How Long Can It Continue?

The country’s fixation on budget austerity is chipping away at proven necessities. What will be the long-term effect of cutting water and wastewater investments?

I got my first full-time newspaper job when I was 23, and it paid next to nothing. In fact, if I broke it down by the hour, I made less than in the stopgap post-college job I’d held previously, setting up banquet tables in a hotel.

My car was a beat-up 1964 Rambler. The rear tires were getting bald, but I “couldn’t afford” new ones. That is, until the day I was driving to the county seat on a state highway in heavy rain, and those tires hydroplaned.

In a flash, water spray obscured the windshield, and I was in a spin, my clipboard flying across the car. I braced for a crash with an oncoming truck or for a rollover in the ditch. Instead, the rear end thumped into a soft embankment and the car swung around and stopped, on the highway shoulder, facing in the wrong direction.

I was unhurt, and I just turned around and drove away. But I might have been killed and could have taken another driver with me. Guess what I bought that very day, before driving home from the county seat? Right — two new rear tires.


What we can afford

What has that to do with water and wastewater? Actually, a lot. The lesson is that it’s extremely risky to forestall spending money on necessities. In these times when the word “austerity” is in vogue, we hear a lot about things our nation can “no longer afford.”

Those things apparently include sound water and wastewater infrastructure. As I write this, Congress has just approved a 2011 budget that includes billions of dollars in spending reductions — and cuts almost $1 billion from EPA state revolving funds (SRFs) for water and wastewater. This at a time when the EPA estimates we need to spend $630 billion on water and wastewater infrastructure over the next 20 years.

Let’s leave aside all the politics of taxation and spending and look at the stark reality. Infrastructure has to be maintained. If we neglect it, it is not going to improve with age, no more than my Rambler’s tires were going to grow new tread if I waited.

Postponing maintenance almost always ends up costing more. We all know this, in many cases from personal experience. One more year with the aging shingles can mean a water-soaked ceiling and a big puddle on the living room carpet. A neglected fall furnace inspection can mean loss of heat on a subzero night and a very expensive emergency service call. And so it goes.


In the street

What does neglected maintenance of water and sewer pipes mean? Higher costs to handle I&I water at the treament plant. Sanitary sewer overflows. Backups into people’s basements. Drinking water leaking from pipes into the ground. Main breaks and sinkholes. Compromised water purity.

And after that, and all it entails, you have to go in and fix the pipes anyway, at more cost than if you had simply kept them up. We all know this, and our elected officials should, too.

So, what is this “can’t afford” mentality getting us? A sign on the wall at my first newspaper workplace said: “If you can’t find time to do it right, how will you find time to do it over?” A corrollary for these times might be: “If we can’t afford to maintain it, how will we afford to fix it when it breaks?”

It’s a supreme irony: There is a very good chance this $1 billion cut in water-related funding — sold to the public as savings — may actually represent a bill for all sorts of problems. Except the public will never see it, unless it turns into a sinkhole that eats half of someone’s downtown (and even then, no one will make the connection).


Sick and tired

When it comes to water and wastewater infrastructure, the simple truth is: We built it, we have to maintain it. The word “afford” should not even be in the conversation. The “afford” should be, must be, built right into the water rates, sewer rates, and taxes we pay — end of discussion. The alternative is to endure service disruptions, environmental degradation, and greater expense.

And finally, on basic principle, as a participant in the water and wastewater industry, and as a plain old citizen, I am sick and bloody tired of politicians telling me what this generally incredible and extremely wealthy country “can’t afford.”


Comments on this column or about any article in this publication may be directed to editor Ted J. Rulseh, 877/953-3301;


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