Manage episode 297900569 series 121090
It's here! Today is the first day of our Infrastructure In Real Life series!
We're talking about water - drinking water, waste water, storm water. How it gets where we want it and how we keep it safe and clean. We spoke to local experts like Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova of the Navajo Nation and John Hodges of Paducah, KY. We also talked to Adie Tomer and Joseph Kane from the Brookings Institute to get a big-picture perspective on how water infrastructure works.
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Joseph Kane, Senior Research Associate and Associate Fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program
Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova, Principal Hydrologist, Navajo Nation
John Hodges, Director of the McCracken County Joint Sewer Agency
Adie Tomer, Fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program
2.1 billion people lack safe drinking water at home, more than twice as many lack safe sanitation (World Health Organization)
The History of Plumbing (Reddi Plumbing)
History of Plumbing in America (Plumbing Supply)
Universal Access to Clean Water for Tribes in the Colorado River Basin (Natural Resources Policy)
A Battle Between a Great City and a Great Lake (The New York Times)
The COVID-19 Response in Indian Country (Center for American Progress)
Rebuild with purpose: An Affirmative Vision for 21st Century American Infrastructure (Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings)
America's Infrastructure Scores a C- (Infrastructure Report Card)
Breaking down Biden’s $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan (Politico Pro)
Misc. Voices: [00:00:00] Water has been poisoned with lead for months. Hundreds of thousands of people in Toledo, Ohio without water now for a second day. Wildfires are scorching the west coast.
The whole town was out of water. The showers, cooking food, the children brushing their teeth, you know, simple things we take for granted. That's another hiccup we are facing, money.
President Joe Biden: [00:00:24] It's a once in a generation investment in America. It will create millions of jobs. It's bold, yes, but we can get it done.
Sarah: [00:00:48] From today's bills to tomorrow's jobs.
Beth: [00:00:51] We're looking for the government at work and our tap water, light switches and bridges and broadband.
Sarah: [00:00:56] You're listening to Pantsuit Politics' summer series:
Beth: [00:00:59] Infrastructure in Real Life.
Hello, and thank you so much for joining us for Pantsuit Politics' summer series on infrastructure. We are delighted to be here with you. If you don't know who we are uh, we are Sarah and Beth. We sit down together twice, every week as citizens to process the news. We do something a little different in July though, where we step back and work for most of the year preparing to discuss one particular topic and this year that topic is infrastructure.
In this summer series, we're tackling the past present and future of what we traditionally think of when we think of infrastructure, roads, bridges, the electrical grid, [00:02:00] as well as pushing ourselves to see emerging infrastructure like broad man and childcare more clearly.
Sarah: [00:02:06] Now you may have heard that there is a massive new infrastructure plan before Congress, but this series isn't really about the politics of that plan. It's about how we interact with infrastructure as citizens. It's about getting curious about the infrastructure all around us and what it takes to build, maintain, and modernize that infrastructure and it's about seeing the government at work. When you pass a fire hydrant or you drive over a bridge, or you turn on your faucet, thinking about who fixes the potholes and how and why the light switch is reliable.
Beth: [00:02:37] We have interviewed approximately nine zillion, as our team put it, experts and academics all through the spring to get their perspectives on the state of American infrastructure, how it works, where it isn't working and to hear their hopes for the future. So you're going to hear their voices throughout the series. We're starting today with water, then making our way through electricity, transportation, broadband, and childcare.
[00:03:00] Sarah: [00:03:12] Of what constitutes infrastructure really has been a heated political debate lately so let's talk about how we are going to use that term on the series. So what is infrastructure? If America's global economic success was built by its workers, then infrastructure is the foundation upon which that work was performed. It was the utilities that allowed us to live together and work together. It was the public education system that allowed us to educate our workers. It was the roads and bridges that allowed us to transport goods and ourselves across the country. We are a big country after all and when we do big things together, we require a lot of support. Infrastructure? Is that support?
Beth: [00:03:53] One of the reasons this is so relevant to your real life is because we pay for this infrastructure and we do want to put [00:04:00] real numbers on what we're talking about. So we've done a listener survey and thanks to all of you who participated that we'll reference throughout this series. We heard from people all over the country and we'll be sharing those results with you as we go.
For today, as we talk about water, we heard from our listeners that most people are paying between $50 and $150 a month for water but those costs can really vary, especially in the summer, if you're watering your lawn or washing your car and your usage goes way up. We have people reporting between two and $300 a month for those peak months, but just think about this 50 to $150 a month, or even to $300 a month for the most essential thing, we need to live our lives as we do. It's pretty remarkable.
Sarah: [00:04:43] But really we want to make that number, like the individual costs, just a piece of the conversation, because we really don't want to think about infrastructure merely as consumers, but we really also want to talk about, think about it, push [00:05:00] ourselves to see infrastructure from the perspective as citizens. After all access to reliable safe water makes an enormous difference in our economy and in our public health and our lives. Three in 10 people worldwide do not have that access. Millions of people still have to walk at least 30 minutes a day to carry water to their homes across the world. When clean water isn't reliable and constantly available, diseases proliferate, opportunities diminish and people lose their lives.
Beth: [00:05:32] So as we think about that definition of infrastructure, as the support upon which we flourish as a country, we want to also think about each component of infrastructure. We take a lot of our infrastructure for granted, and it's much more complex than meets the eye so when we say water, what exactly do we mean?
Joseph Kane: [00:05:53] My name is Joseph Kane and I'm associate fellow at the Brookings institution. As I define it, water [00:06:00] infrastructure includes drinking water infrastructure. It includes wastewater infrastructure, sort of our toilets and, and all that and then stormwater infrastructure. So whenever it rains outside and you see water going into different sewers or drains, that's part of water infrastructure too. So it's the combination of all of these different physical facilities, our pipes, our treatment plants, our sewers, that all make up this network, that's in many places, invisible or buried. It's sort of out of sight out of mind until, until there is a leak or there's a water main break or, you know, it's an essential service that we take for granted in many cases.
Beth: [00:06:39] Let's think a little bit about where we've been with water throughout our history. Controlling water supply in some form or fashion has been one of the early hallmarks of infrastructure throughout the world. We saw early plumbing pipes made of baked clay and straw as early as 4,000 BCE and the Egyptians were using copper pipes as early as 2,500 [00:07:00] BCE. The Greeks mastered hot and cold water and invented shower technology. The Romans crafted what were then engineering marbles with their aqueducts, underground plumbing and the first sewer network.
Sarah: [00:07:11] Thank you, Greeks and Romans. I love showers and sewers. Um, of course, indigenous people around the world we're creating irrigation system for crops long before any Europeans set foot in what is now America. Boston pioneered its first water system in the 1600s and Philly worked to provide a safe water supply to its residents in the early 1800s. The white house got running water in 1833. Cities implementing water and plumbing systems throughout the 1800s really allowed those populations to grow exponentially.
Beth: [00:07:43] It's important to remember that throughout much of early American history in particular, enslaved people were the human infrastructure, carrying out waste or working pulley systems that moved water around a building and that's true outside of America as well and something that we don't want to lose sight of. And then the [00:08:00] industrial era and urbanization brought with them epidemics of waterborne diseases, such as typhoid fever. Water treatment technology came about in the early 19 hundreds and drastically reduce these risks in populated areas.
Then we saw the economic expansion that followed world war II create another water crisis because wastewater started to overwhelm the capacity of our rivers, lakes and estuaries. So the second half of the 20th century saw a good deal of legislation passed to confront this crisis and that includes the clean water act of 1970.
Sarah: [00:08:33] Before the clean water act, the solution to pollution was dilution. Had you ever heard that before?
Beth: [00:08:38] But yes, I have.
Sarah: [00:08:40] We don't function under that rubric anymore. Thank goodness.
Beth: [00:08:43] I am grateful for it. I don't know if I could sleep if we did.
Sarah: [00:08:46] Here, the head of my local sewer agency talks about this approach.
John Hodges: [00:08:50] I'm John Hodges and I'm the director of the Paducah, McCracken county joint sewer. In the beginning, there were no sewage treatment plants. Now a [00:09:00] lot of people will think a sewage treatment plant is an old technology and it's not.
In the fifties and the sixties, but when sanitary sewers became prevalent. So in the beginning, when we were all deciding how to get rid of waste and rainwater, besides letting the rainwater sit in the ditch or digging a hole, your outhouse, they said, we're going to, we're going to come up with this piping system.
There were two ways I could do it. One way, they could have a separate piping system for your sanitary flow. So that way, when you flush and you use your dishwasher and all of that, it goes through its own separate piping. That's called a separate system. You also have urban drainage, that you have to take care of and they would have flooding issues back in the turn of the century or the thirties or whatever.
Well, you didn't have sewage treatment plants. You were already going to have to build a pipe to convey what you're flushing, why not make the pipe a little bit bigger and put [00:10:00] your stormwater in the same pipe?
Sarah: [00:10:03] This history is essential because the decisions made when our infrastructure was being built are still affecting communities across the country, including some of those decisions that were built on the foundation of the solution to pollution is dilution and when we say communities, it's important to emphasize that water has always been highly localized. The water that comes through your tap, hose, sprinkler, shower is coming from my specific local source not some national bank of water and rights to access those sources have likely been and might still be hotly contested.
Seven states entered into an agreement to access like me, the large reservoir formed by the Hoover Dam and Nevada. The Supreme court recently ruled in the case between Florida and Georgia over access to the Chattahoochee river. So you're going to hear more about water rights from Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova, who is the principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation and if you're wondering what a hydrologist is, we'll let Dr. [00:11:00] Crystal Tulley-Cordova tell you.
Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova: [00:11:01] A Hydrologist is a person that studies water and it's all aspects of water when we think about it, everything from precipitation to surface water.
Beth: [00:11:16] So why does the Navajo Nation have a principle hydrologist and what are the unique challenges they faced as opposed to other parts of the country?
Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova: [00:11:24] The Navajo nation spans across three states, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, and its over 27,000 square miles. To be able to give a reference point, you know, it's similar in size to West Virginia, or if people internationally, uh, similar in size to Ireland and the work that I do is really involves a number of aspects, including everything from technical work, you know, watershed studies, as well as water rights related work and including [00:12:00] now the COVID-19 response for water access in the Navajo nation.
There's 30 to 40%, as our president has shared through different media outlets, that do not have pipe water and so in addition to not only studying the water by where is it going, how much is there? There's also an opportunity to be able to develop water so that people have more access to water and are able to not only have just any kind of water, but safe water that meets the drinking water quality standards in the United States.
The challenges that we have are related to the spacial size of our area and so it's including, you know, just all over the large area, trying to develop. Uh, unlike more populated areas there's very rural living. We have a sparse population throughout the Navajo nation, but in addition to all those issues, we also have water quality issues [00:13:00] associated with past, uh, abandoned uranium mining, unremediated mines in the area. We'll have some issues with arsenic and uranium while we also have issues with brackish water, and I guess the easiest way to put it might be really salty water, uh, that needs to be able to have technologies like reverse osmosis or nano-filtration and other methods to try and clean up that water so that we can be able to use it. Desalination efforts, basically.
Beth: [00:13:29] Reverse osmosis and nano-filtration are processes we use to make water safe for drinking. An amazing thing about water is that it can't really get too dirty to clean with the technology we have available. Desalination removes salts and other minerals from water to make it suitable for drinking. With the technology we have today, we can make water so pure that we actually have to add some minerals back to make it taste good to us.
Sarah: [00:13:55] So what does water infrastructure look like on the ground? Here [00:14:00] is Dr. Tulley-Cordova again, talking about how this is applicable to communities across the country, but specifically the Navajo Nation.
Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova: [00:14:07] It's easy to just think, like when I turned the faucet, the water should come on and, you know, as someone who uses water, that's what you expect as a municipal payer for that water. Right. But what people don't understand is there's a lot to be able to get that water to come out of your faucet. So there's water lines. If you live in a very flat area, there's booster pump stations to move the water throughout a large area, there's storage tanks. Depending on where you get your water from uh, there are different type of pumps that may be used. A lot of the Navajo nation water is ground from the ground and so we have pumps bringing that water up to the surface, but with water rights, we resolve for a couple of areas, you know, the San Juan river, as well as the Utah Navajo water rights, we have the opportunity to provide [00:15:00] sustainability in our water supply by diversifying it with surface water.
So just thinking about all those aspects, the mechanical aspects, the hydraulic, um, aspects of getting your water to where it is, there's a lot of infrastructure involved and that infrastructure, although we would like to wish like with a new car, right, if we don't do that oil change, we don't do those rotations, you will gradually see that infrastructure, what has been created, to be able to break down and the same is true when you have a vehicle. The same is also true when you use water lines and pumps on a daily basis.
Sarah: [00:15:36] As our water infrastructure breaks down and as we try to build new infrastructure resilient to the challenges of the next century, we really have an opportunity.
Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova: [00:15:46] The water rights, the way they were divvied up and who was at the table when that occurred, tribes were not at the table. Indigenous people were not at the table and, you know, we use what we could from water. We'd never use, we never had the system [00:16:00] of water rights that were set up as a natural user in the environment that we have. That's very different than the way water rights are set up through the states, through their federal government.
Beth: [00:16:10] I love that metaphor of taking care of the car and making sure that we're maintaining it as we're using it and I also love how Dr. Tulley-Cordova Cordova points out that the concept of water rights is a really different way of thinking about resources then where the Navajo nation starts and it's kind of a uniquely American property centric approach to figuring out how to manage something that really is bigger than property can contain.
You know, we have all the water on earth that has ever been and that we will ever have. We can't really lose it, but we have to care for it and we cannot keep it where we want it and that challenge I think, is really important to consider, as we think about different communities sharing this resource that's vital for everyone.
Sarah: [00:16:55] You know, one of the first books we picked for our book club was The Big Thirst and it changed so much [00:17:00] of my thinking about water. I mean, I, I didn't understand that we had all the water we were going to have. I didn't understand that you can remove so much from water. I definitely didn't understand you had to add stuff back to make it taste like drinking water and I think that book really taught me to see water less through the prism of property and even resources, but more, you know through the prism of life, right?
Like there's just no life on earth without water and I think, you know, we are putting this infrastructure around something that is so big and so essential in ways that sometimes I just want to pat us on the shoulder and say like, oh, that's, that's cute what you're trying to do there with water, but we have to do something. We have to find some foundation upon which to rest and I just hope that finding new ways to improve our infrastructure and adapt our infrastructure [00:18:00] goes along with new and evolved ways of thinking about water and the role in our lives.
Beth: [00:18:05] Yeah. The key takeaway for me from The Big Thirst is to have an enormous amount of respect for water and to understand that what comes out of my faucet was cosmic molecules at one point, and then dinosaur pee several times over and then snow on a mountain and the fact that it gets to me in such pristine condition is nearly a miracle and that it can come through me and exist in generations to come in the same clean format, it's amazing and so I do think as we try to manage water in practical terms for an ever-growing population, maintaining that sense of respect for water is really important.
Sarah: [00:18:59] The paradox [00:19:00] of infrastructure, especially with water is that we are both talking about the philosophy of these great natural resources and the essential nature in our lives and also the very pragmatic reality of how to bring it into our homes, our businesses, our local communities, and the complicated nature of that. The complicated nature of every level of oversight. You see that so clearly with water, it's incredibly diverse. It's very segmented across local state and federal responsibilities. We have over 50,000 water utilities across the United States. Here's Joseph Kane, again.
Joseph Kane: [00:19:43] It's highly varied depending on where you are, where if you're in California, water scarcity maybe a bigger issue than, than if you're in the great lakes region where perhaps older infrastructure or lead pipes, right might be a bigger concern. So this diversity and [00:20:00] magnitude of me. All across the country, I think speaks to the, the local and state leadership we see on our water infrastructure. They're actually responsible for 95% of total public spending every year on water infrastructure. The federal government's only responsible for about 5% of our public spending.
Beth: [00:20:19] You can imagine upgrading and maintaining 50,000 diverse systems is an incredible challenge.
Joseph Kane: [00:20:27] Some of our pipes, actually date to the civil war. They're actually wooden they're, they're not even metal or plastic. We don't even know where some of our pipes are buried and so when you can't measure or even know where your problems are, it makes it very difficult to determine where the solutions could be and so the physical part of it is certainly a big challenge in, in just sort of the age and, and reliability of these systems.
Sarah: [00:20:52] When we're talking about 50,000 systems, sometimes the best way to gain a perspective is to zoom in on one and so [00:21:00] when I was a commissioner, I was assigned to our local sewer board, one of those key pieces of our water infrastructure and it was absolutely one of the most interesting things I did while in office and I met one of my absolutely most favorite people, John Hodges, who is the director of the McCracken county joint sewer agency and so when we decided to talk about water, I knew that John was one of the first people we had to talk to and our conversation centered on sewer, utility structures in Paducah but the structures he's talking about are similar for many public water, sewer, storm water utilities across the country and of course, it's important to point out that we're talking about sewer, but 20% of US households use a septic system, which means that they aren't connected to a large sewer system at all.
They have tanks on their property that drain their waste into the ground and it filters down through the soil. It's a very normal way, pretty common, particularly in rural America, a way to manage waste that over 21 million households in the US [00:22:00] currently use but here is John with the structure of our local sewer agency.
John Hodges: [00:22:06] The joint center agency was, was formed in 1999 and where we're from, Paducah and McCracken county. McCracken county had several small sewer districts. They were organized differently legally in the city district, which hampered their ability to expand sewers, hampered their ability to, I guess you could say, raise money outside the city and so the city and the county leaders wanting to get together and combine all of the agencies and what they call a joint sewer agency.
A lot of people in rural states have septic tanks and that's the primary disposal and then there are areas that have private systems that were done in the fifties and sixties. So what we've been able to do since we've been born is to do some kind of consolidation work, uh, do a lot of maintenance work on the [00:23:00] system and then, um, try to do, uh, what we call, uh, responsible expansion, you know, to expand sewers out to areas that aren't sewered to spur economic development
Sarah: [00:23:15] And look, municipalities set up their own structures and there's a lot of diversity there, but the one consistency is that they are not free agents. There are many, many regulations at the federal level that apply to all these municipalities.
John Hodges: [00:23:29] Every rule is really established by the federal government and here's what the federal government does. Federal government will come up with the clean water act, and then it will say, okay, state of Kentucky, you are responsible for implementing the clean water act. You are now our authority, and we're only going to intercede when we don't like what you're doing in your authority deal and so the state primarily regulates that. They approve what we do. They approve our discharge permits and those [00:24:00] things but a lot of the language related to those permits are in the federal law.
The states can all modify and do some changes and add, they can't subtract, but they can so from a compliance standpoint, primarily, you're going to be working with your state folks. If you're working with the federal folks, you're either really large or you're in a lot of trouble.
Sarah: [00:24:24] So there are levels of connection at the local state and federal level, but that's not where the interconnectedness ends.
John Hodges: [00:24:31] They're not necessarily going to regulate farming where you do a lot of nitrogen and fertilizer and phosphorus, but Hey, we can make the sanitary sewers get rid of their nitrogen.
We're called the point sewer because we discharge through a pipe, you follow me, to the river. A farmer is not a point source because it just runs off and residents aren't a point source or whatever, but we're a point source. So we have to apply for a permit to discharge, much easier to regulate.
[00:25:00] Beth: [00:25:00] Infrastructure is so interdependent so our water and sewer are very dependent on electricity. You have a power outage, you have sewer problems. If it's out of sight, it's out of mind. When these systems are managed well, we're not thinking about them and we don't remember how important it is and how quickly a lack of prioritization to maintain and upgrade these systems leads us to a crisis. Like what we've seen famously in Flint, Michigan, we've seen it in Toledo. We saw in Texas, how quickly when Texas had really extreme winter weather, the loss of electricity led to waterfall out.
Sarah: [00:25:37] Our nation's water pipes are 45 years old on average, including 10 million lead service lines and most of those systems are managed on state or local levels. Here's a Adie Tomer from the Brookings Institute to help us think about what happened.
Adie Tomer: [00:25:51] In one of the examples we try to tell folks about is the Flint water crisis right. Now, obviously, I mean, basically the [00:26:00] worst avoidable, truly avoidable human tragedy in infrastructure in the last decade, plus if not longer. In fact you even say Flint people know exactly what you're talking about. As much as that was a water crisis, that was actually a what we call a fiscal crisis or basically Flint did not have enough money. So they used to buy a cleaner water from the Detroit river because the Detroit river would not corrode the lead pipes in Flint's homes.
Because they needed to cut their budget, they switched to the Flint, the Flint river due to decades of pollution and other reasons, had the materials in it that would corrode the lead pipes. When they made that switch, they knew what would happen. Criminal. Legit, criminal like morally criminal and like legally, but everyone was complicit right, and it was because the locality owned their, both their water utility, but they also had responsibility for getting water to their people and the state of Michigan knew this switch happened and didn't come on and help them, which is why the, why [00:27:00] the governor and other parts of their team ended up having legal problems come up. So it's not just saying this in a vacuum, right? Like, oh, state vote my water pipes are local. Okay, great.
Well, here's what happens, right? If you're all of a sudden, if your region adds a ton of jobs, right? Let's say like Amazon picked you like Nashville, right? Like we're going to put a lot of jobs there. Well, you know, Tennessee is not necessarily going to come to save the day. Your local community has to figure out how to handle all those extra people on your roads and on your bus lines and ride, scooter share. Whatever it might be. Right. It works in reverse too. When you're in a struggling community all of a sudden, very difficult choices have to be made on how do we make sure that our roads don't have potholes, right or our drinking water is safe and clean. So it is a huge system with tons of different responsibilities and it's why, you know, our investment needs look really different in different parts of the county.
Beth: [00:27:50] So we have these highly localized disparate systems across the United States where critical infrastructure relies on purely local [00:28:00] funding, even when, as Adie said, the locality has a lot of different factors to balance when nobody consults the infrastructure people before they, before they bring in an Amazon or another giant business. The result is that many of our systems are not being well maintained and modernized. We're not doing that maintenance that Dr. Julie Cordova talked about where we're changing our oil. We take for granted these systems will work constantly reliably and safely without thinking about what that requires of us and we don't prioritize it because it is expensive and because our orientation so often is as consumers. We are thinking about our bills and the price point of our bills seems to be the barrier to updating these hugely expensive systems but they all depend on us as rate payers.
Joseph Kane: [00:28:48] There is a huge funding gap. At a local level, there's a challenge to generate reliable revenues and affordable revenues to pay for these projects because [00:29:00] rate payers, individual households, individual businesses are the ones, you get your water bill every month, or, or it's included in your rental payment for example, rate payers are responsible for providing the revenues for these systems and so, uh, in many cases, the, the scale of our needs has gone up so much that our water bills have gone up quite a bit as well and individual households and businesses, aren't able to keep up with those payments and then in many cases and so we're not necessarily able to stay ahead of, of our existing investment needs, let alone forward-looking investment projects that are needed in these cases.
John Hodges: [00:29:37] A lot of your towns are working really hard to improve their system and the bigger your rate base is the better you can absorb those construction costs. The better you manage your operating costs, the more, you can do capital without having to raise rates.
But like in our town , in Paducah, combined sewers, there's not anybody alive that made that [00:30:00] decision. We have to deal with it. I don't blame the feds for wanting to change how that's done, but you can't dig up every street.
Beth: [00:30:10] I really like how John points out the strain on local management from our failure over time to consistently maintain and upgrade our systems. I think with any problem, the more you let it fester the bigger, the expense when you finally tackle it and that's kind of where we are. The bill is coming due for several generations and it's hitting all of us and even though we have local utility and infrastructure crews that are experts as stretching dollars, at the end of the day, our rates are going to go up.
John Hodges: [00:30:39] I don't know the average across the country, but I do know the average in the, in the state of Kentucky is around, uh, $40 a month.
Joseph Kane: [00:30:47] What is an affordable water rate? You know, traditionally EPA has a national guidance on this it's it's in terms of median, household income but you talked to a lot of utilities and [00:31:00] customers and they'll say, well, it's probably the median household is not the one facing the biggest problems here. It's probably the lower income households, right that are, that are facing these challenges and so how are we beginning to measure affordability in light of those needs, of where those lower income households are based, how are their, uh, economic needs changing, not just during the current recession in the pandemic, but just ongoing?
Beth: [00:31:23] So, as we talked about, when we delay tackling a problem, it only gets more expensive under normal conditions and when we add shifting climate to the mix, what we have to pay for all forms of water structure soon might be orders of magnitude different from where we are today.
John Hodges: [00:31:54] What we had seen last year is our average rainfall in [00:32:00] Paducah was 49 inches for a whole year. In 18 and 19, we hit that in June. You have a higher chance for a much higher intensity rainfall. Well, what I mean with that is a three or four inch rain. You're going to have 40 inches in six months instead of 12 months, there's odds that it's going to, you know, it's going to rain three or four inches in one day, then you also have higher groundwater and when your ground is saturated, where does that water want to go? It wants to leak into it the piping then you have more issues related to that.
Sarah: [00:32:32] And it's not just a changing climate that puts pressure on the system. It's also natural disasters that can destroy water infrastructure. A weather emergency really quickly becomes a public health emergency when it comes to water. We saw that with drinking water supply in Texas, and we had the same issues for hurricanes earthquakes or wildfires.
John Hodges: [00:32:51] The federal government needs to come in and get those people where they're doing, where it's working but I think a lot of it gets down to it, so what happened with us and the ice storm [00:33:00] and evaluating what happens when an event happens and making the changes that you can make to prevent that from happening and some of these towns are big enough that they're going to have money that they can work on. It's just never going to beat and you know, this, there are no quick fixes, right in some of these businesses. There are not. There are some things that you can attack and you can finish quickly but the most of this stuff are years long process and the only way to fix it is to start.
Beth: [00:33:30] So, as we said earlier, we can manage the quality of the water that we have, but we cannot manage where water is. Over the next 50 years, experts thinks the United States might lose access to a full third of our freshwater supply.
Sarah: [00:33:47] And this isn't just about future predictions. We can see a terrible, terrible drought in the west right now where water supply issues are front and center. That's why a lot of communities in the United States and around the world are talking about [00:34:00] innovation.
Beth: [00:34:00] So as source of innovation that we have is water reclamation. We can use our sewer water and clean it and then drink it. This is not a technology issue. It is a marketing issue. The Big Thirst refers to this as the yuck factor. It is also a supply issue. How we move the water back upstream. So that's why so many restrictions on water usage when you're in those drought conditions, focus on outdoor water usage. If we flush the toilet, or we take a long, hot bath we're using a lot of water, but that water can go right back into the system to be treated and used again.
When we water the lawn, the water isn't lost to the whole of the universe, but it is lost to our municipalities control. It is lost to that immediate treatment and reuse within the water system. So we are losing water on earth, but we are losing water in places where people live and where we need to match the water supply to the population and that is a problem.
Sarah: [00:34:58] Even water [00:35:00] reclamation is not a one size fits all solution.
Joseph Kane: [00:35:03] We need to recognize that there are no silver bullets solutions here. That many of these challenges have taken decades to manifest themselves in many ways. They, they, again, they vary so much across different places and they vary so much for, for different people. They're very uneven and how we measure and assess our needs, needs to be I think in terms of, of the users of these systems in terms of lower income households, for example, in terms of, uh, communities of color, in terms of, of our climate issues that, you know, as I like to say, our water policy is climate policy. It's not just on its own dimension.
John Hodges: [00:35:44] Im Joe Biden and I'm looking from a national standpoint, I need to regulate the large bodies of water that I have, and that is, I need to work on that Gulf of Mexico and Arkansas. I need [00:36:00] to make sure that Ohio is somewhat clean and the Mississippi is somewhat clean, knowing that you're going to have other runoff. Then if you're a sewer district guy near a local town guy, our number one thing is to make sure flow goes from point A to point B, and that we have enough capacity in our treatment plants to process that flow so that way new businesses can move into our town and have capacity. You know, everybody talks about infrastructure fixes for this and that. There is no magic solution to anything.
Beth: [00:36:34] I love that John points out there that even though he has to manage this locally, like everyone else at those 50,000 utilities across the country, he is significantly impacted by the decisions being made by his peers throughout the country. You cannot only manage water locally because it is all connected. I think Dr. Tulley-Cordova does such a nice job of helping us think about the fact that we have to work together to [00:37:00] solve these problems because water is essential to life. We do not have any alternatives.
Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova: [00:37:05] What I wish people understood is how important water is to our vitality. Not just to humans, not just to our satisfactory lifestyle, but more so related to everyone. Every living organism that is on the planet relies upon water.
Sarah: [00:37:26] So if so many of our problems in the past have been because we treat water as consumers, as we move into more uncertain future, how do we start to think about water through the lens of citizenship? You know, we hope that one big important piece of this puzzle is better understanding how our utilities work. That's a good first step. Are you on a public or a private system? Is there a local governing board or is it managed by your city and county?
Figuring out how your water utility works and your role to play in it [00:38:00] instead of paying the bill and only looking at whether that number goes up or down, that's a really, really great way to begin to understand our water infrastructure. Your water infrastructure. The infrastructure that makes it possible to water, to flow out of your tap.
Beth: [00:38:17] And thinking about the source for that water, not just who's managing it, but where is it coming from? Is it coming from a lake or what is the supply factor? It's also good to think about our own water usage. You know, we don't get to manage our water usage as closely as we manage other utilities and there is thought about adding, you know, meters to show us every day in our house, how much water we're using but a key first step is just considering how much water you're using outside. Try to look at the cost in that beautiful lawn or the day spent under the sprinkler or the water that you put in your pool. Try to look at golf courses and understand how much water is being used there that cannot immediately go back into the local water system.
[00:39:00] Sarah: [00:38:59] Thinking about your usage, encourages you to think about yourself as a user, instead of just a rate payer. Here is John again on how to be a good sewer user, a good sewer citizen.
John Hodges: [00:39:12] You can affect your own sewer rate. Sewer was only designed for toilet paper and waste, that's it and people think, well, if I throw my prescription medication down there, that it's going to get treated at the sewer plant, it's not. Read the mailers that are in your bill to understand what the issues may be and then also understand that for the most part, you're always going to read about utilities that are struggling and then have a problem. Do you know how many thousands upon thousands of utilities are out there that are just working everyday, trying to be the very best that they can?
Sarah: [00:39:43] And of course, being a good citizen is recognizing our connection to other citizens and our connection to each other and advocating for universal access to clean water for advocating for equity in decision-making. Where the money goes [00:40:00] matters. You know, we want to think about our water usage and our participation in the infrastructure as citizens, but money is a part of infrastructure and so that aspect matters too.
Joseph Kane: [00:40:10] So a lot of places that, that are seeing larger and growing populations that are seeing increases in economic activity. That provides the certainty in terms of revenues for utilities to take on a lot of these projects. Of course, in these regions, too, you have leadership that tends to be more imaginative and that isn't necessarily a political thing. It's, it's just they, because they have that extra capacity, they have the extra wiggle room to try new things, to try new types of designs and new projects. I like to emphasize the economic foundations of the region as being directly tied to well, how we invest in our infrastructure period. Even though it is out of sight and out of mind, for many of us, the reason that it can be better performing or more forward-looking is directly tied to how our [00:41:00] region is doing economically.
Dr. Crystal Tulley-Cordova: [00:41:01] There's something called The Water and Tribes initiative and it's an important movement to be able to advocate for the universal access for clean water in Indian country, to be able to be supportive of tribes, pueblos and nations that are in the United States.
Beth: [00:41:18] I think remembering that focus on equity takes us back to just respecting water. Water is amazing. It's an incredible resource. It is the foundation of life and the most fundamental thing that we can do is look at every other person who shares this planet with us and want them to have equal opportunities to access that water and make sure that we're willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.
Sarah: [00:41:47] Because I live in, uh, an area of the country that often experiences floods, you know, water is this thing that is dangerous when you have too little and [00:42:00] dangerous, when you have too much. The power of that is something that I always try to keep in mind when I think about water and I think about infrastructure is trying to harness that power for the good of all.
That's a big lift. The paradox of that. The tension between not too much, not too little and harnessing that power for everybody is something we're going to talk about a lot as we move through this infrastructure series. As we talk about power, literal energy, as we talk about transportation, as we talk about broadband, that we are trying to come together as human beings to harness something that is bigger than ourselves for the good of everybody. So continue to join us as we explore Infrastructure in Real Life.
Sarah: [00:43:01] Infrastructure in Real Life was produced by Studio D Podcast Production. Alise Napp is our managing director. Megan Hart is our community engagement manager.
Beth: [00:43:07] Special thanks to every expert who spoke to us for this series and our series contributors: Alyssa Maxwell, Monte Lawson, Courtney Verclare and Jordan Bond.
Sarah: [00:43:15] Ray Creative and Kathleen Shannon put together the very cool groovy graphics for this series. You can purchase a companion book box for the series and join our extra credit book club through Wild Geese bookshop.
Beth: Our show is listener supported. Special thanks to our executive producers.
Executive Producers (Read their own names): Martha Bronitsky, Linda Daniel, Ali Edwards, Janice Elliot, Sarah Greepup, Julie Haller, Helen Handley, Tiffany Hassler, Barry Kaufman, Molly Kohrs.
The Kriebs, Laurie LaDow, Lilly McClure, David McWilliams, Jared Minson, Emily Neesley, Danny Ozment, The Pentons, Tawni Peterson, Tracy Puthoff, Sarah Ralph, Jeremy Sequoia, Karin True.
Beth: Amy Whited, Joshua Allen, Morgan McHugh, Nichole Berklas, Paula Bremer and Tim Miller
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Beth: You can connect with us on our website, PantsuitPoliticsShow.com. Sign up for our weekly emails and follow us on Instagram @PantsuitPolitics.
John Hodges: [00:44:24] You can affect your own sewer rate. Flushable wipes are not flushable. Lots of things flush, it just gets down to the point of how long does it take you to drain in the sewer. The sewer was only designed for toilet paper and water. That's it. That's it.