Perfect the Enemy of Good

I wrote a blog post on February 15, 2015, called, The Real Trick to Making America Great Again. Although the title plays off Trump’s MAGA, it really had nothing to do with Trump. Rather, I wrote that, “[t]he singular most significant action each of us can take this year is to demand the members of Congress put the good of the country ahead of partisan gamesmanship and special interests.”

Six-plus years later, and the problem is even worse. So is the problem the post was really about, which is the state of America’s infrastructure and Federal government’s responsibility to do something about it – because ultimately, they are the only entity that can because the problem is so huge.

The most recent Infrastructure Report Card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) gives our Nation’s infrastructure a D+, and states we need to invest $3.6 trillion by 2020 just to get it up to standard. The number one solution toward beginning to raise the grade according to ASCE is to, “increase leadership in infrastructure renewal” and the organization maintains, “America’s infrastructure needs bold leadership and a compelling vision at the national level”.

Fortunately, Americans demanded action and leaders stepped up, [sarcasm cued], raising our country’s infrastructure score all the way up to a C- since 2015. Okay, okay, at least we are moving in the right direction. But, way too little has been done as the ACSE points out on its website:

There is a water main break every two minutes and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water lost each day in the U.S., enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.

Growing wear and tear on our nation’s roads have left 43% of our public roadways in poor or mediocre condition, a number that has remained stagnant over the past several years.

There are 30,000 miles of inventoried levees across the U.S., and an additional 10,000 miles of levees whose location and condition are unknown.

These are just three examples of the scope of the problem and the cost of addressing them is increasing every day. In 2015, an expert panel at the University of Virginia determined we needed to spend $134 to $194 billion more each year through 2035 just to maintain current infrastructure.

The ASCE Infrastructure Report is comprehensive, addressing 18 different categories of infrastructure including: aviation, bridges, broadband, dams, drinking water, energy, hazardous waste, inland waterways, levees, public parks, ports, rail, roads, schools, solid waste, stormwater, transit, and wastewater. It also provides a state-by-state look at these infrastructure categories. The good news is, Arizona is slightly better than the national score with a C grade. Our worst areas are roads with a D+ and no one who drives on them should be surprised by that grade. And the problem isn’t just the jarring rides we experience but also the additional “tax” we pay because our roads aren’t properly maintained. Even in 2015, “[o]ur substandard roads, cost urban motorists $700 to $1,000 per driver in repairs, wear and tear, and fuel. This [didn’t] even count the lost time involved in lower speeds and detours.” At least Arizona’s bridges are okay, earning a B+ score. Our drinking water, levees, dams and wastewater need work though, earning a C-.

The really good news is that Congress is closer than they’ve been in a very long time, to actually taking action to help remedy the problem. The U.S. Senate actually passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill by a 69-30 vote on August 10th, after months of negotiation. This was down from the $2 trillion or so President Biden wanted, but he supports the bipartisan bill because as stated in a White House fact sheet,

President Biden believes that we must invest in our country and in our people, creating good-paying union jobs, tackling the climate crisis, and growing the economy sustainably, and equitably for decades to come. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework is a critical step in accomplishing these objectives.

He also knows that “democracy requires compromise“, and that is why I side with the nine moderate U.S. House Democrats threatening to oppose Biden’s $3.5 trillion social policy package unless the infrastructure bill is first signed into law. Yes, I get that we need to go big. But…going big can also result in a bust and we just can’t take that risk. Our nation, as well as the rest of the world, is already dealing with a third COVID resurgence and the devastating impacts of climate change, do we really need to add more crumbling infrastructure to the existing chaos?

It is sad that a critically needed bipartisan infrastructure bill should be such a heavy lift but that’s today’s reality. Adding another very complex layer of political maneuvering on top of the achievable for a slight chance of the possible, just doesn’t seem smart. That is evidently the feeling of the nine moderate Dems promising to hold out on $3.5T until the $1.2T is passed. Obtained by the New York Times, they wrote a letter to Nancy Pelosi in which they said,

Some have suggested that we hold off on considering the Senate infrastructure bill for months until the reconciliation process is completed. We disagree. With the livelihoods of hardworking American families at stake, we simply can’t afford months of unnecessary delays and risk squandering this once-in-a-century, bipartisan infrastructure package. Time to get shovels in the ground and people to work. We will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law.

This certainly puts Pelosi in a pickle since House progressives are insisting the Senate must vote on the social spending package before she moves the infrastructure bill in the House. I have faith that if anyone can navigate this minefield, it is the 17th-term U.S. Representative from California. I’m pretty confident actually, that she is working it extremely hard. She knows after all, that this isn’t just about fixing America’s infrastructure. It is also, as President Biden said of the infrastructure bill passage in the Senate, “we proved that democracy can still work”. Yes, $3.5T for social policies would be great and is badly needed. But let’s not let perfect be the enemy of good. It would be really good to get some stuff fixed. It would be even better to prove our democracy isn’t totally broken. Yes, that would be really, really good.

Water…an issue ALMOST as important as public education

I just finished reading a novel called The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi. The premise of the book is that the American Southwest has been decimated by drought. Nevada and Arizona are fighting over dwindling resources while California gets ready to take the entire Colorado River for itself.   Although a work of fiction, the book really hits home because most of the story takes place in Phoenix, about two hours north of where I live. In the novel, Phoenix has become one large dustbowl where the average person’s biggest concern each day is finding drinking water. Times are so desperate, that people use a product called “Clearsacs” into which they urinate. These Clearsacs have a filtering capability that once again makes the water drinkable.   The entire premise is just too plausible to not be scary.

Living in Arizona, you can’t but help wonder how long the water will last and why we aren’t doing more to conserve it. The average Arizonan uses about 100 gallons per day, with about 70% of that used outdoors (watering plants, swimming pools, washing cars), especially in the summer.[i] One of the driest states in the Nation, Arizona receives a statewide average of only 12.5 inches per year. It is also one of the fastest growing with a population of over 6 million in 2010, which is projected to grow to 9.5 million by 2025. Municipal (including residences) needs account for 25 percent of our water usage with industrial accounting for another six percent and agricultural accounting for 69 percent. We get our water from three major sources: surface water (including the Colorado River), groundwater and reclaimed water. Approximately 43 percent of our water comes from groundwater sources, or aquifers. Unfortunately, we’ve been pumping out these aquifers faster than the water is replenished, creating a condition called overdraft. Although many smart people are working to solve this problem, it won’t be easy or cheap and we haven’t yet found the solution.[ii]

Most people however, are probably insufficiently incentivized to take appropriate action.   After all, the price of water does not correlate to its replacement cost. Rather, rates vary because the cost to provide the water varies, since water rates are set to be revenue neutral.[iii] According to the American Society of Civil Engineers in their 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, Arizona’s approximately 800 community water systems will need $7.4 billion for upgrades over the next 20 years including: $5 billion to replace or rehabilitate deteriorating water lines, $1.4 billion to construct, expand, and rehabilitate treatment infrastructure, $684 million to construct or rehabilitate water storage reservoirs, and $334 million to construct or rehabilitate wells or surface water intake structures. As the infrastructure ages, pipes deteriorate and break causing street and property damage and leak. In addition, valuable treated water is wasted and steel water storage tanks need to be sand blasted and recoated to prevent rust and deterioration. Equipment such as pumps and motors also wear out and require replacement. In Arizona, that translates to over 2,600 miles of transmission and distribution mains that currently need rehabilitation or replacement.[iv]

Fortunately, (or unfortunately, depending on where you live), the current system of pricing water results in widely different costs to the consumer. For example, in Phoenix’s East Valley, prices for water vary from $33.79 for 9,000 gallons of water a month in Surprise, to $66.57 in El Mirage according to a Surprise study.[v] In SaddleBrooke, an active adult community 25 miles north of Tucson, that same amount would result in charges of approximately $25.[vi]

With only one percent of the Earth’s water being fresh water, it is clear water is a valuable resource. Thomas Fuller, a physician, preacher and intellectual, was certainly prescient when he said back in 1732: “We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.”[vii] Why then, do we not charge accordingly for it? The price should certainly include the cost of providing the water and maintaining the infrastructure to deliver it. It also though, should include a value for the water itself. That is the only way most people will come to value it as an important resource.

Unlike the Greatest Generation, Baby Boomers haven’t done much to ensure future sustainability. It is time we stepped up to continue what our parents, and their parents, started. It is time we stopped just “eating the bread” but started “making it” as well.

[i] http://www.azwater.gov/AzDWR/StatewidePlanning/Conservation2/Residential/Residential_Home2.htm

[ii] http://arizonaexperience.org/people/arizonas-water-uses-and-sources

[iii] http://www.slate.com/blogs/business_insider/2013/07/12/cost_of_bottled_water_vs_tap_water_the_difference_will_shock_you.html

[iv] http://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/arizona/arizona-overview/

[v] http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/surprise/2014/04/16/water-rates-vary-phoenix-metro-area/7751735/

[vi] SaddleBrooke Yahoo Group, Sat Jul 11, 2015 5:42 pm (PDT) . Posted by: “Duncan Fletcher” drfletcher1

[vii] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/43481-we-never-know-the-worth-of-water-till-the-well