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How Michigan’s capital fixed its lead pipe problem

Clean water just 50 miles from Flint

American cities are in the midst of a water crisis. The lead-poisoned city water of Flint, Michigan is enough of a disaster, but its discovery kicked off investigations into public water quality across the country with more alarming results. At least 5,300 cities are in violation of federal lead rules, found CNN, while USA Today uncovered excessive lead levels in almost 2,000 of America’s public water systems. If we want clean drinking water across the country by 2030, the Environmental Protection Agency calculates a cost of $384 billion.

But with such urgency and so many examples of mishandling, where can a city turn for help navigating its troubled waters? The answer may be closer to Flint than you think.

Lansing, Michigan is just 50 miles from Flint, but the city took a preventative approach to ensuring high water quality. A decade ago, the city began to replace its aging system of lead water pipes, embarking on a preemptive overhaul before lead levels endangered its citizens. Lansing’s efficient infrastructure change will wrap next year, at a cost of $42 million.

But how? From the start, the project’s initial research was headed by outside experts without a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They presented a comprehensive, 10-year lead-pipe-replacement plan to Lansing’s Board of Water and Light (BWL) that was accepted. When the Great Recession hit, the BWL raised its rates just enough to continue covering the cost of the overhaul.

When the traditional method for installing new pipes—tearing up streets with trenches—proved too time- and labor-intensive, the city’s workers invented their own innovative technique. Instead of digging along the entire line, they dig for access to key connections and thread in the new pipe with an ingenious tool created for the purpose.

The city has sent over crews to train workers in Flint, and they’ve also shared the new pipe-threading tool created in Lansing’s machine shop. But there are doubtless other lessons to be learned from Lansing’s success in other cities around the country. Thankfully, they’re happy to share.