The science behind the Flint water crisis: corrosion of pipes, erosion of trust

Terese Olson, University of Michigan

Flint’s recent water crisis is a stinging reminder that the infrastructure we often take for granted has many vulnerabilities.

The crisis also underscores the complexity of providing communities with safe, high-quality potable water.

Water utilities interested in using a new river water source, as the city of Flint was last year, would normally hire engineering firms to conduct detailed studies of the raw water quality and pilot studies to evaluate various water treatment process options before choosing a treatment approach.

As a researcher on water disinfection and professor of civil and environmental engineering, I know that a planning period of at least two to three years to get to a ribbon-cutting for such a facility is normal. The design of these systems is iterative by its nature and requires input from multiple stakeholders at various points in the design process.

Why is the design of a new surface water treatment facility so complex?