The collapse of the I-35 W bridge in Minneapolis was a horrific but effective example of what happens when our infrastructure fails. Every one of us crosses a bridge nearly every day and we could certainly relate to those who died. We were told that it would cost billions of dollars to inspect and repair the thousands of bridges we use daily. Given that, we must ensure the renewed focus of roads and bridges must not eclipse the very real needs of our water and wastewater treatment infrastructure.

It was not until Iowa was struck with the torrential rains in mid-August that anyone noticed that our sewer and water lines are in far worse condition that our bridges. But then, out of sight is out of mind.

Out of mind until 800 workers had to leave the Lucas State Office Building because of a sewage clog.

Out of mind until dozens of Iowa cities and towns dump wastewater into our waterways because their aging sewage treatment plants can’t handle the load.

Out of mind because nobody dies when a sewer line fails (but don’t try to tell that to the thousands of people who suffered cryptosporosis when the Milwaukee water treatment facility failed several years ago). Nobody dies when sewage is allowed to pour into a river. Nobody dies when 800 people are sent home because a sewer line is clogged.

Every city official knows our sewer and water infrastructure are living on borrowed time — they’re just hoping “not on my watch.” In 2000 the EPA estimated that it would cost Iowa $1.9 billion to repair the wastewater treatment infrastructure. Our drinking water infrastructure needs were placed at $3.5 billion. The cities can’t do it alone. The state can’t do it alone. The federally funded State Revolving Fund addresses the problem by infusing federal funds with state and local funds, but the allocation is too small.

In a country where over $500 billion in repairs is needed, an annual appropriation of $1.5 billion is woefully short.

Iowans who are concerned about their drinking water and their sewage treatment should urge their congressional representatives to significantly increase the SRF appropriations.

This problem is not going to go away — it’s just out of sight.

Brad Bowman, president, National Utility Contractors Association, Iowa Chapter

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