Lead Poisoning In Michigan Highlights Aging Water Systems Nationwide The U.S. is losing 15 percent of its drinking water to leaks in its deteriorating water systems, some of which rely on 100-year-old pipes, says Robert Puentes of the Brookings Institution.

Lead Poisoning In Michigan Highlights Aging Water Systems Nationwide

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Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan apologized this week for how the water crisis in Flint has been handled. Flint residents were exposed to highly contaminated water for months, after the city switched water suppliers. They've since switched back to the Detroit water system. Governor Snyder also said the state has to learn from Flint, as many cities in Michigan have an aging infrastructure.

We're joined now by Robert Puentes. He's director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. Mr. Puentes, thanks so much for being with us.

ROBERT PUENTES: Well, thank you very much for having me.

SIMON: How does something like this happen?

PUENTES: Well, I think the water infrastructure we have in this country is seriously neglected. I mean, all infrastructure acts as a foundation for economic prosperity, but water is especially important. It does live in this different world where it's so intrinsic and folks expect that we're going to have clean, fresh water any time you turn on the tap. But given the fact that it's buried, it's literally underground, it's easy to ignore. And while we have large infrastructure problems in this country, the water infrastructure problems loom particularly large.

SIMON: So we don't see them, perhaps even can't taste them. It's not until they - well, that just makes it easier for problems to hide in a sense.

PUENTES: Exactly. And some of these systems are, you know, were built 100 years ago. Some of the pipes are made out of wood. Some of them were built in the time when metropolitan areas were expanding and decentralizing. And just - we just need to reinvest in these existing systems. But because we don't do a good job in this country investing in the infrastructure that's already built - we do a good job building new stuff - we don't do a good job taking care of what's on the ground. Things like water infrastructure are seriously neglected.

SIMON: I don't think any city likes to hear - but you have to spend more money.

PUENTES: Yeah, and but particularly when it comes to how we pay for water infrastructure in this country and the user fees that are associated with it and, you know, how that comes down to residences and businesses in these areas. So - but we have to pay for it. We have to figure out different ways that we can raise the revenue to invest in the system and do it in a way that doesn't impact the most vulnerable households. You know, we know that things like in Los Angeles, that the rich households get a lot of attention for the water that they're wasting during the drought out there. But in places like Milwaukee, there have been studies that show that, because low income households can't invest in kind of new efficiency systems in upgrading their own household water systems, they wind up paying more because they're wasting more water just because the systems are older. So we've got to make sure that while we're raising this revenue, it doesn't impact low-income households disproportionately hard.

SIMON: And when Governor Snyder suggested that other cities in Michigan might be vulnerable, that makes sense to you?

PUENTES: It does. I mean, Warren, Mich., just recently as 2008, had to declare basically a state of emergency, to bring in consultants to really - to expedite the repairs on the water infrastructure there because it was - they were just having too many water main breaks. So this is not a unique problem to Flint. Flint has its own unique challenges for lots of different reasons, but this is something that, particularly in the Northeast and the Midwest, we've got to give more attention to.

SIMON: Robert Puentes is director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution. Thanks so much for being with us, sir.

PUENTES: Thank you very much for taking the time.

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