Is the world falling apart? On Wednesday, one day after 670 million people in India —about 10 percent of the world's population — lost electrical power, residents of North Philly coped with the third water-main break in the city in 10 days.
Philadelphians and New Delhians are sharing more than a miserable summer (though, actually, it's the rainy season in India); they are forced to cope with a history of inattention to infrastructure that suggests that there is no end in sight for such disasters. This week hits home that infrastructure is literally a global problem, one that must be addressed far better than it has to date.
In point of fact, Philadelphia's water system is in pretty good shape — relatively speaking. The Philadelphia Water Department has been responsive in addressing this week's breaks. It also says there is nothing very unusual in these events — in fact, the department says that in the past fiscal year, the city experienced its third-fewest number of main breaks in recent years: 531. Of the 3,100 miles of water mains, the city has roughly 240 breaks per 1,000 miles of water main pipe, which is below the national average. Obviously, not all of them are as serious as the three most recent.
But the fact remains that the department is scrambling to replace aging mains and pipes. It costs $1.3 million to replace one mile of water main; replacing a mile of sewer is more than double that. Which is why the Water Department is holding hearings on a 28-percent rate hike; some of that is needed for infrastructure. (The majority is for stormwater, wastewater and water quality.)
Many cities around the country are staggering under the weight of coping with aging water infrastructure and systems. But maybe that's a good thing: such problems at least focus attention on the one thing we usually take for granted and expect to flow forever free. But water management is not just the job of the utilities that provide it. It's the responsibility of all of us.
That's why the feds should step up their game in encouraging better water systems. But their performance is woeful: federal dollars to help municipalities deal with the expense of fixing their aging systems has shrunk. According to a report in the New York Times, federal water-infrastructure spending has declined from about 75 percent in 1978 to less than 5 percent, leaving the expensive problem for state and local governments to fix.
One estimate from the EPA says that we are $22 billion short on water systems spending.
The state's response is no better. In fact, Gov. Corbett has done little to address the wider infrastructure problem, other than putting a commission together. But the roads, bridges and transit systems of the state also are crying out for repair.