In 2014 at UCLA, the newly renovated basketball arena and the surrounding streets of West Los Angeles were inundated by flooding from a failed city water main. And it happened again last year just before Christmas. Another 100-year-old water main broke, this time in South Los Angeles, flooding streets and swamping automobiles.
But those were just two headline-grabbing events. Every few months it happens again — different day, same old stuff: “Hundred Year Old Water Pipe Breaks … Homes and Businesses Flooded.” So it was no surprise when, due to lack of maintenance on a decades-old electrical line, California’s most deadly wildfire, the Camp Fire, burned 153,000 acres in the northern part of the state, killing 85 people and destroying almost 19,000 homes.
Last week, in order to prevent a similar fire, the electrical utilities serving Northern and Southern California cut off several days of electrical power to millions of customers. Billions in losses still mount along with the conflagrations. Last week too, along its poorly maintained power grid, a tree limb fell onto a live West Los Angeles electrical wire. Another fire engulfed the area, and even Arnold Schwarzenegger had to be evacuated.
From floods to fires, it’s not climate change that causes these disasters. It’s the collapse of infrastructure. And California is not the only state where it is happening.
In Boston, Chicago and New York, the disintegration of underground water and sewage piping is common. In coastal areas and near rivers, spills of untreated muck regularly spoil the beaches and foul the drinking water. From dam failures like that in the Woodlake subdivision of Moore County to the collapsing bridges of the Midwest, there is an internal threat (not an “existential threat”) to our economic survival.
Cutting ribbons for shiny new buildings from schools to jails creates good politics. It garners votes. It may even be “sexy.” Capital assets bring with them on average 100 years of prosperity. But like all human creations, they are never permanent. They decay. They rot and eventually become no more than the biblical dust that are the bodies of the dead politicians who once championed them.
The manufacturers of building materials are certain almost to the year about how long a pipe will flow without springing a leak. Even a dam builder knows just how long his concrete will hold. The politicians who organize the creation of these things are familiar with their longevity too; but they make no plans for long-term maintenance or replacement. That’s because it’s always sexier to build something new than repair something old. And it is even more popular to create something entirely different, forgetting that something that is new must be supported by something that is old.
Computers are cool. But creating safe electricity to run them from a century-old power grid is just an afterthought. It is only a concern when a blackout crashes a critical hard drive. And, by then, the losses are irreversible.
So Pacific Gas and Electric, the now-bankrupt supplier of electricity to Northern California, neglected maintenance of its electrical lines for decades. The city-run Los Angeles Department of Water and Power built 100 years of water and sewer pipes without considering the need to replace them after their useful life had expired. Even the owners of the Woodlake Dam ignored the cost of repair until the dam became so dangerous that it had to be breached, resulting in millions of dollars of lost property value and similar millions in property tax revenue.
All of this points to a systemic failure of government, both Republican and Democrat. No infrastructure should ever be created without plans to maintain it. Manufacturers understand this. That is why car companies not only sell cars, they sell warranties, too. It’s not that they sell defective products. It’s a recognition that nothing works forever. And, it’s smart to plan for maintenance before a catastrophic failure.
We usually vote for politicians who build in the present. But we need to vote for those who plan for the future.
Disregard for infrastructure repair actually kills people. Ask the survivors of the California wildfires. Building for the present is popular; but planning for the future is essential. We need to do both.
Contact Robert M. Levy at Law52@Prodigy.net.