Infrastructure awareness rising in hurricane era

Public education of water issues is key to improving water and wastewater infrastructure.

Pamela Wolfe, Managing Editor

Public education of water issues is key to improving water and wastewater infrastructure. In the Opening Session of WEFTEC 05, then-President Lynn Orphan of the Water Environment Federation (WEF) called for partners and volunteers to carry out a nationwide water education program to help people understand the importance of adequately funding the least seen and least understood sector of public infrastructure - water and wastewater.

The overarching message of this year’s WEFTEC 05 Opening Session - “Water is life and infrastructure makes it happen” - aptly reminds people that the provision of clean drinking water supply depends absolutely on a society’s commitment to improve and maintain infrastructure.

Although the message was already well understood by most attending the Water & Environment Federation’s 78th Annual Conference & Exhibition, the organization is wise to aggressively promote a water education program throughout the USA in this period of unprecedented attention on water issues. WEFTEC 05 was held in Washington, D.C., USA, from 30 October to 2 November.

The term “infrastructure” in the general public is one that unfortunately makes many typical voters and non-voters yawn. Politicians are often unfairly derided as “policy wonks” if they demonstrate a keen interest and expert knowledge of government policy beyond the interest of most people. Yet hopefully the public may have gained a better appreciation and understanding of the importance of infrastructure in the past year.

In her opening statement, WEF President Lynn Orphan reported that more than half of the media reports following the Katrina and Rita hurricanes mentioned infrastructure. Perhaps for the first time, millions of US citizens realized in graphic detail from media reports along the Gulf Coast how rapidly living conditions can deteriorate without access to clean water and sanitation. This year’s natural disasters, including droughts, earthquakes, the tsunami, and the devastation caused by this year’s endless hurricanes on other nations along the Gulf Coast, have certainly heightened public awareness of the importance of sustainable infrastructure worldwide.

Orphan spoke at length about US infrastructure challenges: “ The problems we face with old and failing infrastructure are big - and they are expensive. It’s not enough to keep with new development, or to upsize systems for growing areas. Now we must face the fact that the pipe that was place in the ground 100 years ago is crumbling, it’s leaking, and it’s polluting.”

“But, with competing priorities on the agendas at the national, state and local levels, it’s no wonder that the more visible issues are the ones funded. People see the issues associated with police, fire and transportation. Our biggest problem may be that people can’t see crumbling pipes and outdated systems.

“Water and wastewater infrastructure is an invisible part of our lives. But the reality is that it’s just a matter of time before problems surface, risking decades of progress and worsening current issues with CSOs (combined sewer overflows) and (SSOs) sanitary sewer overflows. Those of use in the business of cleaning water know the inadequacies of our infrastructure, and we know the urgency of replacing and upgrading our collection and distribution systems, and our facilities.”

She cited EPA’s forecast that upgrades to water and wastewater infrastructure could total US$ 896 billion over then next 20 years. The EPA also contends that if current challenges are not met by 2016, then “history will repeat itself.” Water pollution levels could be similar to levels before the mid-1970s before the Clean Water Act became law in 1977.

To prevent this from happening, WEF developed a three-part, comprehensive plan that maintains (1) utilities must be well managed and appropriately funded to ensure long-term sustainability; (2) the federal government must commit to significant and continuing funding; and (3) the general public must also play a larger role in ensuring that utilities can operate effectively.

WEF developed a water education program with the help of volunteers, staff, and industry professionals to ensure that the plan is not considered a WEF plan, but a water education plan that addresses this last component. Orphan called out to utilities, member associations, and other organizations to partner with WEF in piloting this program to inform the public about infrastructure issues within their communities.

She added: “There is no better time for WEF to deploy a new infrastructure program than now. It is intended to deliver the message that clean water is the key factor in public, environmental and economic health - and that a sustainable infrastructure is essential to ensuring the delivery of clean water services.”

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