Making It Local

A Minnesota coalition assembles a compelling video about the importance of investing in drinking water, sanitary sewer and stormwater infrastructure

There are various reasons why it’s tough to engage the public on water infrastructure issues. One, the pipes are out of sight and out of mind. Two, the concept is a little abstract — people don’t worry about piping until a break causes them a problem.

Three, talk tends to focus on infrastructure nationally, making it hard for people to relate at the hometown level.

A gallant group in Minnesota has taken on the challenge of making the infrastructure crisis more immediate. They’ve created a 56-minute TV documentary, “Liquid Assets Minnesota,” that shows from the perspective of local officials why it’s essential to take care of water piping and other buried assets.

The program is a state-specific spinoff from the 2009 documentary, “Liquid Assets: The Story of Our Water Infrastructure,” produced by Penn State Public Television and supported by major water, wastewater and other industry associations. The Minnesota program is important because it can provide a blueprint for groups in other states who need to deliver their own infrastructure messages.


See it, feel it

“Liquid Assets Minnesota,” more than two years in the making, is built around unscripted, on-camera conversations with 33 people, from mayors and city council members, to front-line workers, to representatives of agencies like the Minnesota Department of Health and the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Council.

The interviews include representatives from 12 Minnesota cities — large and small, new and old, rural and metropolitan. The comments are frank, clear, and from the heart. The visuals are compelling.

An early section covers drinking water infrastructure and focuses on the City of Duluth, a major funding source for the program. Workers are shown down in a trench hammering plugs into aging pipes from which water leaks shoot out as if from a pressurized garden hose.

The program does not beat around the bush when it comes to the essential issue: paying for infrastructure upkeep through water and sewer rates that are truly adequate. In one sequence, Duluth mayor Don Ness states, “From a political standpoint, every politician wants to keep rates low, and they want to tell their constituents that they can have all these services at the lowest possible cost.

“Unfortunately, what that has led to is political decision-making that has under-invested in the capital of our water and sewer systems. For decades and decades, politicians have gotten away with lower rates, which is popular with the voters, but the integrity of the systems has declined to the point that we’re now seeing a tremendous increase in cost to fix a broken system.”


Collaborative venture

Many hands were at work to make this program. They worked under the umbrella of BluePrint Minnesota, a gathering of public and private infrastructure leaders formed for the express purpose of creating the documentary.

The program is a co-production of Twin Cities Public Television’s Minnesota Channel and the Central States Water Environment Association, Minnesota Section, in cooperation with multiple Minnesota-based organizations.

Major funding sources included the City of Duluth, the West Central Initiative (a regional community foundation) and the Minnesota chapter of the American Planning Association (a not-for-profit educational organization that promotes development of vital communities). The program also received funding from numerous water, wastewater, public works and engineering associations, businesses, and environmental groups.

The planners’ aim from the outset was to document successes and failures, focusing on real solutions and real people. To help keep the cost affordable, Twin Cities Public TV trained people in the water professions to film interviews using handheld video cameras. Public TV shot the interviews with key experts.


Seeing what’s below

One can hope this program gets shown to a great many people in Minnesota. In another segment from the program, Duluth public works and utilities director Jim Benning observes, “It’s easy to look at a street and know you’re driving on a bad street, but if they had the ability to look underground and see these pipes that are 100 years old or 120 years old, and know that they have a finite life, that would be just wonderful.

“People I think would have a better understanding that this stuff doesn’t last forever. People really need to see what’s underneath the ground.”

The “Liquid Assets Minnesota” program provides perhaps the best look citizens can get without actually watching a leak-repair crew at work.

This program is worthwhile viewing even for members of “the choir,” as it shows how to make a compelling case in any state for infrastructure renewal. You can view it at &select_index=0&popup=yes.

Take the time and have a look.


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