In light of the lead: Let’s take care of the basics.

June 3, 2016

In a time-honored, headline-killing move, late Friday afternoon before a long weekend, Portland, Oregon’s Public School Superintendent slipped in an apology before the city scattered to Memorial Day celebrations.

She said she was sorry for knowingly allowing children and adults at Rose City schools to drink water contaminated with lead.

The Oregonian has since reported that at one school, students drank from fountains with water laced with the neurotoxin for more than eight days – despite the fact that protocol is to immediately shut off access and use of any water sources found to have elevated levels of lead. Obviously.

That’s not all that happened. Trust was broken. Those charged with protecting school employees and children simply didn’t do their job. Bottled water now lines hallways of schools.

We’ve been here before, and sadly, we’re going to be here again.

The news wasn’t all that different with Flint. Or Washington, D.C. Or Toledo, Ohio.

Whether the result of disregard, indifference or denial, we are now staring down an infrastructure issue – big enough to directly threaten America’s tradition of having clean, healthy water running from all taps. This is no joke. And while infrastructure ain’t sexy, it’s basic to everything we do in this country – from protecting our health, to moving our goods, to having fast internet.

The U.S. was ranked 12th in World Economic Forum’s Global Competiveness Report, due to underinvestment in infrastructure for water, roads, bridges and more. And while there are facts and stories galore giving that ranking context,  I’m focused on the water ones.

As example, the EPA estimates there are roughly 10 million American homes and buildings that receive water from service lines that are at least partially lead. Around 6.1 million lead service lines are currently in U.S. communities.

That’s why this incident in Portland is just one that will eventually become a steady, droning indictment of infrastructure needing redress nationwide. Of course, this one hits a little harder given that it’s in my town. All three of my kids go to Portland public schools.

It’s always easiest to blame other people, but the truth is that each of us has had a hand in this. For too long, the winning argument in city councils, state houses and federal budgeting bodies the country over has been “spend less.” Guess who put those participants in that discussion. Because most infrastructure projects are promoted by a single public agency, the winning bids are generally awarded to the lowest capital cost bidder with little attention to the life-cycle costs and operational risks of a project. This means that for the last 30 years, there has been little or no money for routine testing, critical maintenance and needed upgrades.

This is called deferred maintenance – and the bill is coming due. The Council of American Structural Engineers has shown that this lack of investment is fueling the nation’s $3 trillion ‘deferred maintenance gap.’

The Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown published a piece just last month proposing a shift in how infrastructure projects are funded, maintained, procured, and permitted.

Performance-Based Infrastructure or PBI.

It struck me as applicable for water in America if we are interested in smart pursuit of outcomes versus reacting to crises.

They define the concept as using “methods and techniques to incentivize thinking through the full lifecycle of a project and assessing risk management for expensive taxpayer investments in projects meant to last 30 years or more.”

That’s a long way of saying we need to change the lens from what’s cheapest to construct at the time to what’s going to be the greatest overall value long-term.

And water infrastructure? I’d argue that no matter how you look at, its value actually can’t be overstated.

With more than 1 million miles of water mains, America needs to get serious about this investment or experience year after year of avoidable crisis after avoidable crisis.

Kicking this issue down the road isn’t an option. Getting it wrong isn’t an option. The consequences are too great and impact many more parties than schoolchildren.

The collective cost of replacing each remaining lead service line could top $30 billion. No doubt, it’s a lot, but it’s less than what we Americans collectively pay for three months of smart phone use. Again, that’s LESS THAN WHAT AMERICANS PAY FOR THREE MONTHS OF SMART PHONE USE. It’s time to have a discussion as to how we’re going to start paying for protecting what’s arguably our most valuable resource.

When it comes to something essential to every one of us, we need to make investments for the long term. We need to think about outcomes. And use all the tools at our disposal – data, innovative financing mechanisms and public-private partnerships – to build a world that works.

It’s sad when the world’s wealthiest country can’t uphold its commitment to delivering clean, healthy water. That is something we should be able to trust.

We’ve got to take care of the basics before we can chase the big things.

#Flint    #freshwater    #lead    #lead crisis    #Oregon    #Portland    #public health    #water    #water infrastructure