When we read about “America’s crumbling infrastructure” or similar phrases, the topic is easy to ignore for a few reasons. First, “infrastructure” is a broad, nondescript term that doesn’t mean very much to most people. Second, we’ve been hearing the “crumbling” news for so long that it’s taken on a “sky is falling” flavor. Finally, even if we acknowledge the problem, what are we supposed to do about it anyway?
Those are reasonable responses to a message too vague and seemingly remote to grab our attention. In truth, the issues are very real and close to home, albeit invisible to most of us. Water system engineers use the term “flush and forget” to describe our general mentality: we use and pay for utility services and they shouldn’t have to occupy any more of our mind space than that.
So let’s put a finer point on it: Infrastructure refers to every system under and above ground that allows us to enjoy this thing we call modern civilization. That includes bridges and roads, drinking water and wastewater pipelines, levees, power lines, solid waste systems, and a host of other things. Without these things, we would not have clean, drinkable water, or the ability to convey wastewater away from our homes to treatment facilities, or systems to handle the vast amounts of garbage we produce, or anything to drive on to accommodate our four-wheel lifestyles.
In short, without well-functioning infrastructure, we’d have nothing even approaching a first world existence.
In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) put out its latest “Infrastructure Report Card” for the nation, which carefully ranked the condition of 15 major types of infrastructure in every state. The average grade across all 15 areas was a resounding D. The investment required to improve this grade over the span of five years, according to ASCE, was estimated at $2.2 trillion.
That was three years ago; we’re more than half way through the improvement period sketched out by the infrastructure experts. So, where are we now?
Not nearly far enough.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) designated $787 billion to be spent over the course of 10 years. According to Recovery.gov, $62 billion of that was assigned to upgrade and replace failing infrastructure, a relative pittance compared to the ASCE estimate. Of that amount, the apportionments for critical needs infrastructure, like water, were tiny – barley a third of the total. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), spending for all infrastructure improvements peaked in 2010 at just over $20 billion, and by 2013 the infrastructure budget will be 90% expended. Bottom line, the minimal amount of ARRA funding devoted to infrastructure is about to run out.
That puts the pressure to repair and replace our pipes and roadways where it has been increasingly going for half a century — on the shoulders of state and local governments. According to the CBO, the amount states and localities have spent to keep us civilized has gone from roughly $40 billion a year in 1957 to $170 billion in 2007, a nearly fivefold increase in inflation-adjusted dollars. This escalating level of spending isn’t sustainable, as should be clear to anyone paying attention to how many states cannot even come close to maintaining their budgets.
The response to these realities in our present political climate is silence. No one wants to touch it, because the enormity of the problem—and lack of a feasible solution—is just too hot.
But I’m here to tell you that our imaginary grace period of blissful ignorance is fast expiring; in fact, it evaporates a bit more every hour of every day. Let’s take water infrastructure as one example.
Water and wastewater systems in several major cities are more than 100 years old. They have been patched and expanded over the years, but the overall systems are ancient. As a result, water leaks from eroding pipes and cracked conduits at a rate that’s proving hard to estimate. According to the EPA, the portion of these water systems connected to U.S. homes leaks at an average rate of 10,000 gallons per home per year; the equivalent of a swimming pool for every home. In total, that’s an average of more than 1 trillion gallons a year, the equivalent of annual water use in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami combined.
When you layer in population growth in U.S. cities (projected to hit 400 million people in the next 40 years), those numbers become larger every year, and the hard reality is that we are running out of water. According to research conducted by 24/7 Wall St, ten major cities are in danger of expending their water supply by 2050 or sooner. The list includes Phoenix, Los Angeles, Orlando, Las Vegas, Fort Worth, San Francisco, and Houston.
And those figures don’t take into account how much water is used outside of our homes. For example, in 2005, the power industry used 200 million gallons a day to generate electricity via thermoelectric systems. That number has surely risen since then because every year there are more of us crowding into cities, using more electricity.
What are we doing about it? At the national level, very little. At the state and local level, as mentioned earlier, we’re trying to keep up, but the funding required to meet the ever-swelling need simply isn’t there.
The solutions must be incremental, because the problems are too large now to be addressed any other way. But until our national focus changes and we prioritize these problems in the very top tier of issues facing our country, we can’t even begin talking about solutions. If we allow politicians in and running for office to avoid these issues, then we are all culpable.
Our universal “wants” are clear: We want clean water; we want sewage and garbage to be safely removed from our neighborhoods; we want well-maintained roadways and bridges that we’re not afraid to drive across. We want all of these things, yet fail to see that none of them are guaranteed entitlements. They are resource-intensive services that come at immense cost. 2012 is the year to open our eyes.
I write about science, technology, and the cultural ripples of both.