Cover: Ten Years Later

Ten Years Later

How Water Crises in Flint and Detroit Transformed the Politics of U.S. Water Policy

Published in: The Forum (2024). DOI: 10.1515/for-2024-2013

Posted on rand.org Jul 3, 2024

by Olivia David, Sara Hughes

The year 2014 is a notorious landmark for U.S. water policy. During that year, water crises in two Michigan cities – contamination in Flint and water service shutoffs in Detroit – brought renewed attention to the inadequacies of U.S. drinking water policy for ensuring access to safe and affordable water. The crises exposed the cities' shared economic challenges rooted in histories of disinvestment and racial inequality. The events drew national and international responses, in part from the hard work and political successes of local resident-activists, ultimately leading to state and federal level policy change. Ten years later, we see three ways the water crises in Flint and Detroit transformed the politics of U.S. water policy: greater visibility of water politics and infrastructures, greater focus on water access and affordability in addition to historic focus on quality, and greater attention to the racial dimensions of water policy decisions. These shifts are evident in federal and state policy and administrative agendas, political coalitions' priorities and strategies, and narratives of water policy in media coverage and public discourse. Despite historic progress and investment, the U.S. still lacks the necessary structures for comprehensive policy reform to ensure equitable access to safe drinking water, and public trust in water utilities is at an all-time low. Continuing to advance on water justice requires taking full advantage of the new landscape of water politics, including by engaging in scholarship and praxis that take intersectional approaches, and implementing policies that promote systemic reform rather than individual crisis response.

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