We Can Change Our Wicked Problems!
Much of our U.S. infrastructure is old, deteriorating and ineffectively maintained. Already mentioned, roads and bridges are crumbling, electric and telecom wires need replacing, airports aren’t keeping up, passenger trains are not well funded, maintained and developed, metro transit systems are inadequate, inland waterways, dams and locks are not sufficiently maintained, shipping landside transportation systems at ports are behind, and we have no place to put nuclear waste. But wait, there’s more!
Each school day, 50 million K-12 kids and 6 million adults use 100,000 school buildings on 2 million acres of land. We defer $38 billion a year in maintenance and upgrades for that infrastructure. A quarter of school buildings are in poor or only fair physical condition, and 31% of schools have temporary buildings. 30% have other facilities; 36% have school parking lots, 32% have bus lanes, 31% have athletic facilities, and 27% have playgrounds that are in poor or only fair condition. More than half of all schools need investments in repairs, renovations and modernizations to be considered to be in good condition.
In the 2008 recession, most states cut school funding, and, since the economy recovered, many haven’t restored funding to pre-recession levels. 40% of public schools don’t even have a long-term educational facilities plan. The U.S. Government provides no funding for K-12 educational facilities. In addition to closing the annual $38 billion deferred maintenance gap, it is estimated U.S. schools need an additional $58 billion to adequately maintain what they have now, another $77 billion annually for years to catch up on the deferred maintenance and another $10 billion a year for buildings to cover population growth. Together, that’s $183 billion a year, or 16% of Federal Annual Discretionary Spending (FADS).
Every U.S. State and the District of Columbia depends on levees, earthen embankments and floodwalls, for flood control to reduce risk to homes, businesses and property, including 300 colleges/universities, 30 pro sports venues and $1.3 trillion in property. 100,000 miles of levees shield millions of people, but only 30,000 miles are even documented in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Levee Safety Program. These levees are critical to reduce public and property risk from flooding by rising rivers in high rains, and surge and waves in coastal storms, which are increasingly intense with global climate change.
More than half of U.S. people live within 50 miles of a coast. Development is increasing in flood plains. 35% of U.S. counties have levees, and two-thirds of U.S. people live in a county with at least one levee. However, this infrastructure is often ignored, and we are generally unaware of risks associated with levee failures. An average levee in the U.S. is 50 years old, and $80 billion (7% of FADS) is needed in the next 10 years to fix them, not counting what will be needed to protect people and property from increasing levee risks from increasing weather events and rising sea levels from global warming.
The U.S has 90,580 dams, half owned privately, average age 56 years. In 2016, 15,500 were high-hazard potential, needing $45 billion (4% of FADS) to fix. At least 2,170 of those were already deficient, 11,882 had “significant hazard potential,” meaning failure may not cause human deaths, but big economic loss. By 2025, 7 of 10 U.S. dams will be over 50 years old. When dams fail, they threaten public safety, and can cause enormous damages to property, roads, bridges and water systems. (Ask Sarumon!)
People in the U.S. take 7 billion outings a year to public recreational facilities run by its governments. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are the main federal park facilities providers. States and localities provide other park and recreational facilities used by 7 in 10 U.S. people regularly. National forests and grasslands capture and filter drinking water for 180 million people in over 68,000 communities, valued at $7 billion annually. Infrastructure in these lands includes roads, bridges, trails, campsites, boat ramps and other facilities.
205,000 jobs are supported by $11 billion contributed to gateway communities around our USFS lands. In 2015, there was $5 billion in deferred maintenance to assets on those lands, and it’s getting worse, because USFS budgets are being increasingly consumed for wildfire suppression, with fires increasing with global warming, and increasingly important as more people move into the edges of these lands.
In 2015, for the 75,000 assets managed by NPS, $12 billion (1% of FADS) of maintenance was deferred. Visitors spent $17 billion in adjacent communities, supporting 295,000 jobs with $11 billion in payroll.
5,000 USACE sites on 12 million acres get 250 million visits, spending $13 billion annually and supporting 187,000 jobs. Most USACE recreation facilities are >50 years old and need repair, guessed at $5 billion.
Since the 1990s, general fund support for the more than 6,600 state park sites has steadily declined. They have less than a fourth of federal park systems land, but have 2.5 times their annual visitors. State Park deferred maintenance is conservatively estimated to be more than $95 billion (8% of FADS).
Local and regional public park capital spending generated $60 billion in economic activity and supported 340,000 jobs, in 2013. 30% of U.S. households used their local parks often and 47% occasionally in 2015, where there are also huge deferred maintenance problems, guessed at $25 billion (2% of FADS).
The U.S. delivers drinking water through a million miles of pipes, most installed in the early to mid-20th century, with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years. An estimated 240,000 water main breaks now waste more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water a year, 14 to 18% of treated water, enough to support 15 million households. $1 trillion is needed to maintain and expand drinking water service to meet the next 25 years’ demands (86% of FADS). That doesn’t include pipe replacement and repair inside buildings.
At utilities’ current average pipe replacement rate of 0.5% per year, it’ll take 200 years to replace them, about twice the useful life of pipes already near end of life. 80% of drinking water comes from surface waters of rivers, lakes, reservoirs and oceans whose quality and availability are at increasing risk from climate change and pollution, and at increasing risks as government environmental protections are cut. The other 20% is from groundwater aquifers, which are increasingly being depleted at rates faster than they are being replenished, and at risk from fracking, oil pipeline spills and other contaminants.
Water storage facilities are increasingly obsolete and in need of replacement and deferred maintenance. The U.S. still cleans water by poisoning it with chemicals, managed to reduce exposures but still poisons, rather than upgrading the treatment systems to modern filtering or light treatments without chemicals. The U.S. still doses drinking water with fluoride. Why? It doesn’t make sense to put fluoride in all water as a supposed dental treatment, because dosage isn’t regulated, and it would be far more efficient and effective to simply use fluoride separate from water. Those upgrades are needed, but not considered.
Earth beings need good water to live. That is taken for granted. It may not be sexy, but it is essential. As we ignore and defer this badly needed work, the U.S. can expect more disasters like in Detroit, where people are being poisoned by the toxic water in their public systems. We will increasingly be duped into buying bottled waters instead, although they are generally not better than what comes out of most taps, cost more per gallon than gasoline, and create environmental disasters through plastic bottle waste.
The U.S. has 14,748 wastewater treatment plants it uses to protect public health and the environment. In the next 20 years, 56 million (23%) new users, will be added to those systems. Doing it as we do now, $271 billion (23% of FADS) is needed to meet current and future wastewater treatment demands.
23,000 to 75,000 U.S. sewer overflow events every year cause environmental harms. 770 communities have systems where waste- and storm-water drain into the same treatment system and are at risk from heavy rain, which can cause overflows of stormwater plus untreated human and industrial waste, toxic stuff and other pollutants. These combined sewer overflows (CSOs) are the 2nd leading source of water pollution in the U.S. (after agricultural runoff and stormwater not flowing through treatment plants).
As more impervious surfaces, like concrete sidewalks, roads, parking lots, and roofs are built, that increases runoff entering the stormwater systems. Let’s guess conservatively it would take $50 billion to solve these problems. Cities and towns across the U.S. say complying with waste- and storm-water regulations are among their most costly infrastructure projects. So, many just don’t happen.
Treatment plants are typically located at the bottom of watersheds, or near coasts and rivers, making them vulnerable to extreme storms, flooding and sea level rise, which are increasing in frequency and intensity with global climate change. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, wastewater treatment plants in New York and New Jersey were flooded by storm surge, causing hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated sewage to spill into waterways. Another conservative $50 billion to prevent those problems?
There are opportunities to improve the way water treatment takes place, like using organic biosolid materials left over after treatment as fertilizers, or fuels to make electricity, or using treated wastewater for different things, like industrial, agriculture and garden uses, instead of putting it back into drinking water systems. Little is being done to improve systems to take advantages of opportunities like these.
Humans produce at least 3.5 million tons of solid waste a day on Earth, 10 times amounts 100 years ago, and if nothing changes, that will grow to 11 million tons by the end of the century. In the U.S. we generate 258 million tons of garbage a year, 4.4 pounds per person per day, which is four whole tons for every five people in a year. More than half of it goes into landfills, many privately owned and operated. Only a little more than a third of solid waste is recycled; 13% is burned as fuel for energy production. Solid waste produces lots of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas contributing to global warming.
In many parts of the country, recycling and composting are not happening, because of lack of markets for recyclable materials, many people’s unwillingness to sort and separate waste, and collection facilities’ unwillingness to incur costs to sort out recyclables. According to the EPA, at least half of its regions still send more than 70% of their recyclable garbage to landfills. We need to invest $11 billion (1% of FADS) to get recycling and compost, and public education systems going for these problems?
There is no such thing as “away” in a throw-away society. All that garbage, its chemicals, heavy metals, poisons and plastics, which may take hundreds of years to fully degrade, are still in the environment, entering water systems and food chains, and that may happen more often, as weather changes and sea levels rise, and as garbage disposal systems are impacted by deferred maintenance problems from other areas of infrastructure, like roads, bridges, dams and levees. Trash dumped in oceans doesn’t go away.
The U.S.’s entire relationship to garbage and trash desperately needs to change. Production and consumption systems need better incentives for preventing and reducing waste. Product design and packaging, material choices, manufacturer responsibilities for waste disposal and recycling, consumer responsibilities for sorting, composting and recycling, and systems for re-use and recycling need to be fundamentally changed to reduce environmental impacts of waste disposal and needless consumption. It’s only waste if it’s wasted. Everybody up and down the waste chain needs to be involved. We need at least $100 billion to improve our solid waste management systems? Or we can stop using this stuff?
Over 18,000 sites and 22 million acres of land are dangerously affected by hazardous waste in the U.S. More than half the U.S. population lives within 3 miles of a hazardous waste site. There are more than 160,000 abandoned mines in the U.S. West producing problems. Over 500 particularly dangerously and poisonously polluted Superfund Sites are within 100-year flood levels or less than 6 feet above mean sea level and vulnerable to disasters from changing weather patterns and rising sea levels.
Vastly more resources and efforts are needed to clean up these areas. Let’s guess $50 billion for a start?
Need for Physical Infrastructure Change
Infrastructure insufficiencies and deferred maintenance exist in most U.S. infrastructure elements. Prisons are inhumanely overcrowded and overdue for maintenance. Waters, lands and air are polluted. Public facilities are inadequately maintained. Telecommunication and electric systems use decades old copper wires on poles that would be ugly in any 3rd world country. Pipes and wires are failing. Infrastructure enables society to function. Yet, infrastructure in the U.S. has been allowed to decay, negatively impacting society’s ability to function, and creating increasing risks to the public.
There are few powerful interest groups pushing infrastructure maintenance and upgrades, because that is not sexy, easy or profitable enough to exploit; citizens don’t have the power to make it happen, and generally aren’t aware of it; and politicians are not held accountable for it; so it doesn’t get done. People and the environment suffer when infrastructure fails; getting blown up, losing water supplies or getting sick when pipelines fail; not being able to get high speed modern Internet connections which are critical to life and workplace success in the 21st century; losing travel routes when roads and bridges fail; or having expensive vehicles damaged and worn down quickly by beat up roads and bridges.
Infrastructure maintenance has been deferred so long the U.S. no longer has an adequately skilled workforce for much of the work. Needed investments in only the Energy, Telecommunications, Transportation and Infrastructure chapters so far total $10 trillion, 864% of FADS. It would take 9 years to pay for these things if we spent 100% of FADS on just that. Both parties in Congress currently agree we need to spend $2 trillion on infrastructure now (173% of FADS), and we’d have to borrow to do it. U.S. infrastructure is broken, and we need big changes in that. Change! Inform others and do what you can to improve this! Write letters to government and news agencies, even if you doubt it will work!
Contribute information, articles, comments, suggestions, ideas and discussion on this Physical Infrastructure chapter.
How do you feel after reading this information? Why do you feel that? What values are impacted? How can we change? What can we do? Where can we get more information? (Please submit any discussion on the entire We Can Change Wicked Problems! section here.)
Please provide only constructively intended interactions addressing ideas and content, not persons. All mean-spirited interactions will be deleted, especially anything disrespectful directed toward persons interacting with this site and their qualities, rather than ideas and content. Thanks!
 2017 Infrastructure Report Card: Schools, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE),
 2017 Infrastructure Report Card: Levees, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Levees-Final.pdf
 2017 Infrastructure Report Card: Dams, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/dams/
 2017 Infrastructure Report Card: Parks, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Parks-Final.pdf
 2017 Infrastructure Report Card: Drinking Water, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/drinking-water/
 2017 Infrastructure Report Card: Wastewater, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/wastewater/
 2017 Infrastructure Report Card: Solid Waste, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/cat-item/solid-waste/
 2017 Infrastructure Report Card: Hazardous Waste, American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), https://www.infrastructurereportcard.org/hazardous-waste/
 See table
 “Trump, top Democrats agree on goal of crafting $2 trillion infrastructure plan”, Mike DeBonis and John Wagner, The Washington Post, April 30, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-top-democrats-agree-on-goal-of-crafting-2-trillion-infrastructure-plan/2019/04/30/8deaf204-6b62-11e9-a66d-a82d3f3d96d5_story.html?utm_term=.852a216ae22d