Can You Say Infrastructure? Now Say Brace for Impact

A 24-inch water main spills its guts near the National Mall in Washington DC in October of 2010. Flooding reached the National Museum of Natural History. There is much more to come. (Photo by Mr T in DC/Flickr)

It was a rare occasion and a good way to start the new year — a major American newspaper gave front-page coverage to a major American problem. This morning’s Washington Post features prominently a story detailing one reason why this country is about to crash: the machinery that delivers water to city dwellers, and treats their sewage has been neglected for nearly half a century. Like all neglected machinery, it is about to break down. And it’s the machinery that makes urban life possible.

(It’s interesting to note that the editors of the Post gave the story top billing on the front page, while the editors of pretty much buried it under a blizzard of horse-race stories from the Iowa precinct caucuses, where they are intent on electing a new captain of the Titanic.)

The story by Ashley Halsey III is gritty, well-reported and pulls no punches. It follows the District of Columbia’s Water and Sewer Authority as it desperately tries to keep up with the emergencies caused by rupturing water and sewer lines. There are, on average, nine of them every day. When huge water mains under enormous pressure burst, the deluge destroys streets, endangers motorists and floods buildings. Overwhelmed sewer lines spew billions of gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers every year. Most cities in the United States are similarly besieged.

Why? Because for decades, especially since the 1980s, America’s politicians have sold us the political equivalent of snake oil: the notion that government does not solve problems, it is the problem, and that taxes are always bad. So whenever anyone has pointed out that we really need to spend money to maintain, repair and replace things like water lines, bridges and highways, somebody calls them a “tax-and-spend s.o.b.” and they get voted out of office or fired.

 What this Washington Post story makes clear but does not say forthrightly is that this exceedingly stupid approach to government has brought us to the brink of systemic collapse, and far beyond the point where we could avoid the consequences. The weasel-worded headline (not the work of the writer, to be sure, who did not use weasel words) said “Billions needed to upgrade America’s leaky water infrastructure.” The estimate from civil engineers is that putting the country’s water and sewer systems into shape would take $635 billion dollars.

To say that and then not to make explicit the logical consequences is irresponsible. It’s the reason the politicians are getting comfortably away with this dereliction of duty, and the reason the county is going down.

First, there no possibility of any significant portion of that money being spent for that purpose. None. There is no point in elaborating on that statement, it is true on its face.

The article points out a second fatal contradiction. The District is replacing about 11 miles of water line a year, just to keep the water on. At that rate is will have updated the entire system —  in about 100 years. To do it any faster — assuming the fantasy that the money were found and appropriated — according to George S. Hawkins, general manager of the D.C. authority, “you could paralyze the city in terms of traffic.”

The case is clear: we are facing a day not long from now when millions of people in one or more of our major cities will have no water even if they do not exhaust their supply, which is another story. What the editors should have used as their headline: Brace for Impact,


[For updates on this and other Daily Impact stories, and for short takes on other subjects, check out The Editor’s Log.]


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