NOTE: A big thanks to Eclectablog reader Meaghan Allen who sent me the video shown below along with some most-excellent analysis of it.
Despite widespread reporting otherwise, many defenders of the Emergency Manager policy in Michigan and of Gov. Rick Snyder’s role in the poisoning of Flint’s drinking water continue to claim that the Flint City Council voted to move to the Flint River for their water themselves.
They did not.
As it turns out, there is actual video evidence of this because the March 25th, 2013 City Council meeting where the vote happened is on video. The meeting is very long, clocking in at just under three and half hours. And there IS discussion of using the Flint River. But, in the end, the City Council voted to join the Karegnondi Water Authority and to purchase 16 million gallons per day (MGD) from the KWA. Water from the Flint River would be used only to supplement this in the event that 16 MGD were insufficient, something was very unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Here’s the video:
At the beginning of the meeting, there is a great deal of discussion about blending water from the Flint River with water purchased from the KWA. Genesee County Drain Commissioner and KWA CEO Jeff Wright answers questions and, at around the 10:00 minute mark, makes the definitive statement that, if the City of Flint wanted to for any reason, they could blend Flint River water with KWA water and the KWA would have no problems with that. He made it clear during the meeting that use of the Flint River would require additional expensive upgrades to their water treatment plant. This conversation is a result of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had recommended that Flint purchase 18 MGD from the KWA to cover any future needs they may have. A resolution at a previous meeting was put forth to purchase 15 MGD from KWA with the balance to come from the Flint River if needed.
Howard Croft, the Emergency Manager-appointed head of Flint’s water department (who has since resigned), reported previously to the Council that Flint uses 10-11 MGD a day on average in regular months and up to 13-14 MGD gallons a day in peak months. So, based on these usage rates, unless Flint experienced significant growth, they would never need the Flint River and, if they did it would be used as a minor portion of the supply.
Around the 47:00 minute mark, there is a great deal of discussion about why the Emergency Manager, though he had no problem making other large financial decisions on behalf of the City Council and the residents of Flint, had chosen to put this decision off onto the City Council itself. Councilman Sheldon Neeley asks if this is due to the Headlee Amendment which requires state-mandated new expenditures to be paid for, at least in part, by the state government. Since the Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz was a state-appointed overseer – an agent of the state – wouldn’t the decision to join the KWA amount to a new mandated cost that the state would be on the hook for? In fact, according to Neeley, Kurtz himself had told the Council at a previous meeting that if he was the decider on the decision to join the KWA, he would be fired by his boss (Gov. Rick Snyder or State Treasurer Andy Dillon.) The decision, Kurtz insisted, was the City Council’s to make. The city attorney vehemently disagreed with Council member Neeley’s explanation for the Emergency Manager’s action which leaves it unexplained. However, in statement following the vote, KWA CEO Wright indicates that he made the City Council vote (versus the EM’s vote) a requirement for Flint joining the KWA.
At the 2:25:00 mark, the resolution is taken up again. It is modified to purchasing 15 MGD to purchasing 16 MGD from the KWA with 2 MGD to be taken from the Flint River if needed to meet the DEQ’s estimated upper usage level of 18 MGD. In other words, the upper limit would be using 11.1% Flint River water blended with 88.9% KWA water sourced from Lake Huron.
The resolution was Resolution 130165.2 and it passes 7-1 with only the Council president voting against because he wanted to purchase all 18 MGD from the KWA. This was, of course, reported in the media. You can read Resolution 120165.2 yourself HERE.
Strangely, although every resolution signed by the Emergency Manager is listed on the city website, none of the resolutions passed by the City Council are. The resolution from Emergency Manager Ed Kurtz that authorized the move from Detroit-sourced water to the KWA is 2013EM041. Despite his stance that the Flint City Council had to make the decision to join the KWA, Kurtz’s resolution differs from the one passed by the City Council in that it says they will buy all 18 MGD from the KWA, not just 16 MGD.
So, once again and with more proof than should be needed, repeat after me:
THE FLINT CITY COUNCIL DID NOT VOTE TO USE THE FLINT RIVER AS ITS PRIMARY OR SOLE SOURCE OF WATER. EVER.
P.S. One thing that I learned from watching this meeting is that Flint’s water infrastructure is so old and dilapidated that they lose a full 30% of the water in their system to leaks. This is the sort of infrastructure improvement – renewal and reconstruction vs. disinvestment and destruction (in terms of draconian budget cuts) – that I constantly refer to when I talk about the limited and damaging approaches taken by Emergency Managers when they are brought in to “fix” broken cities and school districts. Nowhere in any of this discussion have we heard that infrastructure improvements like this (that are VERY clearly needed) were ever contemplated by the Emergency Manager.
UPDATE: An exhaustive cost comparison used to make the decision on whether to stay with Detroit’s water supply or to join the KWA was distributed to the Flint City Council to help with their decision. It includes a “worst case scenario” in one of the tabs that shows that, even if things didn’t go as planned, Flint would ultimately save money by joining the KWA.
You can read the analysis HERE. As you can see, it does not involve the use of the Flint River as a water source, blended or otherwise, at all. In other words, as former Flint mayor Dayne Walling put it to me in an email, “Everything was DWSD until KWA in 2017. Period.”