The University of Michigan Biological Station takes pride in its three-prong service mission: to its students, to global science, and to the Great Lakes Region and local communities. This work, particularly the latter, requires engagement with Michigan’s most pressing environmental challenges and with the populations most affected.
Since 2014, no Michigan environmental issue has been more urgent than the ongoing Flint water crisis. Dangerous levels of lead in municipal drinking water have created an immense need for reliable water quality testing and practical intervention.
These needs have not escaped the attention of UMBS Analytical Chemist, Tim Veverica. A phone call with Ann Baughman, U-M alumna and Associate Director of Freshwater Future, provided the call to action Veverica was looking for.
“Years ago, Ann had samples analyzed at UMBS. Amidst the current crisis, she reached out again to see if we could help,” says Veverica. “She told me about the plans for a new youth water testing program in partnership with the Flint Development Center, the Genesee County Hispanic Latino Collaborative, Flint Neighborhoods United, and Freshwater Future. I was totally sold.”
Per Baughman’s vision, young people in Flint (ages 16-18) are recruited and trained on proper water sampling technique, quality control, and data stewardship. The samples are then sent to Veverica’s lab at UMBS for testing, and results are returned and distributed to homeowners. The long term goal is to develop a full-time community lab run by and for Flint residents. The lab will provide locals with a trusted source of water testing, practical skill development, and a comprehensive introduction to careers in science and environmental justice.
“The need for these services goes beyond quality testing,” says Veverica. “We’re addressing an acute need, but also creating a community resource that will be a cornerstone for years to come. We hope it becomes a catalyst to improve the overall quality of life in Flint.”
The first summer of the pilot program saw over 15 young people learn about water quality and testing, collect 200 samples from local homes and community centers, develop communication skills and critical cultural awareness, and educate neighbors on proper filter use. At a community reception, local families and the young people at the heart of the project had a chance to meet face to face to discuss the results.
“People were overjoyed to be able to connect with the youth working to ensure the quality of their water. Over 90% of samples indicated acceptable levels of lead. The impact of this peace of mind is impossible to measure,” says Veverica.
Veverica and partners hope that the Flint Development Center, a former elementary school renovated into a sprawling community center, will be the future home for the lab. The Center is already an active neighborhood hub, offering after school programs, sports clinics, community meals, a library, and a food pantry. An accessible lab is a natural extension.
“In order for this program to work, it has to engage members of the community at an almost cellular level. Residents need to feel comfortable interacting with the lab, not only requesting analyses, but also asking questions and making their voices heard. The lab’s staff will be a part of the community—a friendly and familiar face—and residents will be able to watch as their samples are turned into data. We’ll interface with everyone from homeowners to high schools to local businesses and industry. The lab will be a conduit for the public to engage with U-M and the corporate and nonprofit partners who are helping to make this space a reality.”
Until that vision is realized, Veverica is happy to provide the engine for the analyses.
“The pilot was a huge success. Phase two is about building the capacity in the community of Flint to do this work. It’s about holistically addressing this problem, identifying hot spots and empowering people to make decisions based on their own data. We hope that this serves as a model for other communities tackling their own water quality issues.”