been raised about the Governor’s truthfulness and motivation. The claim that saving money was behind the decision to leave the Detroit Water System is clearly false.
Before the switch to the Flint River, the Detroit Water Department offered to cut rates to Flint nearly in half. This cut would have saved Flint millions of dollars. A short email published last week by Motor City Muckraker makes the case. The email, sent by then Detroit Water and Sewerage Director Sue McCormick concluded, “When compared over the 30 year horizon the DWSD proposal saves $800 million dollars or said differently—saves 20% over the KWA proposal.” This proposal was offered by Detroit to Flint on six separate occasions.
Major questions were raised in early 2013 about the wisdom of using the KWA as a primary supplier to the city. An independent study deemed the KWA more expensive and less safe for the citizens. The State Treasury Department was alerted to the possibility that the new KWA project was becoming much more expensive than originally predicted. A study by an engineering firm hired by Treasury warned of financial and operational risks, including cost over runs that were already nearly 25% above original projections.
Further they concluded that continuing with Detroit would be cheaper over the long run. Based on a careful analysis this independent report explained that “the two DWSD options…are the least cost options for Flint. These allow Flint to maximize the use of existing assets.” The report also discussed improvements for water delivery to Flint that could be shared by all DWSD customers noting, “The capital cost…would be shared by all DWSD customers and not just by Flint. Preliminary analysis of this option appears to be the most cost-effective of all the options discussed.” The engineers also raised concerns about the redundancy and reliability of the KWA plans and stated, “The KWA supply system offers less redundancy to Flint than the current DWSD system.” An that “this would be a major risk.”
So the newly created KWA was not cheaper. It was not judged to be safer. It would increase the costs of capital improvements to Flint residents on the system.
Why then was this alternative water system created? Why was it pursued vigorously? What relationship did this decision have to the Detroit Bankruptcy and efforts to gain control of the Detroit Water System? Who is benefiting from KWA? What rationale is there to spend more? Why was a less safe option selected? Why was the Treasury Department study ignored? These questions cannot be ducked by a lame apology.
Behind the greed and incompetence of the Snyder administration is a deep suspicion of the people and our capacity to make judgments. It has been reflected in all of his efforts to undercut democracy, to appoint commissions as a way to avoid public debate, and to develop technocratic responses to complex issues.
This thinking has not only created a disaster for the people of Flint, it is shaping the emergence of the new suburban controlled Great Lakes Water Authority. The Authority was supposed to make its plans for the region clear by the end of January. It has missed that deadline, but soon we will see yet another Snyder directed effort to control the waters of our state. We will all need to look carefully at this.
Snyder has created two major water authorities under the guise of Financial Emergencies. These emergencies have set aside all citizens safeguards for transparent decision making and robust debate. We have seen the result in Flint of this kind of process. Now we are awaiting them in Detroit.