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?

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the right stimulus

With a background in civil engineering, I’m partial to infrastructure.  I find bridges absolutely fascinating.  I also know that the US is far behind in funding necessary improvements to existing infrastructure, from bridges and highways to water and wastewater treatment.  The American Society of Civil Engineers gives our infrastructure a D, with water and wastewater treatment getting D minuses.  Yikes.  I’m holding out for a miracle of stimulus to bring our facilities up to par, but there’s a country we might look to for guidance: China (gulp).

China has been investing tons of money in infrastructure, from building a vast highway network in anticipation of cars to use it, to top-of-the-line subways and airports.  But they’re falling short of goals to deliver safe drinking water to all residents.  About one in five Chinese residents must boil his/her tap water before use, and that doesn’t include the safety issues from metals and organic chemicals in the water.  Some city planners have complained that water treatment facilities are too expensive.  Welcome to the first world, China, where we’re still trying to sort out that very issue…(see above ASCE grade and our lack of funding to address that grade).

A recent rainstorm killed 37 people due to flooding in Beijing, and it left some wondering whether key infrastructure has been neglected in the nation’s recent great leap of progress.  Homes collapsed, streets flooded, and power lines fell.

The city has seen tens of billions of dollars poured into its modernization, including iconic venues for the 2008 Olympics, the world’s second-largest airport, new subway lines and dazzling skyscrapers — all while basics like water drainage were apparently neglected.

Has China given us an example of a “bad” stimulus?  Or perhaps just a lesson in risk assessment and investment protection — in order to preserve those new buildings and roads and bridges long enough to truly pay off, basic water management infrastructure is a requirement, too.  I hope that the US will learn from this sad example.

just put it on the credit card

Going bankrupt usually limits one’s ability to pay for new things, at least until all the other creditors are satisfied.  And as you may have heard, the city of Stockton, California, recently became the largest municipal bankruptcy in the US.  With the nation’s highest crime rate and lowest police staffing rate, among other dire statistics, things do not look good.

Never required to consider cost in requiring environmental compliance, the EPA is kind of piling on.  Stockton has an aging wastewater treatment plant that just doesn’t meet regulations, as it was built some 70 years ago, and during heavy storms, it often results in combined sewer overflows (CSOs).  (CSOs result when the wastewater treatment plant’s intake capacity is overwhelmed, and the plant then temporarily allows stormwater and sewage to bypass treatment, discharging directly into the environment.)  The EPA has been going after more and more municipalities for CSOs, notably Atlanta (my hometown bias, sorry), in the past few years.  Apparently the Stockton wastewater treatment plant needs a $156 million upgrade, and EPA will surely issue fines for CSOs until this happens.

That said, Stockton apparently shouldn’t have too much trouble issuing new bonds to pay for this upgrade.  The reason is that the wastewater treatment customer fees represent a consistent inflow of money to repay the bond, and the city could then issue revenue bonds rather than general fund bonds, the latter of which no one would offer, given the city’s recent attempt to default.  Odd that the economics work out that way, but I guess this is some good news for the Stockton economy – a tiny stimulus package that will deliver long-term infrastructure benefits.

silver lining of Texas’ historic drought

I suppose my inherent optimism makes me bring this story to light: right now, Texas beaches are cleaner than in years.  Runoff is so historically low this year, so far fewer stormwater pollutants have been flushed off the streets and surfaces, shepherded into conveyance, and discharged into the Gulf of Mexico.  Fewer pollutants in the Gulf shore means cleaner beaches.  Hopefully people escaping the heat at the beach are enjoying the better quality of the experience.  And it’s probably best to avoid the beach after the next big storm rinses everything off.

new fee for LA homeowners

Homeowners in Los Angeles County may soon have the right to complain about a new municipal waste fee: the Clean Water, Clean Beaches Water Quality tariff.  The fee is designed to spread out the cost of trash and pollution that head down the LA waterways and end up on the beaches or in the ocean.  It’s debatable whether this is the best approach, but some in the article argue for federal or state funding to resolve the issue.  Really?  Isn’t it arrogant to assume that the cost burden of a problem specific to the Los Angeles basin should be distributed across the entire state or worse, the entire US?  I actually like the idea of a fee that encourages people to consider the impact of their behavior on the local waterways and beaches, though I’m not sure this is it — it’s easy to grumble, write a bigger check, and move on.