My colleague Dale Whittington recently made me aware of the Liquid Assets outreach documentary on the state of American water and wastewater infrastructure. The film looks in detail at Atlanta, Boston, Herminie (Pennsylvania), Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. It’s very well produced (I wish someone would make a similar quality piece about the UK!). A 15-minute overview clip is available free to watch online. Do have a look.

Having now watched the full film I can do a little update on what Roger has jokingly referred to as my ‘holiday snaps’ post about my trip to Atlanta (the film covers the place). But first I’d like to offer some general thoughts about the film and what is conveys to me about some similarities and differences between the UK and US water sectors.

There’s a clear overlap in historical timing of major developments in water and sanitation infrastructure in both countries. Both had major late-19th and early-20th century investments in large brick sewers and interceptor sewers to move untreated waste streams away from the largest city centres. (The film mentions a book on eras of American water history, The Sanitary City by Martin Melosi, and I’m going to track it down…)

Both countries now have to fight to invest to maintain this legacy of antiquated assets so that they remain fit-for-purpose. For both countries, the scale of systems means this is a significant and perpetual, financial and management challenge. England and Wales’ privatised industry has asset management cycles. But across the USA’s more fragmented, public sector and municipal run system, approaches are varied. Additionally federal funding changed from grants to loans in the 1980s. This was apparently just before smaller cities – ironically those with smaller tax bases – had their decaying water and sewerage systems addressed. This left many places in the lurch – like the small town of Herminie shown in the film, which remained largely un-sewered and lacking sewage treatment for decades because costs were deemed to be too high to pass on to customers. (The UK of course is almost fully sewered, by comparison…)

I was struck by parallels between Manchester’s late-19th century aqueduct-provided clean water supply and New York’s so-called ‘Tunnel 1’ and ‘Tunnel 2′ drinking water supply. Both cities’ tunnel supply systems went many decades without even an inspection to check their condition. But whereas Manchester’s Thirlmere Aqueduct has been subject to annual shutdowns and maintenance since around 2005, for New York it won’t be until under-construction Tunnel 3 is finished that this will be fully possible. As discussed in the film, 1960s inspections of Tunnels 1 and 2 suggested that if their poor condition supply valves were closed for inspection they might never be able to be re-opened, leaving New York without a water supply! Tunnel 3’s construction is also a massive, multi-billion dollar project. It started way back in 1970 and still may not be finished until the end of this decade. (It was fascinating to note that New York’s water supply, according to the film, is unfiltered. I never suspected this would be the case.)

The film also covers Los Angeles’ unsatisfactory combined sewer overflows and how they affected bathing water quality – a problem shared by the UK, with its large number of similar combined storm water and sewage pipe systems. Most surprisingly to me the film also shows Las Vegas to be a major centre for water conservation – such that its unaccounted for water is apparently now under four percent. This compares to well over 20 percent average for the UK!

Coming back to Atlanta though, the story there focuses on Shirley Franklin. She was the self-styled ‘mayor of sewage’. During her 2002-2010 tenure she helped to improve Altanta’s sewage system. Back in the 1970s, Atlanta had been one of the first American cities taken to court by the US Environmental Protection Agency over its harmful municipal sewage discharges. In late-2002 Mayor Franklin announced a multi-billion dollar investment in new  sewerage, part of a new Clean Water Atlanta programme, to address the situation. Interestingly some of the money for this programme even came from a 1-percent Municipal Options Sales Tax – in other words, a source completely separate from water and sewage customer bills. It’s rare – but very satisfying – to see such a high-profile sewage programme, and one with a bold financing move like this involved.

The running theme of Liquid Assets is that the costs of providing fit-for-purpose water and sanitation infrastructure are large and never go away. You can’t install a system then not maintain it. You can’t install a system then never plan to upgrade or even expand it. And yet in the States – like in England and Wales before privatisation, and still to some extent in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland – a significant backlog of under-investment has indeed built up. A representative of EPA puts it like this on the film’s website:

‘[In the USA we] have about 2 million miles of pipe … If you look at what we’re spending now and the investment requirements over the next twenty years, there’s a $540 billion difference.’

In the UK, even without such an investment deficit, tens of billions will be spent for decades to come on maintenance and enhancement works. And yet even that won’t mean the ageing condition of the whole sewer network is addressed for ‘about 800 years’ (according to an estimate in the recent Water White Paper [p.56]).

So, overall, Liquid Assets was a good reminder that on both sides of the Atlantic, water and sanitation is no cheap business!

Duncan Thomas

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