Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Infrastructure Isn't Sexy?

I remember Rachel Maddow once getting very excited because infrastructure was being discussed on the presidential campaign trail.

"It's not sexy," she said. "But it ought to be."

You bet, Rachel.

Our roads, our bridges, our water systems were all built during a big can-do chapter in our history, either as WPA projects during the thirties or to pave the way for the brave new world in which every garage would hold a car.

Now we have two car garages - and often more cars parked in the driveway. Our water infrastructure serves a booming population. Our water treatment systems are taxed to the limit. And it's all getting old. Concrete has a limited lifespan and we've been putting off repairs for years.

The History Channel did a special on the problem. And I did a story this morning that brings it into focus.

New York City gets much of its water from upstate. A massive, incredibly engineered system of aqueducts six hundred feet below the ground takes water from upstate reservoirs into the city's pipes. And in one small neighborhood where there was always an issue with existing groundwater, that aqueduct is leaking up to 36 million gallons of water a day. A day.

Neighbors say water gushes out of cracks in their basements. Their yards are spongy. Sinkholes open up and they can't walk their own property. The city is doing studies and has meanwhile offered sump pumps, bottled water (that high water table means wells and septics aren't isolated from each other), UV water treatment systems and funds for improved stormwater systems.

What the neighbors want, bottom line, is to be moved. They're exhausted. They say they're up all night monitoring multiple sumps pumps, worrying that the power will go out. Their homes are worthless. No one's going to buy them. They want to be moved to higher ground and the city says it's willing to consider doing just that if studies prove that the leaking aqueduct is the source of their problems. Congressman Maurice Hinchey says the city just ought to do it now - that there's no doubt that the city's water tunnel is a major contributor to the problems of 35 families unfortunate enough to own homes over a high water table and a leaking aqueduct.

What it made me wonder about was our infrastructure in general. The History Channel special featured a guy who said that America's been like the grandkids who inherited a mansion - from the outside, it's a great house. But go inside and you see it's falling apart from lack of maintenance.

Washington's been putting stimulus money into infrastructure and that's right on target. It's also a great opportunity to look at that infrastructure and see if it meets our future needs, or if we should be building the next generation's transportation and energy systems. Do we need a gazillion highways, or do we need high speed rail? Do we continue to act as if we can fuel this nation with fossil fuels forever or do we accept that we've already gone beyond the safe limits and should create clean, green systems that our children's grandchildren could use?

It's a turning point in history - the fact that so many wake up calls are coming at once makes it inescapable. We've passed peak oil. We've passed the safe carbon threshold. We're overpopulated.

It's time for the creative thinkers to stand up and speak. And it's time for the rest of us to listen.

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