Flint, MI presents a very compelling story. A city full of poor, disadvantaged people from which the affluent have fled. An economy in systematic decline where jobs have been shipped out and factories boarded up. Neighborhoods without basic investment to keep things livable. And, the acute, high profile tragedy of a water system delivering lead poisoning to its children. How can we not act?

The last time I wrote about Flint I was scolded by many that Americans have a moral obligation to cities like Flint. We owe it to them to provide a base level of decency on par with the rest of America. Anything less is unacceptable.

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I’m sympathetic to that reasoning, but I see the American standard of living — particularly as we currently measure it — as more of a moving target. Last week I described the predicament in Lafayette, Louisiana, where the typical family would need to spend 20% of their pre-tax income maintaining local infrastructure just to keep what has already been built from falling apart. That won’t happen, and so the future of Lafayette — and most American cities — is likely to look a lot like the present day Flint.

So if we’re going to help Flint — and I’m on board with doing so — I think we also need to consider that whatever we do in Flint must be scaleable across the continent. Replacing a system of failing, insolvent infrastructure with an identical (but newer) system of failing, insolvent infrastructure not only doesn’t solve the underlying math equation, it doesn’t scale to the size of our actual national problem. We need to think differently.

I’ve seen two cost estimates for dealing with Flint’s water system. The first: $60 million to replace lead service lines. The service line is the small pipe that runs between the city’s water pipe and the house. Given the age of Flint’s system, it is possible that some of these are completely lead. This would make a significant impact, but it wouldn’t address the lead in the pipes within the house or in the city’s system.

The second estimate is quite different: $1.5 billion for “fixing” the city’s water infrastructure. Given the size of Flint, that number likely includes replacement of much of the distribution system — which certainly has lead problems — as well as repairs/replacements to treatment and storage systems. I find this number to be wholly plausible.

Which is a huge problem. A repair cost of $1.5 billion is $14,000 per Flint resident. Given that a median house in Flint is worth just $29,000, a new water system in the city is going to be worth more than the houses being served by it. And that’s just the water. You have roads, streets, sidewalks, curbs, drainage, sewer as well as gas and electric infrastructure that’s all reaching the end of its useful life. A median household income of $23,000 suggests that a conventional approach is not viable.

And to be clear, it’s not viable in the same way that giving the typical suburban commuter a free Hummer would not be viable. It’s overkill for the job and not a very efficient use of scarce resources. Now imagine the commuter was required to service and maintain the Hummer forever and then be responsible for replacing it with an exact duplicate model when it stopped running (or lose their job). It might feel like a nice gesture initially, but the mismatch along the way creates more harm than good.

Even if we just look at Flint in isolation and don’t consider the plight of the rest of America, there is a fine line between doing what is right in society’s eyes and imposing society’s value system on people who may have different priorities.

So how do we actually think differently?

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It’s important to understand that the primary function of the water system in your city is not — as is widely believed — to provide you safe drinking water. If that were the case, the system would be designed much differently with a much smaller price tag. No, the system of pipes that make up your water system is there to fight fires.

Let’s say you live on a 50-foot lot and there is a small, eight-inch water pipe running in front of your house. There are 130 gallons of water sitting in that pipe right now. If the water was just for drinking, that’s enough for 260 people (half a gallon each). If we counted water for sanitation, it’s still enough for 26 people. And that’s just in the pipe. There are many multiples of that stored for you in other parts of the system. If the problem is getting people water for drinking and bathing, our current approach is massive overkill.

In rural areas with bad water — agricultural areas with contaminated aquifers, for example — and small towns without enough money to build fire fighting systems, we will sometimes build what I’ve seen called “rural water systems”. These are small pipes under low pressure that provide basic water needs at really affordable prices. You can’t fight a fire with it, but it is healthy and safe to drink.

Flint already has a water system for fighting fires. It doesn’t really matter if there is lead coming out of the hydrant; nobody is drinking from the fire hose anyway. What if all we need to do in these mature systems is to start thinking separately about how we fight fires and how we deliver safe drinking water?

Large parts of Flint, and many other cities as they deal with this same problem, could be served with really high quality water for drinking and sanitation at a fraction of the cost while preserving the existing, lead-infested system for fire fighting purposes only.

Two systems. Two purposes.

There are tradeoffs. The new system would be neighborhood-based. That means it would not only be smaller but it would surely require more day-to-day maintenance. Would Flint residents rather pay a conscientious neighbor to maintain their far-less-expensive-to-build water system in good condition than pay for a Wall Street bank to finance the construction of a more expensive, lower maintenance, system? That’s not something project engineers and grant agencies typically consider, but I suspect Flint residents would.

A drinking water system would require a different type of contractor to build than those currently specializing in urban water systems. A small pipe system would save a lot of money by not requiring a wide trench and all the restoration work that comes from such disruption. A lot of this is work local plumbers can do. The big lobbying firms in Washington DC working with the American Society of Civil Engineers and others to have a federal infrastructure surge (the big pot of money) might struggle to compete for this kind of work, but I’ve heard there are people in Flint who are less than fully employed and might be a perfect fit for the trade of plumbing.

The values of post-war American development are embedded in our current approach — efficiency over resiliency, large up front expense over ongoing maintenance expense, comprehensive over incremental, one-size-fits-all over tactical — and they keep us from seeing the opportunities that sit right in front of us. Opportunities that reflect present day values.

The great Chicago fire destroyed a city. We developed fire fighting systems to prevent that from happening again and they served us well. Today’s cities are different. They are spaced differently, use different materials, have a different approach to fire suppression and are able to rapidly deploy modern equipment instead of bucket brigades and horse-drawn carriages. Chicago will never comprehensively burn again, and it’s not because of the 1920’s technology we have buried in the ground.

Social justice concerns are an acceptable motive for collective action, but they don’t free us from the requirement that our infrastructure investments make financial sense. If we want to help our poor and struggling cities, we have to allow them to adapt. At scale. A big pot of federal money in an infrastructure surge will only keep us locked in a failing approach.

Top image from Wikimedia.