Our big cities sit on top of a spider web of water mains and sewer lines that are often 100 years old. They were designed and built well by our forefathers but have been neglected by our generation for lack of funding.
The American Society of Civil Engineers graded the overall health of the water and sewer infrastructure in the U.S., and it barely passed -- earning a D-minus.
The report O'Brien refers to is over three years old. In the interim, projects have continued nationwide to fix outdated city sewer systems. But they face an uphill struggle against government neglect and public indifference.
In the PBS show, Gregory E. DiLoreto, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, stated that more than $84 billion in additional federal funding over the next eight years will be required to get US water and sewer systems up to par, replacing outdated combined sewer systems that combine rainwater and other kinds of wastewater with sewage in one pipe. The preferred alternative is a system that isolates sewage from other runoff.
There are a range of technologies available to help US cities cope with these and other sewer problems. There are biological solutions, injectable "trenchless" pipe linings that extend the life of old pipes, and control systems that help track the health of municipal sewer systems.
A technician helps replace a sewer pipe lining in Buena Vista Township, Mich. (Source: USDAgov)
Most cities are finding that wastewater treatment rehab is best undertaken as part of a water management overhaul. The city of San Antonio, Texas, for instance, earned star billing on the PBS show for its program of water conservation. By recycling water and offering citizens incentives to save water, the city has been able to keep water use close to what it was 25 years ago, despite having 67 percent more customers.
The city's water utility has actually been able to close one treatment plant. "The water that you don't use, you don't have to treat," Robert Puente, CEO of the San Antonio Water Service, told PBS.
San Antonio is also recycling its water, a precursor to the "toilet to tap" methods under consideration by some US municipalities.
The struggle for more sustainable wastewater treatment continues, despite these small triumphs. Clearly, it's time to throw more funding and effort at the problem. In a blog in November 2012, one expert, Jeff Eger, executive director of the Water Environment Federation, wrote:
Our essential water infrastructure is failing and is woefully inadequate to address the 'new normal' weather patterns... Broken and leaking pipes cause the loss of nearly two trillion gallons of drinking water per year at an annual cost of $2.6 billion. Restoring existing drinking water systems and expanding them to serve a growing population will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years. At current funding levels, there will be a funding gap of at least $224 billion nationwide over the next 20 years.
To those who say jobs are more important than water infrastructure, Eger quotes the National Association of Utility Contractors: "For every $1 billion invested in water infrastructure, 26,000 jobs are created."
To that, I say let's raise a glass of clean, potable water.
Re: Civilization in decline The true final cost of bringing our sewer infrastructure up to date is going to be staggering. Probably much more than the estimated 84 Billion dollars. Just curious, if this is being addressed on a national level, in the same context of rebuilding our network of aquaducts, bridges, and levees.
Re: Civilization in decline Oh what a tangled web this is, our water mains and pipes are bursting at the rate of 2 a month on average and what a mess they make. Iron was considered the medium for pipage for many years and is just now being replaced with more suitable durable materials. But we did not take into consideration the age and number of pipes in our system. Aging and lost/misplaced maps have added to the chore of finding and estimating said old pipage. In a region as dry and rain starved as our, we must place a higher value on our already limited resource.
Sewer repair - let's hope it works Great to see articles addressing this topic. As a resident of a city with crumbling infrastructure, challenging geology (insane clay around here) and no funding (poorest state in the country), I find that a key part of the conversation needs to be creative funding models. My city has entered into an agreement with Siemens to repair our sewer system. The part that is interesting to me is:
"Siemens has guaranteed that the project will pay for itself over time through increased revenues from the new, more accurate meters, and cost savings from the sewer lines and treatment plant upgrades. If it fails to pay for itself, Siemens will take on the remaining cost."
I don't have any more detail than that, but would love to see more public/private deals that involve some creative ways to get projects funded, ensure the ROI and avoid cost overruns. A full story can be found here:
Re: Civilization in decline Given the enormity of the challenge of sewer revamping that now faces most cities in the Western world, it shouldn't surprise us to hear that NYC still has some pipes dating back to the 19th century.
I'd heard this many years ago -- that there are enormous enclosed pipes comprising part of the city's sewer system.
But the 19th century was, frankly, a LONG time ago.
Re: Civilization in decline Mary. The sewer issue in US cities should have been addressed a couple generations ago. It's not like nobody knew there was a problem. As part of the broader challenge of waste disposal and pollution, this first fell on the plate of my grandparents' generation (and trust me, I'm no young guy).
As with all infrastructure issues, there's a tendency to go patchwork, and hope to get by so the next generation -- or at least someone downstream -- can deal with the problems.
As a teen in the 1960s I spent a long hot summer working in a tannery in one of the small New England cities built around the manufacture of shoes. The sewers flowed directly from the factories into a river. So did all of the waste water, nasty chemicals, fats, etc. from the tanning process. They did have a screen to collect the scraps of leather that got into the trough, but that was just so it didn't clog the pipe to the river. (And, I lived downstream).
The logic was that all the bad stuff would flow out to the ocean. Nobody considered what we were doing to the sea. When the cry went up for sewage treatment plants along the river, the shoe companies, tanners, woolen mills and other employers warned that if they were asked to treat the water they would move south. My grandparents' generation counted on those factories for the lifelihoods, and voters said no to sewage treatment. It didn't matter, the industries chased the cheap labor dollar to North Carolina anyway, and the mills turned into vacant lots. In the end, the next generation of taxpayers had to foot the bill for cleaning up the river (which was expensive but successful).
The call for replacing those dual sewers in all cities goes back to the same timeframe. Each generation since has done a bit of patchwork, and hoping that it won't rain hard. Yet, it rains hard every year, and every year sewage flows downstream to become someone else's problem. The only fix is to bite the bullet and make major investments in replaching sewer lines and other pieces of our failing infrastructure.
Re: Civilization in decline Over 25 years ago the Thatcher government realised that a lot of state owned utilities were sitting on a capital expenditure nightmare. One of these was the water and sewerage systems where investment in the previous century had been depressingly small. Her solution was to privatise the ten water authorities and pass the investment burden to the new shareholders who would then raise the necessary money from the public users.
Water hasn't been cheap here in the UK since, and we have the added burden of a climate which on the one hand was heading towards drought while on the other is producing record flooding. Where I live we enjoyed an arid spring culminating in Drought Orders restricting the use of water whcih came into force as the heavens broke. By the year end we had one of the wettest years since records began.
The cost of these big water and sewerage schemes is vast, but at least the UK has got them underway. One of the unexpected problems, though, was the building of large amounts of housing on land which now floods reguarly. We thought we had control of the rivers. The rivers knew better.
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