Preaching the gospel of water infrastructure: Part 1, the prophet
By: David A. Smith
Reading a recent New York Times profile of a prophet without funding in his own district, one cannot but like the director of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority, George Hawkins:
How do you like me now?
George Hawkins, from his personal blog
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Mr. Hawkins said recently, in between a meeting with local environmentalists and rushing home to do paperwork in his small, spartan apartment, near a place where he was once mugged at gunpoint.
“This is the fight of our lifetimes,” he added. “Water is tied into everything we should care about.”
As Nancy once said to me, “enthusiasm is always attractive.”
So is candor – such as in this brief post, Water main breaks:
Sometimes, water mains break because of temperature and age. And sometimes, contractors hit them.
From Mr. Hawkins’ blog: the broken water main at 17th and P, Northwest
Of course he’s right – as shown in my lengthy post on the economics of water – but Mr. Hawkins is working under three handicaps: water is cheap in
“Someday, people are going to talk about our sewers with a real sense of pride.”
A hundred years ago, people did – bringing running water and flush toilet sewerage to
The Times finds environmentalism and infrastructure incongruous – I don’t. Environmentalism achieved through poverty is hypocritical. Rakesh Mohan called the ‘third-class carriage mentality’ of development: I’ve got what deserve, you should stay bucolic. Genuine environmentalism around the world will be achieved one way and one way only – make our cities work by making the people who live in them richer, and certainly no longer desperately poor:
In the long run, a market society is a property society, and a property society tends to be a civil society. If we are to save the world, the easiest path is to make the whole world rich.
Because people are largely innumerate, we have trouble investing current pain for future benefit. Most of us experience this for the first (and maybe only?) time when we indenture decades of our future by signing a mortgage to purchase a home, the longest-lived asset most of us will ever encounter.
Yet there is a still-longer-lived asset – municipal infrastructure – with an even higher establishment cost. There ain’t no such thing as free infrastructure; as a result, most municipal infrastructure has its massive non-recoverable costs funded by a sovereign with either vision or money to burn. What the District lacks in money (although behind it looms our profligate Federal government, merrily printing cash), it is trying to make up for in Mr. Hawkins.
From Mr. Hawkins’ blog
If you care about something, and you know something about it, you have a duty to make it better. Mr. Hawkins clearly agrees, and puts his time where his heart is.
– trudged to a street corner here where water was gushing into the air.
A cold snap had ruptured a major pipe installed the same year the light bulb was invented. [Presumably 1879 – Ed.]
Homes near the fashionable
The challenge for mundane infrastructure like water and sanitation, which is managed by exception and visible only on failure, is to elevate consciousness to the point of investing forward, rather than lurching from patch to patch.
Mr. Hawkins’s goal is to replace, within the next century, the pipes that were installed in
As city employees searched for underground valves, a growing crowd started asking angry questions. Pipes were breaking across town, and fire hydrants weren’t working, they complained. Why couldn’t the city deliver water? one man yelled at Mr. Hawkins.
The capital-planning division of my for-profit company specializes in answering such questions, by making the future quantifiable in present terms, through a twenty-year forward look at capital needs, including green improvements.
Such questions are becoming common across the nation as water and sewer systems break down.
It’s time to reinvest – to spend forward, and reinvent the core technologies by which we deliver clean water and hygienic sanitation. Because such systems are incredibly long-lived, reinvestment should anticipate the future, and skip a generation or two of technology.
Today, a significant water line bursts on average every two minutes somewhere in the country, according to a New York Times analysis of Environmental Protection Agency data.
Infrastructure breakdown hits older cities first, because they are older and their infrastructure is older, often taking advantage of now-vanished natural water sources, like the
Old systems, built for lower density, used Mother Nature as runoff.
A combined-outflow system, Problem 1: pollution into the river
That works fine – basically everything we excrete, something else can see as food – until the numbers of people, and their average daily water usage, become too large and overwhelm the system.
A combined-outflow system, Problem 2: sewer backup into your bathroom
State and federal studies indicate that thousands of water and sewer systems may be too old to function properly.
Dual piping would work much better: and retrofitting it will cost much more
For decades, these systems — some built around the time of the Civil War — have been ignored by politicians and residents accustomed to paying almost nothing for water delivery and sewage removal.
The same problem of under-reinvestment afflicts public housing, and for the same reason. An ultra-long-lived public asset is always funded with a large non-recoverable capital grant. That, in turn, allows the public utility to deliver service at the cost of operations, with nothing allocated for replacement reserves or capital reinvestment. This is an implicit discount from a sustainable price, to which customers become accustomed. Because early-year depreciation is minimal, everyone is delighted with the new system, and administrators indulge customers in the early years. As the depreciation piles up, the tendency is simply to fund patches – after all, we just paid for this shiny new system! – and defer rehab. Thus the implicit discount becomes permanent.
And so each year, hundreds of thousands of ruptures damage streets and homes and cause dangerous pollutants to seep into drinking water supplies.
This isn’t good, is it?
Decades pass, as the system (or public housing) becomes progressively more obsolescent, and administrators defer the comprehensive overhaul, which always seems expensive … until finally the system approaches structural failure.
Mr. Hawkins’s answer to such problems will not please a lot of citizens.
They didn’t like Cassandra or Laocoon either.
Like many of his counterparts in cities like
Either that, or no water.
And what do you pay for bottled water, now?
Before you denigrate tap water, my friends, try India’s
“People pay more for their cellphones and cable television than for water,” said Mr. Hawkins, who before taking over
“You can go a day without a phone or TV,” he added.
Tell that to your twelve-year-old!
“You can’t go a day without water.”
Nor without an AHI blog post? J
Naturally, there’s an extraordinarily serious point to all this –
[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]