Water shortage hits the Colorado River and the agreement governing water distribution dates back to 1922

Updating infrastructure to meet new challenges is an issue in numerous areas, including in securing water. The current case of the Colorado River illustrates how updating is needed:

The 1922 compact overestimated how much water was in the river system to begin with. And now there’s even less. On top of that, the rules about divvying up the water – whether you’re a city, an irrigation district, or a rancher – essentially operate like dibs or calling shotgun in a car.

The phrase that people like to use in the West is “first in time, first in right.” The water users who arrived first in these places where the water is used and claim the water when they got there, hold the most senior water rights, and their water rights remain senior no matter who comes after them. Those senior water rights trump junior water rights even to this day, with an exception: The law says that if you don’t use those senior water rights to their full extent every year that they could be confiscated and given to somebody with more junior water rights…

Why has the frontier mindset survived to 2021 in the way we think about and legislate water?

Part of it is cultural. The culture of the West survives. In the north, in the mountains, it’s a culture of rugged individualism, and in the south, it is still a bit individualistic and conservative. The rights to the water track to the history of the place, not to how it has evolved in more modern times. [These] cities didn’t exist in the mid-1800s, so they have very junior water rights now, even though that’s where most of the people are. So literally the largest volume of water goes to the people in places with the deepest historical roots.

Future battles about access to water will be fierce, particularly in places where less water is available than in the past.

Will this slow growth in states where growth has been a feature of life for decades? This could affect communities, metropolitan areas, states, and a whole region.

Does this help break the obsession Americans have with green grass lawns? The drought in California half a decade ago could have been just a taste of the future.

Does this become a major issue in elections? How exactly does a water distribution renegotiation occur, particularly if elected officials have little direct influence?

What would a more collectivist mindset to water look like in the United States compared to a more individualistic approach or one rooted in history in the area? I could imagine a quick switch of systems would be difficult but phasing in changes over time might be possible.

Adjusting city infrastructure to meet new challenges

What is underneath the streets of older major cities may not be enough to face new weather patterns and additional challenges cities face today. Here are some of the efforts from recent years in New York City:

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New York had its first climate-related wake-up call nine years ago, when Hurricane Sandy brought a storm surge that flooded low-lying areas and, yes, subway stations. Since then, the city has spent almost $20 million on climate-proofing the city, according to the Mayor’s Office of Resiliency. But some of that funding went to solving a different problem than the one presented by Ida: water coming from the rivers. This week, all the wet stuff fell from the sky, threatening even areas above sea level…

Now, after years of updates, 60 percent of New York City has a combined sewer system, which uses a single pipe to carry both wastewater and stormwater to treatment plants. During heavy rainstorms, the system can get quickly overwhelmed. The detritus of city living—trash, plants, general gunk—clogs drains, further gumming up the works. “So if you get a really big kahuna like this, I don’t think it really has a shot at draining that out fast enough to avoid flooding,” says Farnham.

The city has worked to separate those combined sewer systems and to clear clogged drains, especially when storms threaten. It has raised and in some cases eliminated subway grates, which were built to allow fresh air to flow down to dank underground spaces but which now look like holes to let more water in. In some places, the MTA constructed flood-proof doors, which can close when the water gets too close.

More generally, cities like New York can create more green infrastructure to help with their water problems—basically, less pavement and more dirt. You might, for instance, create roadside green spaces where water can percolate before moving into stormwater drains, removing trash and pollution in the process. Los Angeles has been doing this to catch rainwater. “This is a long-term thing,” says Horodniceanu. Retrofitting cities to deal with what’s coming, and what’s already come, will take gobs of one of the scarcest resources of all: much more funding.

As cities expand and change, fixing the infrastructure already there to incorporate new technologies and grow the capacity is a difficult task. How disruptive will the efforts be? How much will it cost? It could be much easier in the long run to anticipate these issues way ahead of time and proactively make changes rather than only act after a major issue is exposed.

Water is particularly destructive as much of modern life depends on the fact that water will be excluded from the system. Residences, businesses, mass transit, electronics must be dry to function well. If there is an overwhelming storm or a breach of the water defenses, water can quickly wreak havoc both in the short-term and long-term. Cities require a lot of things to go right to properly go about their business but water can quickly disrupt this operation.

The recent events in New York City and New Orleans also remind me of the planning that can go into highways and parking lots: they can be constructed with peak use in mind. The parking lot needs to be large enough to handle the biggest crowds, hence the shopping mall parking lots that can handle Thanksgiving weekend shopping but are not fully used throughout the rest of the year. Or, the highway that needs more and more lanes to handle rush hour traffic while there are many hours when that capacity is not needed. Sewers need to handle really big storms or events. But, in each case, can the largest need be forecast correctly? Adding lanes to roads can increase the traffic. Right-sizing parking lots can be tricky. And planning for the rare storm is hard, particularly if conditions are changing. Similarly, people will not be happy in these cases if there is not enough capacity and there will be calls to fix the problem afterward.

Building the ability to disperse billions in rental aid assistance in the US

Congress has allocated billions for rental aid assistance amid COVID-19 but it takes time and infrastructure to distribute it to American renters:

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With millions of Americans out of work due to the pandemic, the eviction moratorium helped keep people in their homes — but it also put a squeeze on landlords. To help, between the December and March COVID relief packages, Congress approved more than $46 billion in rental assistance. Exact amounts renters and landlords can receive depend on their income and where they live, but renters could get enough to cover rent from as far back as March 13, 2020, unpaid utilities and even, in some cases, future rent.

But by the end of May, only $1.5 billion had gone out. And officials are racing against the clock: The federal eviction moratorium ends July 31…

“While we have substantial funds through the American Rescue Plan, we as a nation have never had a national infrastructure to prevent unnecessary evictions,” White House American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling said recently during an eviction prevention summit.

While there had been some state and local rental assistance programs, the scale of this program was beyond what they’d handled, a Treasury official said. State and local entities had to build IT systems and hire staff. Some programs did not even open until May or June — but since opening, a Treasury spokesperson said, there has been an exponential increase in renters getting money. Landlords and renters can apply directly for funds through their states, counties and in some cases tribal authorities depending on where they live.

Unprecedented times lead to unprecedented processes? Putting the money into the right hands in a timely manner is no easy task. The steps include:

-approving the monies and making it available

-letting people know that the money is available

-encouraging applications

-processing applications

-disbursing funds

-applying the funds to rent

-overseeing the program during the process and afterward

If it comes together, millions of Americans will be able to stay in their housing and landlords will rent they were waiting for.

Now, to tackle the broader issues of affordable housing in helpful locations…

The foresight of old railway viaducts

In regions like Chicagoland where there are numerous railroad lines and at-grade railroad crossings, old viaducts exhibit a measure of foresight that benefits today’s residents:

Google Street View image of Vollmer Road viaduct

That factory still operates as Chicago Heights Steel, and the cobblestone portion of Main Street is mostly a driveway leading to it. But just past the factory is a secret passageway of sorts, an ancient viaduct just wide enough to allow one vehicle to pass under the old Elgin, Joliet & Eastern railroad tracks…

There are areas, though, where there are no ways around it, and if you get stopped, you just have to abide. I’ve lived in those areas, but I don’t anymore. The main train line by me is above grade and it’s great. The old Illinois Central tracks, which include what’s now known as the Metra Electric District commuter line, traverse the area atop a big berm as unobstructed motorists cruise underneath through a series of viaducts from Sauk Trail all the way into the heart of Chicago.

According to Metra, the grade separation was a direct result of Chicago hosting the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition — city leaders didn’t want messy train deaths to tarnish the event’s image. In the years after those initial express trains from downtown to Jackson Park for the World’s Fair, commuter trains made their way to the suburbs, with Flossmoor getting service in 1900 and Matteson by 1912. The raised platforms, tracks and viaducts followed with the entire line being above grade by the 1920s…

Viaducts are harder to come by these days than they were in the golden age of railroads, and I only know of a few that have been constructed in my lifetime. Despite the hassles that can come along with them, motorists, and likely train engineers too, are happy we have the ones that are here.

Even as railroad lines help put many suburban communities on the map and still provide access to big cities, many local residents just see them as a hassle for the traffic and noise they create. With the automobile dominating suburban travel, trains are nuisance when they block vehicle flow.

I am familiar with numerous railroad viaducts in suburban communities in addition to the ones mentioned above in the south suburbs of Chicago. They were ahead of their time as they allowed access under the railroad tracks, sometimes even before cars were around. Local leaders and officials they foresaw the problems that might arise between ground-level traffic and trains and therefore separated the two flows to let each move on their own. This helps avoid safety issues that still plague communities today.

At the same time, not all of these viaducts have been treated well. As the article notes elsewhere, they can have drainage issues. Their original size is often an issue as today’s vehicles and/or traffic flow is larger, meaning that old viaducts need to be expanded. Letting one car through at a time is better than nothing but many communities would benefit from two lanes each way being able to go under the tracks. Foresight in infrastructure is helpful but it needs consistent attention to keep up with repairs and expanded suburban populations.

The language of “human infrastructure” versus human rights

President Joe Biden was in the Chicago suburbs yesterday and talked about his proposal for infrastructure improvements in the United States:

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President Joe Biden promised jobs and better access to education in an appeal that may resonate with suburban swing voters during a historic trip to McHenry County College.

“America is back,” Biden said Wednesday, promising to fund transportation through an infrastructure package that faces opposition in Congress…

During his remarks, the president touted the infrastructure program and the American Families Plan, which includes checks of up to $300 for eligible families starting this month.

“That’s good for families and is good for the economy and it will create more jobs,” said Biden, who repeated the word “jobs” several times during his speech.

Infrastructure often refers to physical structures operating in the background of society. Electricity, gas pipelines, power plants, roadways and mass transit lines. I would guess many people do not think about these much until there is a problem or it becomes very visible. As a recent example, I drove down a highway that had a pipeline pass over the roadway. While I know that pipelines are essential, I do not think about them much until I hear about them on the news (the recent pipeline ransomware, the Keystone Pipeline, etc.).

The Biden administration is pushing to include more human capital elements in its infrastructure plan. In terms of the essential pieces for society to function, jobs, health care, and other benefits are indeed important. Particularly in the era of the knowledge economy and more attention paid to inequality, including a more human element to infrastructure would hold some appeal.

At the same time, I wonder if the goals of the Biden administration fall more into the category of human rights. Should people have a right to a job, which provides income and worthwhile activity? Should there be a right to good affordable housing? A right to Internet access?

Perhaps the political calculation is that moving toward a conversation of human rights is a bridge too far. Americans have resisted the right to housing or public housing. But, call it infrastructure and housing is not guaranteed but rather an important foundation for society. On the other hand, electric lines and gas lines are essential for everyday living yet are they a right? Is the difference that infrastructure might require a cost while rights are supposed to be free or really cheap?

Given the current public conversations, this may be the way societies are headed: people should have more rights. Universal basic income might be the next area where this occurs: jobs are not enough and people should be able to have a guaranteed income source to have a decent life.

For now, American political leaders will debate exactly what infrastructure means. At the least, there will be acknowledgement that numerous building blocks of social life must be in place for desired outcomes.

The scale of American shipping illustrated in one broken-down semi with 14,000 chickens

Americans are used to highways, semi-trucks, and breakdowns. They might not be as familiar with what can be in some of the trucks that break down:

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Loucks, a mechanic at Super Truck Service in west suburban Addison, didn’t think anything of the call. But when he got to the semi, he found 14,000 live chickens in the trailer…

He couldn’t tow the truck the nearly 30 miles back to the shop because tipping the trailer up could be even more dangerous for the chickens, Loucks said, so his team chained up an axle and had the semi drive back to Super Truck Service on eight wheels instead of 10. That meant driving 35 to 40 mph down I-90, which wasn’t a very safe option either, Loucks said.

After returning to the shop at 562 S. Vista Ave. in Addison, and with the temperatures rising, Loucks said the first thing he did was grab a garden hose as he started to “water the chickens,” despite being afraid of birds.

Three things stand out to me in this short story that might be easy to ignore since vehicles break down all the time:

  1. The number of chickens on one truck is astounding. Ask people on the street how many chickens would fit on a truck and I wonder how many would be close to this number.
  2. While this is a large number of chickens, this is just one truck. Therefore, this is just a drop in the bucket in the number of chickens in the United States. According to Statista, there are over 1 billion chickens in the United States.
  3. There are numerous ways to ship goods and animals. Moving all of this requires a lot of infrastructure behind the scenes that helps get eggs and chicken to grocery shelves. Put #1 and #2 together and you need a lot of ways to transport everything.

The United States is a large country with a big economy and a critically important set of structures and vehicles that get things where they need to go. Semis and other trucks are needed to help make this possible.

The rise and fall of the filing cabinet as critical infrastructure

Even before computers and the Internet, the world was awash in information. The filing cabinet provided a way to get a handle on all of it:

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It is easy to dismiss the object: a rectilinear stack of four drawers, usually made of metal. With suitable understatement, one design historian has noted that “manufacturers did not address the subject of style with regard to filing units.” 3 The lack of style figures into the filing cabinet’s seeming banality. It is not considered inventive or original; it is simply there, especially in 20th-century office spaces; and this ubiquity, along with the absence of style, perhaps paradoxically contributes to the easy acceptance of its presence, which rarely causes comment. In countless movies and television shows, one or more filing cabinets line the walls of newsrooms and advertising agencies or the offices of doctors, attorneys, private eyes, police inspectors. Their appearance defines a space as an office but rarely draws attention to the work it does in that office. Occasionally, the neatness or disorder of a filing cabinet gives us an insight into the mental state and work habits of the office’s occupant. Sometimes, the filing cabinet plays a small but vital role in dystopian critiques of bureaucracy.

But if it appears to be banal and pervasive, it cannot be so easily ignored. The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information; and because the modern world depends upon and is indeed defined by information, the filing cabinet must be recognized as critical to the expansion of modernity. In recent years scholars and critics have paid increasing attention to the filing systems used to store and retrieve information critical to government and capitalism, particularly information about people — case dossiers, identification photographs, credit reports, et al. 4 But the focus on filing systems ignores the places where files are stored. 5 Could capitalism, surveillance, and governance have developed in the 20th century without filing cabinets? Of course, but only if there had been another way to store and circulate paper efficiently. The filing cabinet was critical to the infrastructure of 20th-century nation states and financial systems; and, like most infrastructure, it is often overlooked or forgotten, and the labor associated with it minimized or ignored. 6

One thing that humans do, particularly in the modern era, is try to bring order to the world around them. This can come out in physical changes – such as remaking nature or creating megacities – or in discovering and working with knowledge and information in new ways. The filing cabinet is an object that helps with distributed cognition, storing and sorting information for people so that they do not have to keep the thoughts in their own heads.

This history would fit well alongside the history of the modern office as told in Cubed. Alongside arrangements of desks and other equipment and ideas about what offices should accomplish are the humble and essential filing systems. They may even require a lot of space to hold all that important paper but they would rarely feature on an office tour or be the subject of excited conversation.

When infrastructure needs exceed capacity, Suez Canal edition

Images from this week of the Ever Given wedged in the Suez Canal are fascinating. Such a situation raises a lot of quick questions – such as “how did this happen?!?” – but there are bigger issues at work. For example, how and when does infrastructure adjust when the needs increase?

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Here is how one piece frames it:

The incident could raise new questions about the container shipping industry, which moves 90 percent of the world’s goods, and its increasingly gigantic ships. Demand for shipping goods by sea has surged during the Covid-19 pandemic, with spot prices for empty containers moving from China to northern Europe rising by more than 400 percent. In response, shipping lines have loaded gigantic vessels like the Ever Given with record numbers of containers. Ships have run into some trouble. The industry has lost more cargo into the sea in late 2020 and early 2021 than in prior years. “We’re going to get to a point where the ships are so large, it becomes a burden,” says Byers.

Goods traveling via containers – whether on ships, trucks, trains, or other means – are essential to modern economies. As markets grow and expand, there will be more shipping containers moving around the globe. That means infrastructure needs to expand. More trucks and roads. More trains. More intermodal facilities. Canals that need to be wider.

This happens primarily behind the scenes. Consumers see goods on shelves or they are delivered from vast warehouses and all is good. It is only when something goes wrong in these systems, such as a 1,300 foot ship getting stuck in a major international shipping route, that we note the tensions and the limits. Changes will be made on the Suez Canal to limit the possibility of this happening again and the shipping containers will continue to flow. Until the problem arises again or larger changes need to be made…

When infrastructure does not work as expected, Texas grid edition

The bitter cold in Texas has created problems for the grid. I found a 2011 article helpful in understanding a bit more about how power works in Texas:

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The separation of the Texas grid from the rest of the country has its origins in the evolution of electric utilities early last century. In the decades after Thomas Edison turned on the country’s first power plant in Manhattan in 1882, small generating plants sprouted across Texas, bringing electric light to cities. Later, particularly during the first world war, utilities began to link themselves together. These ties, and the accompanying transmission network, grew further during the second world war, when several Texas utilities joined together to form the Texas Interconnected System, which allowed them to link to the big dams along Texas rivers and also send extra electricity to support the ramped-up factories aiding the war effort.

The Texas Interconnected System — which for a long time was actually operated by two discrete entities, one for northern Texas and one for southern Texas — had another priority: staying out of the reach of federal regulators. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Federal Power Act, which charged the Federal Power Commission with overseeing interstate electricity sales. By not crossing state lines, Texas utilities avoided being subjected to federal rules. “Freedom from federal regulation was a cherished goal — more so because Texas had no regulation until the 1970s,” writes Richard D. Cudahy in a 1995 article, “The Second Battle of the Alamo: The Midnight Connection.” (Self-reliance was also made easier in Texas, especially in the early days, because the state has substantial coal, natural gas and oil resources of its own to fuel power plants.)

ERCOT was formed in 1970, in the wake of a major blackout in the Northeast in November 1965, and it was tasked with managing grid reliability in accordance with national standards. The agency assumed additional responsibilities following electric deregulation in Texas a decade ago. The ERCOT grid remains beyond the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which succeeded the Federal Power Commission and regulates interstate electric transmission.

Historically, the Texas grid’s independence has been violated a few times. Once was during World War II, when special provisions were made to link Texas to other grids, according to Cudahy. Another episode occurred in 1976 after a Texas utility, for reasons relating to its own regulatory needs, deliberately flipped a switch and sent power to Oklahoma for a few hours. This event, known as the “Midnight Connection,” set off a major legal battle that could have brought Texas under the jurisdiction of federal regulators, but it was ultimately resolved in favor of continued Texan independence.

I have contended before that few people pay much attention to infrastructure until something goes wrong. When electricity, natural gas, water, roads, mass transit, and more operate normally, we do not think about them much. They just work. Until they don’t.

A short event last summer reminded me of this. Our family was about to leave our house for a trip and right as we were closing everything up, the power went out. In such a situation, what do you do? Stay and make sure all essential systems are back on – refrigerator, sump pump, air conditioning – before leaving? Just go and hope for the best? We stuck around for a little bit, power was restored, and we were on our way. And this happened in a location where we rarely lose electricity and most of the power lines are underground.

Our situation was a drop in the bucket compared to a severe storm or change in weather like Texas is experiencing. It all works until it is knocked out and millions of people are affected. Then, everyone wants to know what is going wrong. What is taking so long? Is there a way to quickly reestablish service or are people at the mercy of the cold? Certainly, the return of power and services will be accompanied by serious conversations about what to do to ensure something similar does not happen again.

And then there are the peculiarities of local infrastructure. How was it built? How is it managed? Who makes the decisions and what are the priorities for the systems? Is it prepared for a crisis? Some places take great pride in the infrastructure. As an example, the Chicago story of reversing the Chicago River to help improve public health is told over and over as a notable achievement. The construction of Deep Tunnel is a sizable project.

But, these are the big projects. Power, gas, and water are just supposed to be there. While some property owners, often in more rural areas, might have to deal with this more on their own (wells, propane tanks, septic fields, etc.), this is part of the urban and suburban bargain: you live there and the services work (and might even be relatively cheap – see the example of water).

Perhaps this will lead to more consideration of infrastructure. Build a strong infrastructure and it will help keep different and important parts of society running. When it fails, everyone struggles.

“Cities hope eventually to turn their smart street lights into cash cows”

Cities continue to look for ways to monetize their infrastructure. The new frontier: street lights.

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The poles can serve as billboards where companies buy ad space.

5G providers and others can pay monthly fees to hang their equipment on light poles.

The brass ring for cities is to compile data from smart street lights and sell it for profit.

The bottom line: “We’re seeing a lot of cities buying back their street lights from utilities,” Gardner tells Axios.

“Because all of a sudden, they’ve woken up to the fact that, hey — you know, the boring, kind of arcane corner of the municipal infrastructure space, the street light poles? They’re actually critical assets that we need to own and control.”

This could be the dream of city managers and public works directors everywhere: the same infrastructure that serves the residents of the community can also be used to generate revenue for the city. Imagine covering the maintenance and construction costs of the infrastructure and possibly even adding to the community revenues.

Residents could like this too. However, they might have a few concerns:

-Billboards in even more places? What about visual pollution? What companies are allowed to advertise on government owned property?

-Some communities already have controversy over 5G. This could raise the conflict from it just being present in the community to being officially endorsed by the municipality.

-Sell data about residents and visitors? Is there any expectation to privacy while driving, walking, biking in public?

It will be interesting to see how far this goes across different communities.