Grading and Excavation Contractor Editor's Blog
Tuesday, June 21, 2011 6:49 PM
Rumblings from the Underworld
As the age of municipal plumbing systems passes the century mark, planners find themselves faced with the thorny issue of whether to replace, renovate, or go to Plan C, whatever that might be. No matter what the choice, the chances are that it involves excavation work of some sort as part of the process.
Two of Grading & Excavation Contractor’s sister publications—Stormwater and Water Efficiency—are directly involved with the situation, and another—Erosion Control—gets into the act at least tangentially. (You can view and subscribe to all of our magazines online at www.forester.net.) All three recognize the critical situation our nation finds itself in as we enter the second decade of the 21st Century, forced to face the painful fact that we can no longer ignore the inadequate state of much of our basic (mostly underground) infrastructure. Age, of course, accounts for a lot of the problem, but there are other—equally fundamental—issues as well:
• Population growth over the last 100 years has pushed many systems beyond their design limits. In 1900 the US population was 76 million, only one-third of which (25 million) lived in an urban setting. We were for the most part an agrarian society.
• Today, the US population is 300 million—a 400% increase—70% of which is now urban. That’s an eightfold increase in the demand for basic utility services, huge by any standards, but there’s more.
• Over the past 100 years, urban per capita water consumption has trebled, rising from 60 gpd to 180 gpd. This means that, at the very least, our urban water consumption has risen from 1.5 to 360 billion gpd over the period. I’d be the first to concede that all such figures are suspect. I offer them not for accuracy’s sake, though, but to put into perspective what’s at stake over the next several decades.
Coming to Grips with Crumbling Infrastructure
In the past I’ve gone with an estimated cost range of from $15 and $30 trillion that will be needed between now and 2050 to deal with the entire range of infrastructure shortfalls—transportation and electrical transmission included—but that range is based on what it might take to restore things to an adequate level based on past demands. This brings into focus two antithetical situations: (1) tomorrow’s needs are bound to be greater than today’s and (2) with all the competing needs for public funds, it’s highly unlikely those kinds of monies will be set aside for infrastructural repair or upgrade in anything approaching a proactive manner.
If past actions can be viewed as prolog, we will wait until failures pose such an undeniable threat to public health, safety, and commerce that we are forced beyond finger-in-the-dike solutions. One of the biggest hurdles we will have to overcome is the institutionalization of systems vital to the conduct of our daily lives. One example is centralization, which made sense during the installation and initial build-out of our water, electric, and gas systems, and in many situations it still does. Then too, there are deeply rooted aspects of ownership, jurisdiction, and entitlement that compound the challenges associated with change. But as our urban centers have matured, spread, eroded, and given way to suburbanization, we have to ask ourselves, and those who manage these institutions, whether it makes sense to continue along traditional lines—or should we seek new solutions?
These are challenges that the stewards of our vital municipal services as well as our elected officials must face. In a more immediate way, however, it is we upon whom the burden of accomplishing the multitude of the tasks will fall. The challenge will be great, but the opportunities even greater for those willing to develop the skills and fine-tune the processes necessary to the complete tasks that lie ahead.