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The Opportunity Underground
Alex Steffen, 22 Aug 06

We tend to ignore, even forget about the infrastructure which supports a contemporary developed world life. That holds doubly true for our sewers. This is too bad, as much of it is poorly designed, from an ecological perspective, and, especially in North America, much of it is decaying or groaning under the burden of its use.

Now, companies are lining up to cash in on the repair of crumbling infrastructure:

Because of these risks, EPA inspectors are aggressively monitoring and citing water systems -- mostly run by local governments or mom-and-pop operators, neither of which has the money to fund the upgrade of water systems. From its perch, the EPA estimates we need to spend $500 billion over the next 20 years. That’s $250 billion to replace pipes, tanks, valves and treatment plants in the water infrastructure, and $250 billion to upgrade the sewage system.

In short, we’re potentially at the start of a massive spending cycle -- always an interesting place for investors to hunt for long-term investment plays.

$500 billion is a lot of pipe. Perhaps its time to start re-imagining our options?

(Thanks Audrey!)

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and instead of finding ways to fix our obsolete combined-overflow sewer systems, instead of finding a way to separate out the runoff from the sewage, they figure out how much it is going to cost to repair the pipes and tunnels that we've got so we can keep running things the same way...

Hey, Chicago's got the Deep Tunnel, it will hold a gazillion gallons of overflow, why would we possibly want to change anything? (Actually, though, the city dept of environment is trying to promote rain barrel/rain garden usage...)

Posted by: greg e on 23 Aug 06

"effective microorganisms" for improving the treatment of sewage systems

Posted by: andreas buechel on 24 Aug 06

Another thing to re-imagine is infrastructure that doesn't allow "hydraulic despotism". The Bright Green Future of cities is less sure when a technical priesthood controls the flow of essentials.

Posted by: David Foley on 26 Aug 06

i don't disagree with David about "hydraulic despotism", at least not completely. But...having spent the vast majority of my life in the Great Lakes watershed, and having studied Great Lakes water issues, I do feel very strongly that anything that removes water from the Lakes (such as the Chicago Diversion...) is a really bad thing and should be avoided. There is such a fine line between protecting the watershed and the local environment and "hydraulic despotism". I think that the protectionist side is in the right, even if they are "water despots". Would you want Lake Michigan drained to to run lawn sprinklers in Vegas?

Posted by: greg e on 27 Aug 06

Greg, thanks for your comments. You're helping me see the complexities of this issue. When I used the term "hydraulic despotism", I was thinking of an elite cartel controlling large populations by withholding an essential flow, such as water, sewerage or electricity. The British used this strategy often in colonial India. But you're pint is well taken - that one alternative to a despotism is a commons. I agree with you that especially when it comes to water, a commons is dangerous because it can encourage incredible waste. Obviously I don't know the answer to this dilemma. Thanks for helping me see things more clearly.

Posted by: David Foley on 27 Aug 06

$500 billion is a lot of pipe, and it's a lot to sink into a fundamentally backward technology. John Todd, who's been discussed elsewhere on WC, has a very creative (and beautiful) solution: use plants and the microorganisms that live on their roots to clean water. It uses less energy and produces water that is just as clean, if not cleaner than current wastewater treatment. The systems are described in more detail here:

and here:

It seems live $500 billion would go along way to creating local water treatment that works with, rather than against biology.

Posted by: alex langeberg on 31 Aug 06

It seems an ideal time to recognize the cycles of nature. Imagine saving half of domestic water use, capturing nutrients and closing the loop. Composting toilets are the ultimate answer.

The question is getting from here to there. That solution is beyond comprehension for most people. Less than an hour ago I spoke to 60 High School Science Teachers and less than 10% knew what a CSO was. I told them and pitched an idea for a science project to do water testing at the end of the pipe. Even if they bite and students do a fantastic job gathering data, it does not get to the real answer.

It seems that to work for a solution instead of against a problem I need to step back further and teach the basics of systems and cycles, and have the students apply these natural 'laws' to human systems.

Thoughts anyone?

Posted by: Daniel N Smith Jr on 6 Sep 06



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