I got my first full-time newspaper job when I was 23, and it paid next to nothing. In fact, if I broke it down by the hour, I made less than in the stopgap post-college job I’d held previously, setting up banquet tables in a hotel.
My car was a beat-up 1964 Rambler. The rear tires were getting bald, but I “couldn’t afford” new ones. That is, until the day I was driving to the county seat on a state highway in heavy rain, and those tires hydroplaned.
In a flash, water spray obscured the windshield, and I was in a spin, my clipboard flying across the car. I braced for a crash with an oncoming truck or for a rollover into the ditch. Instead, the rear end thumped into a soft embankment, the car swung around and stopped on the highway shoulder, facing in the wrong direction.
I was unhurt, and I just turned around and drove away. But I might have been killed and could have taken another driver with me. Guess what I bought that very day, before driving home from the county seat. Right — two new rear tires.
What we can afford
What has that to do with water and wastewater? Actually, a lot. The lesson is that it’s risky to forestall spending money on necessities. In these times, when the word “austerity” is in vogue, we hear a lot about things our nation can “no longer afford.”
Those things apparently include sound water and wastewater infrastructure. At the federal level and in many states, getting funds approved for almost any purpose is a struggle. This isn’t true only of what some might call luxuries. It’s also true of basic facilities like roads, schools and underground piping — not just money to build them but to keep up what already exists.
Let’s leave aside all the politics of taxation and spending and look at the stark reality. Infrastructure has to be maintained. If we neglect it, it is not going to improve with age, no more than my Rambler’s tires were going to grow new tread if I waited.
Postponing maintenance almost always ends up costing more. We know this, in many cases from personal experience. One more year with the aging shingles can mean a water-soaked ceiling and a big puddle on the living room carpet. A neglected fall furnace inspection can mean loss of heat on a subzero night and a very expensive emergency service call. And so it goes.
A bill in disguise?
What’s the result of neglected maintenance on water and wastewater treatment plants and water and sewer piping? Higher costs to handle I&I water at the treatment plant. Permit violations. Equipment breakdowns, inefficiency and wasted energy. Sanitary sewer overflows. Drinking water leaking from pipes into the ground. Main breaks and sinkholes. Compromised water purity.
And after that, and all it entails, the infrastructure still needs to be repaired and updated, at much greater cost than if it had simply been cared for properly. We all know this, and our elected officials should, too.
So, what is this “can’t afford” mentality getting us? A sign on the wall at my first newspaper workplace said: “If you can’t find time to do it right, how will you find time to do it over?” A corollary for these times might be: “If we can’t afford to maintain it, how will we afford to fix it when it breaks?”
It’s a supreme irony: There is a very good chance that persistent cuts in funding — sold to the public as savings — may actually represent a huge bill for all sorts of problems. All but the most aware citizens may never notice, unless and until a sinkhole eats half of their city’s downtown.
It’s not optional
When it comes to water and wastewater infrastructure, the simple truth is: We built it, we have to maintain it. The word “afford” should not even be in the conversation. The “afford” should be, must be, built right into the water rates, sewer rates and taxes we pay — end of discussion. The alternative is to endure service disruptions, environmental degradation and greater expense.
And finally, on basic principle, as a participant in the water and wastewater industry, and as a plain old citizen, I am sick and bloody tired of politicians telling me what this generally incredible and extremely wealthy country “can’t afford.”