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On the Grid

Value Added: Infrastructure is vital to the American economy, but too often, out of sight is out of mind.
On the Grid


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Show Dates

Show 1201: On the Grid
Air date: January 30, 2011



Rob McClendon: Well, infrastructure is vital to the American economy, but too often, out of sight is out of mind. Joining me now is our Courtenay DeHoff.

Courtenay DeHoff: Well pipes, roads and water support the lives we lead, but the average person doesn’t know where they go or even how they work. And a New York Times bestselling author says it’s high time we learn. Across America, cities and towns, homes and businesses, all depend on one basic resource, water, a resource that many take for granted.

Scott Huler: The challenges are our behavior. What we need to do to improve our water is use less of it, treat it more carefully, keep the storm water where it belongs, which is where it falls rather than racing downstream hours after it falls.

[talking in background]

Courtenay: Scott Huler is the author of “On the Grid,” a book that traces a single drop of water from Huler’s faucet to the Gulf of Mexico and a drop of wastewater all the way to the Atlantic.

Huler: People don’t even understand that the storm water, when you turn on the tap, that’s storm water. That’s storm water that you’re getting, and when we just channel it away and dump it into the river and then it flows out to the ocean, we’ve wasted this resource.

Courtenay: Huler says lack of knowledge and old, outdated infrastructure could lead to the loss of a commodity that is essential to life.

Huler: When people started thinking about these issues, about where are we gonna get our water? What’s gonna happen, our water’s unsafe, our water’s not plentiful enough? They went through this enormous flurry of building dams and building pipes and building treatment plants and it was great. And, you know, they paid a lot of taxes and the government built these things and all these wonderful New Deal era and, and, and post-New Deal projects came out and it was wonderful. And, up through the, even the '60s and the beginning of the '70s, we kind of maintained those and we would update them and then, we sort of stopped. We, we decided that we didn’t like that anymore. The American Society of Civil Engineers says we’re about $2.2 trillion in arrears on our investment in infrastructure because you need to keep doing it, you need to keep replacing pipes, you need to keep building new plants so that you have more capacity. There are so many things that you need to do.

Linda Kelly: Everything that’s dropped on the ground is part of your watershed now.

Huler: That the more educated people are about these systems, the more likely they are to be able to make informed decisions, and informed decisions are what we need.

Linda Kelly: So how does water get from the river into your house or here at school?

Courtenay: A point emphasized in a PBS documentary called “Liquid Assets.”

Linda Kelly: Somebody has to bring that water to us, and somebody has to take it away when we’re finished with it.

Courtenay: The Water Environment Protection Agency’s Linda Kelly says just because it’s out of site, it shouldn’t be out of mind.

Linda Kelly: Well the infrastructure that they can’t see is falling apart. You wouldn’t let your house be 100 years old and not ever do any maintenance to it.

Courtenay: Huler agrees.

Huler: What are the options? Are you going to build, are you going to invest? Are you just going to stand here and fold your arms and say, "Paying is inconvenient and I prefer, prefer convenience to investment"? And so far, we, we’ve chosen this death before inconvenience approach and, and we’re gonna have to make a change.

Courtenay: But it won’t change overnight, Huler says. It is work that could take generations.

Huler: Fifty years from now we’re gonna have to rethink it again. I mentioned when I spoke that a generation ago when they solved storm water problems, they knew what to do. You’re gonna straighten that creek out, and you’re gonna trench it, and you’re gonna channelize it, and the water is gonna go away really fast, and everybody wins; because then, the cars can drive and we’re rid of that water. Well now, we have realized that it is catastrophic; that destroys our rivers and streams, and it wastes this precious resource of rainwater or storm water, which should be percolating down into the soil and recharging those rivers and streams.

Courtenay: Rivers and streams that will be vital to future generations.

Huler: We have to make the best decisions now, with the information we have now. We can only live now; we can only have one shot at this. Right now our shot at it is that basically we’re gonna say to our kids, “Hey, we’re sorry we ruined everything and wouldn’t pay to fix anything. It’s time for us to die. Good luck.”

Courtenay: Huler hopes that by understanding the assets under our feet, future generations will have the same quality of life that we have.

Rob: So simply, how did we get here?

Courtenay: Well, Rob, originally when these systems were built, the federal government heavily subsidized them, so the municipalities didn’t take into account the cost to upkeep them when they developed the water prices.

Rob: So in fact, are we paying too little for the water that we use?

Courtenay: Water only accounts for about 1 percent of a family’s annual income. While it’s really nice, it’s awfully cheap, Rob.

Rob: Well I know this is a vast problem that has many differing aspects, but what we can we do as individuals to at least do our part?

Courtenay: Well, Rob, we can start by using less water, but we can also change the way we build things. I know from a package that I did last year that porous concrete can be used to reduce the amount of runoff in building projects. Imagine how environmentally friendly a patio would be. Just think if we had roads and highways made out of it.

Rob: Absolutely. Every little bit counts. Thank you so much, Courtenay. Good story. Now, if you’d like to see more on this environmentally friendly concrete, just head to, where we have Courtenay’s complete story under this week’s value added.