When Flint, Mich., switched its municipal water supply, Mayor Dayne Walling said, “It’s a historic moment for the city of Flint to return to its roots and use our own river as our drinking water supply.”
We know that this switch was a historic moment only for the incredible failings of local, state and federal agencies involved. As someone who lives and works with the Mississippi River, it is disheartening to see the community of Flint unable to rely on its local waterway to provide safe drinking water.
On campus, as a student at the University of Minnesota and in my home, I am able to turn on my tap and drink Mississippi River water with full confidence in its quality and safety. In fact, the city of Minneapolis is so proud of its tap water that last summer the municipal government rolled out a flashy campaign called TapMPLS. The campaign encourages residents to turn to the tap over bottled water. Flash to Flint: In January, Flint residents snapped up 200 cases of bottled water within the first 30 minutes of a giveaway program.
The Flint water crisis is a reminder that what we do not think to protect today might not be able to support us tomorrow.
One of the most unsettling aspects of the Flint water crisis is the separation of people, policy and water resources. How many people in Flint understand the intricacies of their municipal water system? How many of my peers — University of Minnesota students — understand the intricacies of our municipal water system?
If the Mississippi River suffered a major decline in water quality, where would we file our complaints? Who would listen? The blatant disregard of community concerns about the water supports the emerging narrative of the Flint water crisis as an incident of environmental racism.
Minneapolis isn’t Flint. Our river is seated in a completely different social, economic and political landscape than the Flint River is. We have political leaders who propose river-conscious policies, like the comprehensive street-sweep the Public Works Department tackles every fall. We have communities engaged in river cleanups and stormwater mitigation practices.
Yet the Flint River wasn’t always a waste site for industrial pollution. Just because our river is relatively healthy today doesn’t mean it will be indefinitely. While we sympathize with the residents of Flint, we should also reflect on our own water, our own river and our own politics.
Some 18 million people depend on the Mississippi River for drinking water. May the frustrating events in Flint galvanize our own community against practices that harm the river, and may we seek opportunities to understand our relationship with the river.
Maria Lee lives in Minneapolis.