making a dent

Hello and happy 2017! Although my personal politics largely deviate from those of President-Elect Trump, I’m hoping that nonpartisan matters of policy will remain unaffected – give them the benefit of the doubt for now. The nominee for EPA Administrator under the Trump administration is an attorney who has worked to fight EPA on behalf of oil and gas interests, and who doesn’t believe in climate change. How will he, if confirmed, approach issues that are less partisan, like aging water and wastewater infrastructure across the country? Can’t everyone agree that the crisis in Flint, Michigan should not be repeated?

In a recent editorial, David Sedlak, editor of my favorite journal, Environmental Science and Technology, proposed that President-Elect Trump could make America great again by starting with its water and wastewater infrastructure – a bargain can be had for a mere $100 billion, leaving plenty of room for more showy projects like roads and tunnels and bridges.

Well, imagine my surprise to see this press release from EPA in January, before Trump and his team formally take office: EPA Launches New Program With $1 Billion in Loans Available for Water Infrastructure Projects. Wow, the Trump folks are getting started early? A final gesture from the Obama administration?

Not quite. The program has approximately $17 million in existing funding, which EPA estimates can be leveraged at a ratio greater than 50 to one. By this math, the $17 million program budget “could allow EPA to make approximately $1 billion in loans and stimulate about $2 billion in total infrastructure investment.” My hopes are tempered, but I maintain hope that this $2 billion investment will start to make a dent in the problem.

The rub comes in the last sentence of the press release:

EPA estimates that the U.S. needs about $660 billion in investments for drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure over the next 20 years.


So chalk this program up to good things that barely make a real dent in the problem. As Dr. Sedlak pointed out, the American Society of Civil Engineers has given our water infrastructure a grade of D now. I shudder to think of where we’ll be in 5 or 10 years if our politicians don’t commit soon to making a real dent in this need.

pipelines aren’t all evil

I can’t put together a lot of analysis this week, but I can point you to some people who have.  In this case, we’re talking about pipelines for oil and gas delivery across the US.  I’ve mentioned some of the issues related to leak detection in the context of the Enbridge spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan before.  You might be surprised to know that there are already some 2.5 million miles of pipelines across the US for oil and gas delivery, and the number is going up with every new shale gas deposit or oil sands site.  ProPublica has compared the risk of pipeline failures vs. the risk of trucking oil/gas, using the analogy of travel by air vs. travel by car.  Yes, it’s risky (is anything truly risk-free?) but it’s less risky than the major alternative.

Apparently many of the leaking pipes are old, and were grandfathered in when regulations came out, just to avoid the excessive cost of digging up miles and miles of pipeline to check for their integrity.  I’d like to think that new pipelines could meet higher standards, such as in the case of the Keystone XL pipeline that Obama will evaluate in the next 4 years.  The National Academy of Sciences is also working on a scientific review of the risk to pipelines from carrying diluted bitumen, an especially corrosive form of crude oil; that report to advise government and industry is due out next year, and will probably play a significant role in the acceptance or rejection of the Keystone XL plans.

Let’s keep in mind that the oil and gas boom in the US and Canada is boosting our economy, and natural gas prices in the US are cheap enough now (sometimes 30-50% the cost in Europe and Asia) that factories may be able to offset our higher labor costs with lower energy costs, and relocate back to the US.  Let’s also keep in mind that there are environmental benefits to keeping oil and gas production subject to American/Canadian laws rather than in places we might consider more likely to cut corners.  Enbridge is in big trouble with regulators over the spill in Michigan.  It’s a big deal in Canada that scientists have found oil sands contaminants in snow and rain nearby to the mines and not been able to fully disclose their results.  Our two nations have an active population that is keeping an eye on these things.  Better to mine/refine/deliver oil and gas with much oversight and supervision, and to challenge our regulators to hold these companies to account, than to punt on development and send jobs abroad, in my mind.

building the infrastructure that counts

As I’ve mentioned before, China has some issues when it comes to building infrastructure that is out of sight and less than prestigious, like stormwater and wastewater treatment.  Many places in the US also try to keep their water and sewer rates low for customers, putting off key maintenance and upgrades for the next generation.  The West can’t afford this.  Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has increased its rates 5% per year for the next two years, annoying many of its customers, largely to accommodate the bills for repairs and increasing the system reliability.  Utah’s lawmakers are getting some difficult news, too — a plan is up for vote to fund $13.7 billion over 20 years to fund necessary repairs and upgrades.  Better to allocate the money now, rather than wait until the dams are empty and the taps are dry…

“People have a hard time getting excited about water and sewer projects, even though they are very fundamental and basic components of our day-to-day life,” said Mike Wilson, manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy.

Systems have routine operations and maintenance budgets, but often punt on wholesale replacement due to the huge capital costs.  One idea is to build in a 3-5% annual rate increase for the bond to fund all this work.

“These systems are out of sight and out of mind,” Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said. “Some communities, to their detriment and unhappiness, are loath to raise rates, and when something cataclysmic happens, that is when you see the huge rates come. But they’d rather get beat up harshly every 10 years then face it every year.”

Baker said it takes financial savvy and foresight — as well as political will — to muster a savings account that can help pay for huge infrastructure needs and to put in upgrades to keep pace with growth.  “There’s not a lot of heroism in doing that. Cities like to build trails, parks and statues. Bringing in a sewer system is not very sexy. The tendency is to let that happen under some other mayor.”

Thankfully for some parts of the US, we have some political officials who get that point, and act on it.  The political officials who don’t act may be more popular in the short-term, but their constituents will not be better off in the end.  To quote the savvy Pat Mulroy: “Yeah, you have a basic human right to water. Here’s your bucket, you can go down to Lake Mead, and you can take all the water out of Lake Mead that you want. But you don’t have the basic human right to have that water treated to an absolute guaranteed safe standard, delivered to your home in whatever quantities you want to use.”

political interlude

Today’s post is short on my comments: any American voters out there should check out Obama’s and Romney’s views on science.  Both were asked a series of questions by Scientific American, and surprisingly, both responded.  (Or, the cynic would say, both have enough underlings that someone wrote up something for them.)  I found both Obama and Romney refreshingly well-informed on the scientific issues of the day, though Romney of course kowtows to the Republican anti-climate-change positions.  I also thought Romney punted a bit on the question about fresh water (#8), omitting any discussion of the issues around water scarcity.  To be fair, Obama merely mentioned water conservation measures, rather than broad public policies, and neither was willing to bring up the actual amount of water infrastructure our country needs at the moment (the American Water Works Association estimates over $1 trillion through 2035).

That said, I’ll leave you to read and form your own opinions about the candidates.  I won’t endorse either one here, but I will endorse that each of you is an informed voter.

invisible infrastructure

As I noted a couple of days ago, it appears that China’s bold, new infrastructure in the area around Beijing was not accompanied by basic stormwater management infrastructure.  Well, an article today interviewed some Chinese residents about that very thing.

Beijing remains peppered with sinkholes, including one collapsed pavement in its central business district over 100 square feet wide. Meanwhile, the developer of a water-damaged affordable-housing complex in the suburbs has been accused of cutting corners to boost profits.

Hm.  That sounds not good.  In fact, the article goes on to state that the local government cannot issue bonds for more expensive infrastructure, like storm drains and sewer lines, that don’t generate revenue.  Plus, government officials are intent upon building bold, beautiful infrastructure that all can see and appreciate — the “invisible” infrastructure that should ideally accompany and protect the “visible” stuff is not held in high regard.

I would say that this is a problem with modern society in general.  Do you have any sense of what infrastructure is necessary to provide you with clean drinking water, to dispose of your trash, to treat your wastewater, and to recycle your papers and plastics?  Or for that matter, what about the infrastructure necessary to provide your car with gasoline or to synthesize that soap or cleaning solution you like?  There’s a lot we don’t notice behind the scenes.  A lot of it gets taken care of by the private sector here, and the utilities do what they can in the public sector.  But China’s government hasn’t yet figured out this local scale public sector stuff, it seems.  After all, how many officials want sewer pipelines named after themselves?