Neglect of infrastructure can be costly

Christian Steinbrecher, The Daily Record Newswire

The recent news about Flint puts infrastructure — particularly water infrastructure — squarely up front and center in the media. The question about how this could happen in the 21st century in what many of us believe is the world’s most advanced country is asked over and over.

According to experts, the water system was taking water from the Flint River. The river was historically used for industrial purposes in a highly industrialized region. Its chemical composition caused the lead in the solder in many of the distribution lines to dissolve in the water, and folks drank it.

These experts have also suggested that the solution may have been as simple as adding lime to the water. There have been more than enough accusations flying around, and government officials have resigned. There has, however, been a remarkable silence from the operators and engineers who were responsible for the day-to-day operations of the Flint system.

Infrastructure, as Rodney Dangerfield might say, “don’t get no respect.” It is out of sight and out of mind. Because it has worked so well for a couple of generations, the general public assumes that it will continue to work like that. The public has forgotten that at one time American cities endured cholera epidemics on a regular basis – with fatal results for many.

Our water systems, like all things, need expert care and reinvestment. There are few water jurisdictions that assess fees that are in line with capital reinvestment costs.

This kind of infrastructure (water) does not get the attention of the general public. Recently, several career-related events for young people took place in the city where I live. Among them was Engineer’s Week. High school students are introduced to engineering projects and then have an opportunity to meet with college recruiters and practitioners. When asked to share their primary interests, most of these students (in their second or third year of high school) talked about video games, computers, cars and environment. Based on the small random sample taken, not one said he or she wanted to work on improving water systems. That is understandable: Who wants to solve yesterday’s problems?

Yet in countries that Americans think of as third world, a secure water system is a very high priority. Water sources that are not secure are responsible for a significant percentage of the death rate among children under age five. Most Americans probably think that’s just something that happens in third world countries.

But this recent example demonstrates it is quite possible to hit very close to home. A lack of attention, and delegation to authorities staffed by inexperienced or unknowing administrators can result in decisions that impact hundreds of people. Those people in Michigan who have been ingesting excess amounts of lead have suffered irreparable damage. They will have to live with the results of those decisions made by others for the rest of their lives.

As a society we must educate each generation of the advances that we have made to accomplish the longevity and health we currently experience. Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. Water, for example, must be clean. If we fail to understand that and to appreciate the advances that have been made, the investments that must be planned for, and the complicated nature of what we have accomplished, then we do so at our peril.

In cities across the country, the issue of a secure water system continues to be debated by those who challenge and contest the reinvestments necessary for ensuring continued secure water supplies. There is no greater return than investments made in infrastructure. As Flint knows, the wrong decision can impact hundreds of people, thousands or more.

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Christian Steinbrecher is president of Ukiah Engineering Inc. and the incoming president of the Columbia chapter of the Professional Engineers of Oregon. Contact him at 503-297-4827 or cfs@ukiahengineering.com.

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