A number of years ago I had the pleasure of speaking with archeaologist Bryan Fagan for an hour or so before a presentation he gave at a conference. Dr. Fagan is a modern-day Indiana Jones, who has been all over the world studying ancient ruins. Dr. Fagan expressed his career as “50 years of studying drainage ditches,” but with studying drainage ditches he could provide you with the rise and fall of civilizations through history. His book Elixir outlines a number of these civilizations: Egyptian, Babylonia, Southeast Asia, and even the American West. His findings were that the civilization expended as far as infrastructure could be constructed to allow water to flow to where it was needed, whether that was Alexandria or Ur. Later civilizations expanded and developed as technology allowed water to flow further. Rome demonstrated that water could be moved with more than ditches, which would have been a severe limitation for Rome and other civilizations based in dry areas with topography. The Romans constructed extensive tunnels and aqueducts to supply Rome with water from mountains to the east and north. A recent article noted that we probably know about 20% of the Roman tunnel system as we keep discovering more of it each year – tunnels lost in the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome. Dr. Fagan notes that it was access to water that allowed human civilizations to develop and evolve. It is why a number of engineering organizations like Water for People and Engineers Without Borders focus their efforts on providing access to clean water to people in Third World countries. It is their only way to get to the modern world. All other infrastructure: roads, major buildings, etc., result from the access to clean water that allows people to be healthy and productive.
So if civilization rises and falls with access to water, why is it so hard to get public officials to fund water supply and rehabilitation projects? We talk of an infrastructure crisis in the United States because our average water and sewer infrastructure systems are working on 50 years old and deterioration is evident. We have many mid-western communities with water, but no customers to pay for deteriorating infrastructure (Detroit), and southeastern utilities that have lost factories that supported the bulk of their utility, and insufficient growth in the customer base to deal with operations and maintenance. As a result, outages and breaks occur more frequently, costing more money to repair, but under the auspices of maintaining rates, the revenues do not increase to support the needed repairs.
At least the southeast has surface supplies, albeit perhaps limited, which constrains growth (Atlanta), but our fastest growth often occurs in areas we know have limited precipitation, like a lot of the American West. Yet somehow we expect groundwater sources that do not recharge locally, to sustain the community indefinitely without disruption – ignoring the fact that history tells us communities cease to function when water supplies are exhausted. USGS identified many areas that have long-term permanent declines in aquifers as a result of pumpage for agricultural and community uses. No one raises the question about the aquifer levels – permits get issued, but little data is gathered and very limited plans are available in most places to deal with the declines. And no one raises a question about aquifer levels because stopping growth to deal with water supplies is not in conformance with the desire to grow, which is required to support additional services demanded by the community.
No one questions how to secure the water either, much of which has been “created” by federal tax dollars spend over 50 years ago during the era of great dam building (1920-1960). However, as these systems and populations age, the concern about costs will continue to engender discussion. And hand wringing. Water costs money. Water creates civilization and sustains it. When we take it for granted, it becomes all too easy to fall behind the proverbial “eight-ball,” and the system crashes. It is a testament to the utility personnel – the managers, engineers and operators – that these systems continue to operate as they do. But bailing wire and duct tape only go so far. We need to develop a frank discussion about the need to infuse funds – local, federal, state and private – into addressing our infrastructure needs. The dialog needs to commence sooner, as opposed to after failure.