Infrastructure is a lot like a good offensive line in professional football; the expectation is that it costs a lot of money and it shouldn’t be noticed. In fact, if the discussion around town is about local infrastructure, it might be a harbinger that things aren’t going well.
If that is the case, imagine the talk happening in Flint, Michigan, where residents are drinking water from their faucets that could be classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as “Toxic Waste.”
Flint’s water system was not always under attack. Since the 1960s, the city received its water from Detroit. Things changed back in 2014, when the two communities couldn’t agree on the costs for water being delivered and in a cost sharing move, Flint was ready to purchase water from a different source. However, that other source wasn’t quite ready for Flint and the city was forced to draw water from its own Flint River.
The Flint River, after years of environmental abuse by long-gone industrial uses has a highly acidic and has a high saline level. All of these chemical elements combined to literally destroy the lead pipes that were delivering water to residents. Even after water stopped being drawn from the Flint River and the city went back to Detroit for water, the damage was already done. The water mains in the city are still leaching lead particles prompting the entire community into a State of Emergency as they are facing one of the nation’s most memorable public health crises.
And the issue in Flint is not the only one that demonstrates the issues of infrastructure behaving badly. Right now in Los Angeles County, California a methane gas well is spewing out of control. Each hour, over 65,000 pounds of methane gas is being poured out into the atmosphere. Many residents in the community have reported nausea, headaches and severe nosebleeds. By late December, more than 2,200 families from the community have been temporarily relocated, with an additional 6,500 families waiting to be relocated. Some have even compared the environmental impact of this gas leak to that of the Deepwater Horizon well that caused damage to the Gulf of Mexico nearly six years ago.
All of these infrastructure failures underpin a huge issue that has been put forward by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Every few years the group studies America’s roads and bridges and puts out their “Infrastructure Report Card”. The last report complied in 2013, shows the sorry state of America’s Infrastructure; the collective score of the nation was a D+.
One of the worst areas our infrastructure is in peril is in levees. According to the engineers, there are over 100,000 miles of levees in the country and there is are no federal standards for levees to meet or federal programming to promote levee safety. Given the increased runoff created by housing development throughout the country, levees are playing a critical role in flood prevention all across the nation. The engineers have pegged the cost to improve the levee system at $100 billion. However, levees did prevent over $140 billion in property damage from floods in 2011.
Another area that needs helps is America’s drinking water supply. The report stated that by 2020, the country will need to expend over $3 trillion. For starters, there are nearly a quarter million water main breaks in the country every year. In addition, many water plants are old and are in need of serious repair or replacement. As water treatment methods and technologies have improved, many facilities have not been able to keep up.
All of this is an important reminder for the residents of any community. Infrastructure is one of the most basic and fundamental responsibilities that a local government has. State and Federal governments, facing their own fiscal shortfalls, have not provided the sources of financing for major infrastructure improvements that have been available in the past. This puts the burden back on small communities to make these large capital expenditures.
When communities make an investment in infrastructure, it operates just like that offensive line. It’s a high cost, but when you don’t notice it, you know it’s doing it’s job.
William (Bill) Lutz is executive director of The New Path Inc. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.