UCLA's Flood Is a Warning of Disasters to Come

2010 natural gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno up north that killed eight people and destroyed dozens of homes, or another one in Allentown, PA in 2011 in which five people died. How about the bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007 that killed 13 people and injured 145. I could go on and on and the future will bring many more stories about such catastrophes.

That’s because they all stem from a single chilling factor. Our nation’s phenomenal economic rise throughout the 20th Century coincided with an incredible amount of infrastructure investment, especially after World War II. In fact, many experts believe the two go hand-in-hand.

Millions upon millions of miles of roads, water and gas pipelines were put in place, which contributed greatly to our prosperity. Unfortunately, most of those projects are now between 50-100 years old and reaching the end of their useful life. It’s a simple fact of life that cement and metal corrode over time, and we are spending nowhere near enough on repairs and upkeep. Cost estimates for modernizing our infrastructure run upwards of $2 trillion over the next decade, yet according to the Council on Foreign Relations, public infrastructure investment, at 2.4% of GDP, is half what it was fifty years ago.

Our water infrastructure is among the oldest of all. Hard to believe, but older U.S. cities like New York, Boston and Philadelphia still rely in part on wooden pipes that date back more than 200 years. Yet even relatively youthful Los Angeles relies on drinking water from pipes that are rapidly deteriorating. The water main that ruptured under Sunset Blvd. and drenched the UCLA campus with more than 10 million gallons of water was 93 years old. Most of the city’s water transmission pipes are that ancient or older.

One expert has calculated that a water line bursts once a minute somewhere in the U.S. Among 1.8 million miles of water lines, that amounts to 540,000 broken pipes spewing precious fresh water every year. Watching torrents of wasted water cascading from Sunset Blvd. on the TV news was especially disheartening here in Southern California, where we are experiencing the worst drought and water shortages of our lifetime.

Investing in water and wastewater facilities is a hard sell politically. Politicians love to channel money into stunning buildings and other fancy projects – and love it, even more, when the structures get named after them. I’ve yet to hear of one that wants a wastewater treatment plant named after him or her.

Infrastructure is a doubly hard sell at a time when worrisome budget deficits dominate much political debate, and the amounts needed for infrastructure are staggering – upwards of $1 trillion over the next two decades for water projects alone. The costs are great because repairing or replacing underground water and sewer mains involve tearing up streets. Not only is this expensive, it annoys the public and disrupts commerce. Like getting a rotten tooth pulled, some things are painful but necessary.

A better argument can be made for stepping up infrastructure spending than most other government largesse. In 2011 the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) sounded an alarm with a study that tied the lack of infrastructure investment to economic losses to consumers and businesses. ASCE calculated that American households will spend $900 per year in higher water rates and lower wages, whiles businesses will suffer $147 billion in increased costs, plus the loss of 700,000 jobs by 2020.

Here in California, geologists warn of a potential statewide catastrophe from a magnitude 6.7 earthquake in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Valley that could cause dozens of levee breaches. In this scenario 300 billion gallons of salt water from San Francisco Bay would contaminate the fresh water supply for two-thirds of California, affecting some 10 million people. It would take months for the water supply to recover. If those levees don’t get shored up, we could experience a disaster surpassing what Hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans.

We at Dutton Plumbing are well equipped to fix plumbing problems that originate in the home or in the lines that connect your home to municipal water and sewer mains. But if the water mains shut off or bleed their contents, we are as helpless as the rest of you. Then we can only act as concerned citizens urging our political leaders to do what is not only right but what is absolutely necessary to protect us from the ravages of crumbling infrastructure.