June 2018 Vol. 73 No. 6

Editor's Log

Pretty Means Nothing When Infrastructure is Crumbling Underneath

Robert Carpenter Underground Constructionby Robert Carpenter, Editor-in-Chief

Brown or blackish water comes out of the sink, toilets back up, the television is nothing but snow, internet is down or there’s no signal for cell phones (millennials shudder at the thought). This dark vision is actually happening in one U.S. city and unfortunately, conditions are ripe for this sad story to be repeated around the country if our underground infrastructure continues on its current course.

What set off this rant is when I recently learned of a moderately sized city pulling the old switcheroo with municipal funds. Since they are still having legal issues, I’ll assign a pseudonym – how about Whiner City? City fathers for several years have been beautifying neighborhood parks and playgrounds where key voting blocs lived. I’m sure the updates were overdue, as it seems like there is no shortage of needs for cities these days, large or small. But the ranking of priorities that bumped sewer/water/stormwater maintenance off the list comes at a high cost.

Whiner City does have pretty neighborhood parks that make for a nice community, one you’d think would be a pleasant place to live. But from the public health perspective, it‘s just not safe. Nor is the community conducive to modern commerce.
Turns out the beautification funds were pulled from budget areas typically devoted to maintaining the city’s water, sewer and stormwater needs. Apparently, this “robbing Peter to pay Paul” manipulation of municipal funds has been going on for some time. Meanwhile, infiltration and inflow issues have been growing like weeds. It all came to a head when the EPA came calling a couple of years ago. Now, as the negotiations near their inevitable conclusion, this city will face many years of a massive program update at a very high and financially draining cost.

This, unfortunately, is not a rare incidence. It is a far too common story. For example, a similar thing happened in Houston at the turn of the century. The city’s stormwater fund was raided for other needs by then Mayor Lee Brown, who felt he had a better use for the dedicated funds. When Tropical Storm Allison dumped what, at the time, was a record rainfall tally upon the city, severe flooding was widespread. The world famous medical center was also heavily flooded and lives were lost. Houston has since spent unendingly to solve those problems that should have been addressed long ago – had funding been available.

But what really galled me was not Whiner City’s mayor and city council complaining about being targeted by the EPA – that, too, is not an uncommon complaint and excuse. But just a few years back, Whiner City had the opportunity to partner with a regional telecommunications company seeking to bring fiber optic lines to the city. Verizon had passed the city over for fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) service. During its fiber build-out, Verizon often sought greener pastures and frequently bypassed smaller cities for larger population areas in search of more customers.

Many cities that were passed over recognized that fiber could provide tremendous economic opportunities for residents, and either started their own local telecom company or partnered with another provider. While enhanced telecommunications is no guarantee of economic revitalization, for most forward-thinking cities the stories of economic success for their populace via FTTH is well-documented.

Whiner City didn’t see it that way. It didn’t think it could justify the expense or that e-commerce opportunities were something its residents and businesses truly needed. That, too, was a failure of leadership.

It’s hard to feel sorry for Whiner City. One could blame the local citizenry for continually voting in leaders who fail to exercise their fiduciary responsibilities. But how many cities of all sizes around the country do the same thing when led astray by politicians? That happens to excess at the state and federal levels, as well.

Who can forget the disaster of Flint, Mich, which is still trying to deal with the lead water pipe fallout caused by the city trying to find an easy way out of their water needs and, primarily due to costs and time concerns, ignoring the advice of its engineering experts.

Whiner City’s situation was not caused by a natural disaster. Rather, it was caused by nearsightedness, lack of political courage and a void of leadership. It’s lackluster local economy and radically underperforming sewer/water systems are the future of life in America without serious investment in our underground infrastructure.

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