As my mom used to say, there always has to be an accident at the intersection before they put up a traffic signal.
The steam pipe explosion in New York last month and the horrific plunge of Minnesota's I-35W bridge into the Mississippi River last week has turned the national spotlight on infrastructure -- bridges, roads, rail lines, pipes, wires, and other stuff behind the walls of America's household that we take for granted but are essential for a technological civilization to thrive.
Civil engineers have been clamoring, largely to no avail, for citizens and politicians to move urgent infrastructure repairs and upgrades higher on the national agenda.
Finally, the engineers are being heard. That's progress. Maybe something good will come of it. But before the nation's attention flits away like pigeons on a telephone line, can we broaden this infrastructure conversation a bit? The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has done a great job quantifying the work needed to bring infrastructure up to snuff. Many of the items on their $1.6 trillion to-do list are necessary for environmental protection.
Sewage treatment plants, for example, are a national success story. Imagine what the nation's waters would be like today if we hadn't passed the Clean Water Act and its sewage treatment investment provisions. But population is growing and the plants are getting old. EPA estimates that $390 billion must be spent over the next 20 years for equipment replacement and expansion.
The ASCE's most recent infrastructure report card covers the disgraceful neglect of our national parks. It seems odd to define parks and other protected places with such a sterile word as infrastructure. But dwell on it a moment. Our national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas are infrastructure of a different sort -- embodiments of the historical and natural heritage that defines our national identity as a people.
Expand the concept a bit further. Before man built roads, bridges, and dams, nature built an infrastructure that man cannot live without -- an unfathomable network of interconnected systems that provide a stable atmosphere, fresh water, fertile topsoil, and millions of species, most of them unglamorous and many unknown to science, that help keep it all in good working order.
Like our power lines and pipelines, nature's infrastructure needs careful stewardship too. In a sense, we're like trust fund babies who have been living off the achievements of the past. The party's over, folks. It's time to get real, get to work, and make sure that those achievements, man-made and natural, are in good shape for future generations.
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