"Ask the Expert" articles provide information and insights from MSU scientists, researchers and scholars about national and global issues, complex research and general-interest subjects based on their areas of academic expertise and study. They may feature historical information, background, research findings, or offer tips.
Jeremy Orr is an adjunct professor of law in the Michigan State University College of Law with expertise in water sustainability and issues of access and affordability. Orr explains how events like climate change and the aftermath of the Flint water crisis have spurred government and communities to invest in efforts to sustain water resources and make them accessible to everyone.
Why is water sustainability a growing concern?
We’ve seen this issue of an oncoming water crisis for a while now. Climate change is exacerbating the issue. Out west, water is drying up and being contaminated, and we have issues of access and affordability in other regions where the cost of water has tripled in the past 10 years. We have seen issues of not only lead contamination, but now we’re also looking at things like PFAS contamination.
Why is it such a challenge to sustain clean, affordable water?
Part of what has made it difficult to fix issues of water infrastructure and get pipes out of the ground is the fact that Michigan has had restrictions on how tax dollars can be spent to fix these issues in places like Flint. We’ve seen the lack of ability to replace things like lead infrastructure in a timely manner.
What solutions are being implemented to resolve this issue?
State and local governments in Michigan are beginning to implement affordability programs and rate structures that make sure communities have continual access to water at lower rates.
If affordable water means that government must continue to create some sort of subsidy programs or we create a tier of different rates for lower-income residents to make sure that they have access to water, that needs to happen. We’ve been seeing those ideas not only kicked around but also being implemented in communities around the country to make sure that residents do have access.
What impact has the Flint water crisis made on awareness of the importance of clean water?
The impact of the Flint water crisis on that city and the residents there is immeasurable. You have a city that’s predominantly a community of color and low-income affected by a level of environmental degradation in ways that this country has not seen in a very long time. We’re talking about an entire city being poisoned by the 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 have been far-reaching. We’ve seen laws change in terms of how the state and federal governments regulate lead and other contaminants in drinking water. We’ve seen a plethora of resources, financial support and investment, and changes to drinking water infrastructure since then, not just in Flint but also around the country.
It’s really been a situation that brought water to the forefront and prioritized not just the health and well-being of people and the environment but also has shifted the way we look at laws and policies that are meant to protect the health and well-being of people and the environment.