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Eighteenth century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge knew nothing about modern-day infrastructure, but he was astoundingly prescient when he wrote “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.”
Coleridge, the author of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” could well have been describing the state of our nation’s water systems in the very near future. In a word, that state is frightening.
In its quadrennial, impartial report card on the state of American infrastructure, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives America a “D+” grade on the state of our nation’s 14,800 wastewater facilities and a “D” on our 155,000 drinking-water systems. According to the ASCE, a “D” grade indicates:
"The infrastructure is in poor to fair condition and mostly below standard, with many elements approaching the end of their service life. A large portion of the system exhibits significant deterioration. Condition and capacity are of serious concern with strong risk of failure.”
No matter the grading curve, a “D” isn’t good, and it’s dangerously close to an “F.” If you want to know what that looks like, look no further than Flint, Michigan. While the water quality there has improved since the worst of its crisis two years ago, much of the city’s water is still undrinkable. Many children in Flint continue to suffer from cognitive and behavioral problems resulting from lead poisoning, and they are likely to experience problems for the rest of their lives.
If we are to believe the ASCE report — and there is no reason not to — we are on the verge of multiple water infrastructure crises of a similar sort. About 75% of Americans, or roughly 240 million people, rely on these facilities to help remove disease-causing toxins from entering lakes, rivers, aquifers and oceans, and to deliver safe, pure water.
Alarm bells already are ringing. Years of underfunded capital projects and deferred operating and maintenance expenses are producing bona fide health emergencies from Niagara Falls, N.Y. — where millions of gallons of raw sewage was accidentally discharged into the Niagara River a few weeks ago — to New Orleans, where roughly 20% of the city’s emergency pumps malfunctioned during heavy rains, flooding New Orleans and ultimately resulting in a state of emergency.
Fixing our nation’s wastewater and drinking water infrastructure would require investments of $271 billion and $1 trillion, respectively, according to the ASCE. Taken together, those numbers — larger than the market caps of Apple and GE combined — are sobering.
The very future of our civilized life depends on making those investments, and the fault for not doing so, to paraphrase another famous English writer, is not in the stars in Washington, but in our own local selves.
According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 95% of all spending on water is done at the local level. That means that each of us who turns on the faucet or flushes the toilet is responsible for making sure that our very own local water infrastructure is kept up to date. So it’s all up to us, not some far off bureaucrat to make sure the work gets done. Fortunately, there are many localities we can look to as models for doing the right thing.
Recently, I had the pleasure of visiting one such city, Racine, Wisconsin, and its wastewater treatment plant on the shore of Lake Michigan. Surprisingly, the site is so picturesque you might very well think you were at some sort of resort if you didn’t happen to see the large equalization basins at the plant’s edge or knew you were at a facility that processes about 36 million gallons of human waste each and every day.
On a non-typical day, such as the very rainy day of July 12th, 2017, the facility processes roughly 106 million gallons of influent wastewater — which is just over 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools full of…stuff you wouldn’t ever dream of swimming in.
In addition to keeping Lake Michigan clean, the Racine facility is environmentally friendly. A series of anaerobic digesters and biogas containment systems provide for more than 50% of the facility’s energy needs, and much of its remaining waste is used locally as fertilizer.
The aeration control buildings that house the facility’s pumps and processing equipment are immaculately maintained and are a testament to the hard work of manager Keith Haas and his team of reliability engineers.
Racine is not alone, but we need more of our cities and towns to become Racine. Yes, modern life would be unthinkable without the internet, smart phones and the technology that makes all that and more possible. But without clean water and systems that help turn dirty water back into clean water, we wouldn’t have life at all.