Conference Offers Light — and Some Heat — on Gamut of Crucial Water Issues

To the general public, water is “an issue that’s obscure under normal circumstances,” Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School Poll and professor of law and public policy, said at the end of the major conference on water issues this week (Sept. 7, 2016) at the Law School.

Franklin was commenting on the relatively mixed level of concern about water issues found in responses to several questions in the Law School Poll’s results from late August. For many people, you turn on the faucet, drinkable water comes out, and you’re likely to pretty much take this for granted.

But then, Franklin said, there are disasters that demand great attention and drive perceptions.

The Law School’s conference, “Public Policy and American Drinking Water,” drew a capacity audience to the Appellate Courtroom of Eckstein Hall. Both among the speakers and members of the audience, the room was filled with experts and leading activists on water issues – as well as interested members of the public, Marquette undergraduate and graduate students, and a dozen high school students.

And as Franklin suggested, the conference offered some controversial content of great public interest – namely, discussion of issues around lead in drinking water in Flint, Mich., Milwaukee, and elsewhere – and quite a bit of lower-key discussion around important water issues that don’t attract so much attention (the state of groundwater supplies, pricing and valuation of water, and the role of private ventures in water delivery systems).

The more fired-up sessions came at the start and in the middle of the six-hour conference, each time with Marc Edwards, a professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech, at the center of debate. Edwards is a controversial critic of federal and state environmental and health officials who, he argues, have resisted steps to reduce lead poisoning of children. He was a leading researcher in work in Washington, D.C., and Flint that led to exposing major health problems and making changes to reduce lead in water.

During the opening panel discussion, Edwards was joined by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett; Cathy Stepp, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and Fred Royal, president of the Milwaukee chapter of the NAACP and a member of the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition.

Some samples of that conversation:

Edwards: Lead in water is “the ultimate environmental injustice we’re facing in poor communities.” He called what happened in Washington and Flint “an environmental crime” committed by government officials.

Royal: “That’s criminal” to allow lead to poison children and not come up with the estimated $500 million to $700 million it would take to replace lead pipe laterals that connect about 70,000 Milwaukee homes to water mains.

Stepp: Ninety-seven percent of Wisconsin homes do not have problems with lead in their water. “We’ve got to get that to 100 percent. . . . If it costs a lot of money to do that, then it costs a lot of money to do that.”

Barrett: “It would be mayoral malpractice” for him not to fight to get a bigger share of $14 million in federal funds provided to Wisconsin to replace lead laterals. Milwaukee, which has an estimated half of the homes in the state served by lead laterals, was allotted less than seven percent of the money.

Barrett urged people living in homes built in 1951 or earlier to put filters on their kitchen faucets that are effective in reducing lead content. That call attracted extensive news coverage. Barrett also reminded the audience of several key differences between Milwaukee and Flint, such as the use of corrosion control here to prevent lead from flaking off the inside of pipes (the absence of which Edwards identified as one of the major failures of Flint leaders).  Barrett also said the city was taking further steps to use the resources it has effectively – including halting work on replacing some lead pipes when it was found that the work itself was causing disturbances in the system that increased the dangers of lead. And, he said, the city is aggressively looking for more money to reduce lead problems.

In his lunchtime remarks, Edwards did not mince words. He said government efforts to respond to lead in water supplies could be characterized by the words “death, deceit, and denial.” The environmental police were environmental criminals and allowed tragedies to occur, he said, particularly in Washington, D.C., where, about a decade ago, whistle blowers were central to ending years of neglect about lead problems. Edwards said some of the whistle blowers lost their jobs while the officials who were responsible went unpunished.

He said some officials of the federal Environmental Protection Agency were “willing to be willfully blind” to what was happening in Flint until courageous residents, with the help of researchers such as Edwards, forced them to act.

However, Edwards spoke positively of how Barrett and others in city government are handling lead issues currently.

Edwards said, “You will never hear again, I think it’s safe to say, another professor calling them (federal environmental officials) out as I did today, with good reason, because you’re committing professional suicide by doing so. But I’m sorry, I cannot live in a world where science and engineering, especially government science and engineering, is used to harm innocent children. And I will not stand by as that is allowed to occur.”

Michael R. Lovell, president of Marquette University, opened the conference by expressing enthusiasm not only for the conference but for Marquette’s growing role in water research and economic development in Milwaukee. “We’re excited to be part of this effort the city is undertaking,” Lovell said.

During a panel discussion on water pricing and valuation, Brett Walton, an environmental journalist with Circle of Blue, an organization of scientists and journalists, described five challenges facing water utilities in the United States:

Per capita consumption of water is going down and in some areas total water consumption is declining, which makes it more challenging to maintain water systems, even as it has benefits; the old business model for water systems of selling water to get money is stressed by that decline in consumption; many water systems are using infrastructure that is old and increasingly prone to problems; changes in climate, including rising water levels, are starting to affect the functioning of some water systems; and social equity issues, including environmental issues such as lead, are arising as low-income communities have water problems while high-income communities don’t.

All of those were brought up during the conference, with experts from Milwaukee (including several Marquette University faculty members from a variety of disciplines including education, economics, engineering, and communications) joined by experts from across the country.

The full conference may be viewed by clicking here.

News coverage of the conference included this piece from the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and this front-page piece from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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