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Mulroy: Flint, Mich., a ‘black eye’ for water officials

The “stupid stunt” that led to widespread lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, has dealt a blow to public confidence in water systems everywhere — even in places like Southern Nevada, where lead pipes are not an issue.

So said Pat Mulroy, former chief of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, at a water conference Wednesday at UNLV.

“It has given a black eye (to water management) not just in Michigan, not just in the United States, but around the world,” she said during a panel discussion at the Jewish National Fund’s one-day Las Vegas Water Summit.

Mulroy also spoke out about the crisis in Flint during another water conference Friday hosted by UNLV’s Boyd School of Law and the Desert Research Institute.

So how did she react when she first heard the news about lead-tainted water in the Michigan city?

“I was angry. I was very angry,” she said. “They did it to save money. But was it really worth affecting these children’s lives forever to save a couple of bucks?”

The financially strapped city was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager when it switched from a Detroit-run water system to using Flint River water in April 2014 to save money.

But water officials failed to compensate for the more corrosive river water, causing lead to leach from the aging pipes used throughout the industrial city.

Complaints about the water began within a month of the switch, but officials waited until October 2015 to switch back to Detroit water. By then, tests showed elevated levels of lead, which can cause brain damage and other health problems, in Flint tap water and in the blood of some children.

“The finger-pointing is going to be endless for a while, especially as lawsuits begin to emerge,” Mulroy said. “I think there will be criminal charges.”

There are no lead service lines in the Las Vegas Valley’s comparatively new water system, and there never have been, said Dave Johnson, deputy general manager of engineering and operations for the water authority and the Las Vegas Valley Water District.

He said copper pipes are used widely here, but the valley’s wholesale water supplier and its member utilities follow a strict corrosion-control program to keep that heavy metal out of the water supply.

Anytime changes are made to the treatment regimen or to the chemistry of the valley’s water, the finished product is thoroughly tested in a closed “pipe loop” at the Alfred Merritt Smith Water Treatment Facility near Lake Mead before being distributed to customers, Johnson said.

Choosing his words carefully, he said he was “surprised” by what happened in Flint and how long it took for officials to respond to the situation. “I’m not sure where the breakdown occurred, but at any level it’s difficult to understand,” Johnson said.

“It went on for 18 months. That’s the part that you can’t get over,” said Mulroy, who is now senior fellow at the Boyd School of Law and a faculty member at the Desert Research Institute.

She said ready access to clean water is something most Americans take for granted, but something like this can cast doubt on the whole system.

“Now there is a crack in that trust relationship,” Mulroy said. “And in Flint, it’s gone.”

— Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow him on Twitter: @RefriedBrean

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