Environmental Issues: We’re In the Shit Now, Folks

One of the books I read during the Book Project that left an unexpected legacy was Bottlemania, by Elizabeth Royte. Although the book was primarily about the rise of the bottled water industry, one of the things it touched upon was the fact that water processing facilities for municipal water are growing increasingly outdated and unstable in the developed world.

We talk about access to water like it is primarily a problem for Those People in the developing world, and it most definitely is a problem there. At least here, most people have access to an improved water source, even if the infrastructure at that source is struggling to support a load. But it’s interesting to look at the problems water treatment facilities for both sewage and drinking water are experiencing, because they are ominous warning signs for the future, especially given that there is very little interest right now in investing in infrastructure, despite the fact that doing so would not only create jobs, but improve quality of life and contribute to national security[1. I bet concerns about national security are not something you thought you would encounter on this website, eh?].

This has really been brought home to me lately by an ongoing debate in Fort Bragg over development and the condition of our water treatment facilities. Put bluntly, we’re full of shit up to the gills here. Our sewage treatment facility is outdated and in urgent need not just of maintenance, but of complete replacement, just to support the existing population. With proposals being put forward for big developments, a lot of people are asking very reasonable questions about where the water for those developments will come from, given that we have chronic water shortages now, and where all of the waste products of those developments are going to end up if our sewage treatment plant is currently running too full.

Part of the problem is that a sewage treatment plant is not the kind of thing you can take offline. The city cannot afford a new plant, so the only reasonable thing to do is to make some repairs and retrofits to the one we have, but that can’t be done without suspending sewer services, which, you know. Can’t happen. It would be a public health disaster, among other things. So, the city is forced to struggle along with what it has, hoping that some kind of resolution will be reached before the system completely fails and we have a very messy problem on our hands.

Fort Bragg is not the only city in the United States facing this problem. A lot of towns are working with outdated equipment installed decades ago when the population was much smaller and thinking about water treatment and sewage was very different. As standards have been tightened to protect the environment, systems have been adapted and rigged to accommodate, but they are not up to the task, and this is becoming increasingly apparent.

These are no small water supplies under threat. New York City’s water supply, widely regarded as being of very high quality, is facing contamination and control problems. It’s difficult to keep water safe when it’s traveling over great distances, whether we are talking natural contaminants that end up in the water, or things that are deliberately introduced. It has been pointed out that the water and food supply are both points of significant vulnerability that any terrorist organisation worth its salt would be eyeing with frequently licked lips.

The collapsing municipal infrastructure we are seeing all over the United States is the result of deferred maintenance, a refusal to prioritise infrastructure, short funding, and a belief that someone else, later, will fix the problem. Increasingly, ‘later’ is becoming ‘now’ and we are not ready for it. We wouldn’t have been ready for it in a functional economy where funds were available, because systems have been allowed to deteriorate so far that they are going to require a lot of work. In many cases, replacement is the best option to make systems meet the needs of current populations while also leaving room for expansion.

It’s hard to predict, when you are building a system now, what future loads will be. You can guess, but as documented by the car explosion in California that has effectively overloaded our highway system, it’s really kind of impossible to know what will happen in the next few decades, if the system you have designed and built will function or collapse under the load. Insistence on believing that systems will just work endlessly with minimal maintenance results in situations like water treatment facilities that are clearly not up to the load, atrocious roads, and a variety of other municipal problems.

We’ve put off the payment due date, but eventually we are going to have to pay up. The longer we wait, the worse it gets. And it’s worth noting that systems built in haste can be, well, repented at leisure. Rapid solutions can result in problematic solutions that are expensive and will require more money to replace, fix, or repair later. Meanwhile, sewage spills are on the rise and the environment is suffering. Infrastructure is lacking and communities are getting sick. Shortages are occurring because reservoirs and other water supplies are being called upon to supply far more people than they were ever designed for.

We can keep ignoring the problem, or we can address it. And at the same time that we work on our own crumbling infrastructure, it’s worth having a thought about how to implement better infrastructure from the start in regions that don’t even have an infrastructure yet. The lessons we are learning can be applied in other places, working with local communities to design systems for things like water purification that are functional, sustainable, and maintainable. Installing infrastructure does no good if it breaks down in a few years, after all, or if people face a crisis point several decades on.