I've been trying to follow the ramifications of the Flint, Michigan water crisis. It's a tangled web of political influence-peddling, State and local agencies at cross purposes, and a refusal on the part of many people, from the Governor of Michigan down to the local water department, to accept responsibility for their part in the scandal.
What I hadn't considered was that the crisis in Flint is a bellwether for the same problem in countless other US cities. Fortune reports:
Lead pipes are prevalent in cities that were developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries, meaning all the major metropolitan areas in the Northeast, Midwest, and California ... The American Water Association, a group representing utilities nationwide, recently gave the Associated Press an estimate that there are 6.5 million lead pipes in use in the U.S.
. . .
Before American cities can accelerate their lead-pipe replacement plans, as recommended by the EPA’s drinking-water council, they’ll need to answer one major question: Who will pay for all this work?
Most U.S. cities, according to Michael Deane, executive director of the National Association of Water Companies, have budgeted in terms of a “300-year replacement cycle to replace the pipes in the ground.” But the American Society of Civil Engineers say pipes reach the end of their useful lives in 95 years. In other words, cities’ budgets are woefully inadequate for replacement needs. The ASCE said some studies estimated an additional $1 trillion should be spent over a 25-year period for the most urgently needed pipe replacements—lead and otherwise.
Most cities take a piecemeal approach, replacing sections of lead pipe only when they fail. That may heighten the risk of water contamination. And some research suggests that removing some lead pipes can cause leaching from others nearby.
If cities don’t “get ahead” of the aging pipe problem, they will end up paying in the long term, Deane warned in an interview with Fortune some months ago. “Replacing infrastructure gets very, very difficult particularly in urban areas…. It’s very, very difficult to dig up pipe and very costly. Too often, there’s a disconnect in people’s understanding…. [To] receive the water delivered by that infrastructure, they as customers need to pay for that infrastructure.”
. . .
Modern water crises have been anticipated in places such as Israel, California, and Australia, all of which prioritize water planning. But if it can happen in Flint, a stone’s throw from the largest bodies of freshwater in the world, a crisis like this can happen anywhere.
There's more at the link. It's well worth reading the entire article in full, to gain a broader understanding of the problem.
One trillion dollars to upgrade older water pipes? And that's only the most urgent and immediate need? How many more trillions will be required to fix non-urgent, non-immediate problems? When you put that sort of money together with the sums bandied about to repair other elements of our infrastructure, plus that needed to upgrade and secure our electric grid . . . the figures become even more mind-boggling. We could be looking at multiple trillions of dollars over the next couple of decades - and that's just to fix the most serious problems.
Where's that money to come from? You guessed it: out of our pockets, the taxpayers of this nation. You say it should come from business taxes, rather than taxes on consumers? Well, just how do you think businesses calculate the prices they charge us to buy their goods and services? They factor their tax bills into those prices. Taxes on businesses are just another way of taxing the consumer who buys from those businesses. What's more, I'm willing to bet that the most seriously affected cities and areas will demand Federal subsidies to help them pay for the work. Given that they represent concentrations of voters, they're likely to get it. That means that those of us who don't live in those cities and areas, but who pay Federal taxes, will end up subsidizing them, whether we like it or not - even if we live in a different state.
Not a cheery prospect.