The Dirty Work of Government
Now that the election is over, its time to get back to the business of governing. One of the prime functions of government is to provide the infrastructure that makes our society work. Roads, bridges, electrical distribution networks, and water and sewer facilities are all vital components of a healthy society. When it comes to the environment there are two essential elements of infrastructure that have a direct impact- water in and water out – our drinking water supply system and sewage treatment facilities. Infrastructure is probably one of the least interesting subjects to read about, but it may be one of the most important.
Talking about infrastructure may not have the cache’ of other environmental issues but it is the foundation of how our built environment interacts with the natural world. Where and how we obtain the drinking water that is essential to a functioning society is the hub for most environmental policies. What we do with that water and the impact of our methods of disposal of the by-products of our use of this resource is just as important an issue. When you start talking about water lines and sewage treatment plants, most people’s eyes start to glaze over. That’s unfortunate because the time has come (or has it really passed) for a serious discussion about infrastructure investment.
You may delay, but time will not-Benjamin Franklin
Time to Invest in Infrastructure
We get so lost in discussions of taxation and fiscal policy that we have forgotten basic principles of investment and re-investment in society. We are currently living off of the investments made by past generations and we are ignoring or refusing our obligation to pay those investments forward to the next generation. What’s the big deal? Well aside from kicking the can down the road and saddling our children and grand-children with an almost impossible task of renewing the nation’s infrastructure, we continue to inflict enormous damage on the environment. Over drawing aquifers, outstripping the capacity of water supplies, and disposing of improperly treated or untreated sewage effluent in the country’s waterways is taking a toll. In the current economic climate, nobody wants to discuss investing hundreds of billions of dollars into the unglamorous world that largely lies beneath the ground, out of sight and out of mind.
The Narragansett Bay Commission recently undertook a massive project to solve the issue of CSO outflows that were seriously impacting the health of the bay. Their solution was to build a huge underground storage tunnel to store storm water until it could be safely released into Narragansett Bay. The cost for Phase I of this project was $350 million. The construction of this 3 mile tunnel underneath the City of Providence eliminated the discharge of 2.2 billion gallons of untreated sewage into the bay each year. An expensive endeavor, but was it worth the price? If you care about the health of the environment it certainly was. However, this isn’t the kind of investment where you get something that you can look at or score political points with. It’s just good sound government.
This is a political issue because this is a government responsibility. This is an environmental issue because every day we fail to address deficient infrastructure is one more day that we continue to foul our waterways or dangerously over-draw our water supplies. Every time there is a heavy rainfall, Combined Sewage Outflows (CSO’s) pour millions of gallons of raw sewage into streams, rivers, coastal bays and the ocean. Inadequate and outdated sewage treatment plants dump under-treated or poorly treated effluent into our waterways every minute of every day. The problem is that there is no constituency for this issue. As long as water comes out of the tap and the toilet flushes, nobody pays much attention to why these things actually happen. Meanwhile, we are oblivious to the self-inflicted looming threat that the failure to modernize the lifelines of our society represents. Without advocates, without a well of campaign cash behind it, without a compelling narrative, and with an expensive solution, infrastructure investment is the most important issue that nobody cares about. Good luck trying to get political leaders to address this unwanted step-child of public policy.
Do The Math
The infrastructure issue is, at its root, a math problem. Capital investments, by their nature, are long-term propositions. Large expenditures that are paid for over a period of years. The theory underlying these undertakings is that projects with multi-generational life spans and multi-generational benefits will be paid for over multiple generations. It makes a lot of sense. The scope of the necessary investment can be assessed and a rational financial plan for renewing and paying for a modern infrastructure system can be put in to place over a period of years. However, it takes someone to make the initial investment and set the wheels in motion. The problem is that nobody wants to take on the political risk of fulfilling this obligation. If it’s a 30 year undertaking and we waste a year, it’s just become a 31 year project. If we wait another year, it becomes 32 years.
I wish I had some pithy one-liner or a dramatic story to tell you to pique your interest. The problem is that this is just the real nuts and bolts of governing a modern society. Nothing exciting. Nothing glamorous. Unless you’re a water engineer or a long-term planner, you will never give a thought to these issues. Besides, our politicians are just so much more entertaining when they talk about things like taxes, abortion and guns that we forget to demand that they fulfill the real obligations of governing officials-make sure society works and make sure we plan for the future. Unfortunately, we can measure the costs of action fairly accurately. We have a very difficult time assessing the penalties for inaction in terms of dollars. So we obsess about the price of fulfilling our obligations, frightened by the financial investment needed, and in the end, do nothing.
Living on the Edge
There are places where environmental infrastructure is being addressed. Aside from the Narragansett Bay Commission’s CSO project, New York City is in the home stretch of a construction project that started in 1970. The massive Water Tunnel Number 3 is scheduled for completion in 2020. A 50-year, $5 billion project that will insure the delivery of clean drinking water to our nation’s largest city. In all 50 states money from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) is leveraged with state funds for local infrastructure projects that address both drinking water and waste water treatment. Unfortunately, its just a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done. In reality, even the Water Tunnel Number 3 project was only undertaken because planners and engineers realized that they couldn’t even perform routine maintenance on the existing water tunnels without turning off the tap to 8 million people. We’re just living on the edge when it comes to infrastructure, just one failure away from serious problems.
So, no, this is hardly the most compelling story to tell when it comes to environmental issues. However, its one that we need to drag from the shadows of policy wonkism and out into the daylight for discussion. The next time you hear some politician droning on about taxes and deficits, ask them what they plan on doing about our pending infrastructure nightmare. What will it take? A massive sewage spill? No, we’ve had those and they have hardly raised an eyebrow. The failure of a major city’s water system? That might get some response. The notion that we need to see a major catastrophe before we act is a sad state of affairs, but also an apt commentary on the current state of our politics and our government.
What can we do? Start demanding answers to questions about infrastructure spending. At the very least you will force political leaders to do some research into an issue they would much rather ignore. This is a ticking bomb. Don’t wait until the tap is dry or the toilet doesn’t flush or you notice that a local waterway has taken on a distinctive new odor before asking for action. Politicians won’t react to this issue unless you compel them to. They need to drink clean water too. Give your state or federal representative’s office a call. Maybe we can start a movement.- Ben Spinelli