Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Information design -- graphic presentation of information by government: sewer pipe flow quality in Bellevue, Nebraska

A couple days ago I came across an article in the Omaha World-Herald about the process in the City of Bellevue to determine the state of good repair of their sewers ("Sonar-like analysis of Bellevue's aging sewers suggests repairs will cost millions").

It turns out most of them are blocked.  The city presents the information in a graphic.

I was struck by this, not because it is particularly unusual--most "highway departments" collect and present information about pavement condition in this matter (although DC hasn't updated its public presentation of this type of data for three years;)--but because of the animus in various sectors in many communities about rising water service bills.

-- Presentation of Pavement Condition Index data for Greater Honolulu

In most places--outside of those areas experiencing drought--water bills are rising significantly not because of the cost of water--in fact per capita water consumption is declining ("Why is water usage declining across the United States?," GreenBiz, although significant water consumption occurs through industrial usage, such as agriculture), but because of the cost of infrastructure:

(1) replacing decaying water pipe systems as most had been constructed before the 1920s and it is in need of repair ("Drip Drop: America's Crumbling Water Infrastructure," Harvard Political Review)

(2) replacing lead-based water pipe systems, as lead consumption is a public health hazard ("US water systems repeatedly exceed federal standard for lead," Associated Press; "Avoiding A Future Crisis, Madison Removed Lead Water Pipes 15 Years Ago," NPR)

(3) creating separated sewer and stormwater collection systems as many communities built integrated systems, which often leads to discharges of polluted water into rivers during major storms, and this violates Clean Water regulations--some communities like Seattle, Philadelphia, and DC are also employing "green infrastructure" as a way to slim down the requirements for underground storage tanks and piping

-- Combined Sewer Outflows, National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), Environmental Protection Agency

(4) creating protected water storage systems in the face of tightened EPA regulations concerning the storage of post-treated drinking water ("After 60 years, new reservoir being built for Baltimore," Baltimore Sun)

(5) building and maintaining water treatment systems generally.

From the OWH article:
Extrapolating from the early numbers, Councilman Pat Shannon said the city is potentially looking at an $80 million problem.

Bellevue’s sewer problems have proved costly for homeowners as well. Last year in the Olde Towne area, a dozen homes were invaded by brown sludge after a water line was hit when workers were trying to fix a collapsed sewer line. There’s a lawsuit pending in Sarpy County Court to determine fault.

Bellevue residents are already helping to pay for another major sewer project. Bellevue’s sewage is treated at Omaha’s wastewater treatment plant, as is much of Sarpy County’s waste. Omaha is the midst of a federally mandated sewer system overhaul, which is expected to cost more than $2 billion. To pay for the work, Omaha is charging its residents and other cities more for treating sewage at its facilities.

Bellevue raised its sewer service charges last year. Residents will see their bills jump about 30 percent between 2016 and 2018. The service charges also are the main source of revenue that Bellevue has to maintain the 360 miles of sewer pipe and 21 sewage pump stations that it owns and operates.
There is a city gadfly and perennial political candidate who tries to stir up residents on the water issue, and since I run some of the e-lists to which he sends his missives, I've replied to some of his writings making these kinds of points.

In many places, conservatives have been successful in defeating Democratic Party candidates over "rain taxes."  Such taxes aren't ridiculous or stupid, but are imposed to collect money to pay for the necessary infrastructure.

-- "When It Rains, It Pours Tax Dollars In Maryland," Forbes
-- "Bogus Conservative Media Talking Point: Martin O'Malley "Taxed The Rain," Media Matters
-- "Ellicott City flood vindicates the 'rain tax'," Baltimore Sun

Could explaining these matters through an information design approach make a difference to people's understanding of the various issues involved in maintaining clean water in our rivers and streams?

Certainly, Bellevue, Nebraska's graphical rendition of blocked pipes throughout their sewer system makes it much easier for people to grasp that there are problems that will only get worse without correction.

Another kind of example is the “What the Flush” campaign by the Maine Water Environment Association. It was a television ad public service campaign which aimed to educate consumers on what is biodegradable and what isn't. But research found that public education campaigns only have short term effects.  Therefore, more structural approaches are needed.

Bonus sewer policy feature:

DC is aiming to ban "flushable wipes," because they aren't flushable and impose serious operational problems and costs on local water and sewer systems ("Bathroom wipes, moist towelettes blamed for sewer backups," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel; "Huge Blobs of Fat and Trash Are Filling the World's Sewers," National Geographic).  Kimberly-Clark is suing the city over the ban, but while I am not a lawyer, there arguments don't seem particularly sound legally ("Fight over labeling of 'flushable' wipes headed to federal court," Washington Post).

I don't understand why such wipes aren't "banned" altogether, which is a role for our national government, which of course, these days is totally dysfunctional.

The article "How the wastewater industry can take on flushable wipes," Environmental Science and Engineering Magazine, recommends that the wastewater treatment industry redesign treatment facilities to better capture, divert, and grind so-called flushable wipes to prevent damage to the facilities and pipes.

And yes, improperly disposed of oils and fats are another problem ("10-tonne fatberg removed from west London sewer," Guardian) which combined with "flushable wipes" lead to blocked sewer lines.

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