First it was excessive TTHM’s. Then it was excessive lead. Possibly even a cause of Legionnaire’s Disease although a conclusive link has yet to be made. It’s been a rough 21 months for the Flint, Michigan water supply. Now Flint has returned to purchasing water from Detroit until the new Karegnondi pipeline supplying Lake Huron water directly to Flint is ready later this summer. It would appear Flint has turned the corner on its water quality issues and can now focus solely on dealing with the fallout. Or has it? Could there be another consequence yet to come?
Possibly, but it won’t be the citizens of Flint that are directly affected. It will be the people who live in the Saginaw Bay basin of Lake Huron. Why? Because that’s where the Flint River discharges, into the Saginaw Bay. Let me explain.
First of all, this is just theory and there is no accurate way to predict a certain outcome in this scenario as there are too many other unknown variables. Let’s start with what we do know. Flint is now using Detroit water which contains orthophosphate in the form of phosphoric acid as a corrosion control agent. This chart from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department shows that .33 mg/L of phosphorus were measured in the tap water at the Lake Huron Plant which is now supplying Flint with its water. The DEQ sent the DWSD a letter dated March 3, 2000 specifying that Detroit maintain a phosphate dosage of .9 mg/L at each of the plant taps with a .8 mg/L residual. The .33 mg/L measured is far too low but may be boosted elsewhere in the distribution system. That information was not available. In addition, Flint is adding an additional 2.5 milligrams per liter of phosphate at its Water Treatment Plant. The excess phosphate is thought to be necessary to build up the scale on the pipe walls faster to lock the lead back in place.
The unknown question is how much of this supercharged dose of phosphate will work its way through the entire distribution system, the homes and businesses, the sewer system and then finally the wastewater treatment plant to be discharged into the Flint River and finally into Saginaw Bay. Once there, it is the primary driver of algal blooms, which are toxic. Lake Erie makes the national news virtually every summer with their algal blooms which trigger boil water advisories and potentially even the inability to use the public water supply. Also keep in mind that many avenues exist in which this water will never make it to the wastewater plant to be treated before returning to the Flint River. Leaks in the distribution system, lawn watering, industrial discharges, hydrant flushing to an extent, fire fighting, etc. Anytime water doesn’t go down the sewer it is absorbed into the ground in which the drain for that is the entire Flint River drainage basin leading to Saginaw Bay.
Lest you think this is all about nothing, Saginaw Bay already regularly exceeds its target of 440 metric tonnes of phosphate per year. This report illustrates how the target of 15 micrograms per liter (micrograms are a thousand times smaller than the milligrams of phosphate being fed by the Detroit and Flint water treatment plants) is regularly overshot. It also shows how municipal discharges (wastewater treatment plant) are a primary source of phosphate loading in the Saginaw Bay.
In fact, of all the rivers and tributaries that drain into the Saginaw Bay, it is the Flint River that feeds the greatest percentage of phosphorous at 21.1% (see Table 6). Furthermore, the phosphorus load contributed by the Flint River wastewater treatment plant is over 42,000 Kg/per year, nearly double that of the Saginaw River (see Table 8).
As you can see, the phosphorous loading of the Saginaw Bay already exceeds target levels set to eliminate algal blooms. The Flint River is the worst offender and the Flint wastewater treatment plant is the major source of phosphorous loading in the bay. Now that phosphates at an artificially high rate are being used to combat the lead corrosion issue in Flint, it’s a reasonable assumption to conclude that even higher levels are headed to Saginaw Bay. If Michigan should experience a hot summer this year, the algal bloom problem could really rear its ugly head.
Problems abound with algal blooms. This NOAA report studies the stress factors on the bay. The bay is very shallow, less than 5 feet deep in most places, and very susceptible to algal blooms. It serves a half million people and waterborne disease is a serious issue.
A priority concern in the Saginaw Bay watershed is the run-off of phosphorus-applied to farmland in fertilizers to maximize crop growth-draining from the land into the bay. As phosphorus stimulates plant growth for crops, this nutrient also stimulates algal growth in the bay. While some phosphorus is needed in the water for the growth of aquatic plants, too much of this nutrient can stimulate the growth of nuisance and toxic algae, namely cyanobacteria. Historically, in response to this water quality problem plaguing Saginaw Bay and other areas of the Great Lakes, the GLWQA established an aggressive phosphorus reduction program in 1978. The GLWQA provides guidance on strategies to reduce the amount of phosphorus used on farmland and the discharge of phosphorus from municipalities and industrial sources. Under the 1978 GLWQA, phosphorus levels in detergents were also reduced.
As a result of less phosphorus draining into the bay, the frequency and occurrence of harmful algal blooms (caused by cyanobacteria) appeared to decrease in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This improvement, however, was short-lived, and within a decade’s time, large blooms of cyanobacteria were found, including toxic colonial cyanobacteria, and benthic filamentous algae, such as Cladophora. In addition, human health risks emerged with the production of toxins by some strains of the cyanobacteria, such as Microsystis, that can affect the liver and skin.
With the sorry track record the Flint water supply already has, it would be piling on to add on another toxic outcome to the list, but don’t say you weren’t warned.
UPDATED*** Since going to press, a study just released in the UK has shown a definitive link between algae toxins, specifically BMAA, and brain disease including Alzheimers-http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3413873/Alzheimer-s-cause-discovered-Poisonous-algae-freshwater-lakes-reservoirs-UK-fuelling-dementia-epidemic-afflicting-1m-people.html. Excessive algae growth, particularly in a shallow bay with heavy recreational use, is a serious issue.
Some good news. Spellchek has been pointing out that the Flint water problems go all the way to the top. It is a government created problem with a government solution being touted as the only fix possible. Standard establishment, big government 101. It is in fact the Safe Drinking Water Act that is the driver of Flint water problems. State and local governments, municipalities and other water utilities are all trying to adhere to a set of minimum standards that are weak. The cherry on top is the EPA actively involved in rigging the system to get cities across the nation to not violate the law. Media outlets around the world are getting in on the real backstory. It goes way beyond Flint. Take this story from the Guardian for example.
Exclusive: Documents seen by the Guardian reveal questionable practices that mean people’s drinking water is at risk in ‘every major city east of the Mississippi’
Water authorities across the US are systematically distorting water tests to downplay the amount of lead in samples, risking a dangerous spread of the toxic water crisis that has gripped Flint, documents seen by the Guardian show.
The controversial approach to water testing is so widespread that it occurs in “every major US city east of the Mississippi” according to an anonymous source with extensive knowledge of the lead and copper regulations. “By word of mouth, this has become the thing to do in the water industry. The logical conclusion is that millions of people’s drinking water is potentially unsafe,” he said.
Why would the EPA proactively ensure that cities meet legal standards by using unethical practices? Why, the almighty buck of course. Toxins in our nations water supply are a monumental problem. Extremely vast and extremely expensive to repair. More costly than state and local budgets can possibly absorb. When taken in context with the plethora of other infrastructure problems confronting the nation, we can see that there isn’t a budget large enough to ever solve them all. Besides, big government looks at the macro picture. It isn’t just the construction industry involved. Other stakeholders are healthcare, pharmaceuticals, legal, etc., etc. that make money on the back end dealing with the fallout from government created pandemics.
If the public ever really wants to stop being played for fools and avoid repeats of Flint, they will have to start with the painfully obvious. Government is the problem. Yet another election cycle with standard left/right squabbling will solve nothing. We are light years away from a solution as a country since most have yet to even see the problem, let alone devise a solution.