A Voice for the Cause

Gaining the support of groups with common goals can push infrastructure improvements forward

Two of the feature profiles in this month’s issue of MSW follow similar plot lines: municipalities with aging water and sewer infrastructure working to find ways to maintain their systems and improve efficiency with limited funding. The story is common among utilities across North America.

Westminster, Colo., and Laurens County, S.C., have made great progress in their fight to improve local utility infrastructure, but both are still dealing with aging pipes. Many more sewer and water utilities are much further behind the curve due to limited funds for improvements. Some are just patching holes to temporarily assuage catastrophic failure.

The March issue of MSW included a column relating to a bleak report from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) on the cost of delaying infrastructure improvements. The numbers are startling — failure to invest now could cost families $59 billion and businesses $147 billion by 2020 — and show a wide-angle view of the economic impact of failing to act on this problem. To be sure, no one is saving money over the long haul by delaying action on this growing problem. In fact, the cost of getting this country’s water and sewer infrastructure back to where it needs to be is growing by the day.

While the professionals of this industry certainly need to make their voices heard, and the burden of affecting change may ultimately fall to you, there are other groups that are just as deeply affected.

Last week I received a comment via email regarding that column in the March issue: “An excellent editorial on the biggest health threat to Americans. The part that is missing is that sewage leaks allow excessive nitrogen and phosphorous into our waterways. These excess nutrients cause toxic algal blooms which can cause skin rashes, sores, eye and ear irritation, breathing problems, gastrointestinal upset and even death (see www.floridawatercoalition.org).

“Florida is already hotter and drier than normal. The perfect combination for brewing toxic algae (SLIME). The Environmental Confederation of Southwest Florida is reaching out to community groups asking them to tell their elected officials to update their sewage collection lines and replace the leaking lines.”

Information included with the comment referred to the famous blue waters of Florida “coming up green and choked with nasty, toxic algae. It has happened in front of pricey waterfront mansions. It has happened in rural streams, where neighbors fish for food. And it has happened along famous beaches, where horrified tourists and residents watch as the waves toss up hundreds of dead fish.”

Of course, Florida isn’t alone in this mess. Failing sanitation systems are impacting water quality across the globe. A quick Google search will pull up hundreds of stories about accidental sewage discharges harming water bodies of all types and sizes.

You are most likely aware of the uphill battle municipalities are fighting, but perhaps by joining forces with other groups of concerned citizens you can make your voice loud enough that it can’t be ignored in the halls of government. A municipal utility manager from rural Ohio may not be able to tip the scales alone, but together with all municipal utility managers, with fishermen who want their waters protected, with waterfront residents who want their piece of paradise preserved for future generations, with everyone who respects our environment asking our elected leaders to make the right decision for our precious water resources rather than their next election cycle, perhaps we can impart the gravity of this situation to those who can turn the tide.

Take for example the heavily polluted Charles River in Boston. In the early 1990s, the Charles River Watershed Association began an in-depth restoration project, monitoring dozens of sites along the river basin. The association worked with scientists and engineers and discovered a host of problems, including CSOs, unmapped pipes and failed infrastructure. Support from all the groups and organizations involved led to stricter enforcement of the permits held by companies that fronted the river. Infrastructure improvements were also made, and by the end of the decade, most of the river met boating standards and over half met swimming standards.

This is an issue that affects everyone, yet you have largely been left to fight your individual battles — with little outside support — on the local level. While you all certainly have plenty on your plates, it may be well worth the effort to reach out to environmental groups, service organizations and other municipalities for their support in improving our failing infrastructure and protecting our water resources. Together your voices can carry beyond municipal boundaries to those with the ability to make substantive changes.

So talk to your legislators. Talk to the citizens of your community and share your knowledge. Talk to environmental groups and ask for their support in the fight for funding. Take a page from Andy Dufresne in “The Shawshank Redemption,” and send letters to your local representatives — lots of letters — until they finally get the message.

Everyone’s future depends on it.

Comments on this column or about any article in this publication may be directed to editor Luke Laggis, 800/257-7222; editor@mswmag.com.


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