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Trusted local news leader for Prescott, Arizona & surrounding communities since 1882
3:37 AM Wed, July 18th

Talk of the Town - 2: Infrastructure fix to cost plenty

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second part of a two-part "Talk of the Town" on the crisis facing American infrastructure - the nation's network of roads, highways, bridges, water and sewer pipes and dams and levees. The first installment in Sunday's Daily Courier covered problems in such portions of the nation's infrastructure as bridges, sewer systems, underground water pipes, and roads. Today's installment covers other elements of infrastructure and what the nation will have to do to bring infrastructure up to date.

Levees

We don't think much about levees in Arizona, but we should be concerned for our futures. Much of our food supply and produce relies on the levees that protect the farmlands in California and the Midwest. Hundreds thousands of levees exist across America. The exact number is unknown because the national inventory didn't even begin until after Hurricane Katrina. One hundred and seventy-seven levees in 26 states are at risk of collapsing. Sacramento has 185 miles of levees protecting 70,000 to 80,000 people. The California Delta Islands have hundreds of miles of levees that settlers and farmers built 150 years ago. Farmers didn't build these levees to engineering standards. They built with whatever materials were available and little or no compaction. Some of the Delta Islands already have sunk 15 feet.

A 6.9 magnitude earthquake in this area would wipe out those levees. That would cause salt water from the ocean to seep in and contaminate all or much of north California's drinking water; it also would wipe out a large portion of America's produce industry. The Delta Islands provide more than half of the water Californians drink from San Francisco to Los Angeles. The Katrina disaster is only a small example of what happens when a levee breaks ... and New Orleans was no exception to the condition our levees are in.

Dams

Of the more than 85,000 dams in the U.S., 4,000 of them are unsafe and 1,800 of those qualify as high hazard dams. On an average, dams in the U.S. are now more than 51 years old. Governments have cut the number of inspectors to the bone. In 2007, Texas had just seven inspectors for 7,400 dams. They inspected only 239 dams that year. Iowa had only one full-time and one part-time inspector overseeing 3,344 dams, but they did only 128 inspections that year. Alabama doesn't even have an inspection agency for more than 2,000 dams.

Wolf Creek Dam in Southern Kentucky is one mile long and holds back the largest man-made reservoir east of the Mississippi. It sits above Nashville. They built Wolf Creek Dam in the 1940s on a porous limestone foundation and it is seeping so badly that experts believe it will fail within the next five years. If it does fail, 6 million acre feet of water will rush downstream at 40 feet per second wiping out thousands of people and creating devastation for hundreds of miles away. Six million acre feet is equal to covering the entire state of New Jersey with a foot of water.

In December 2008 in Kingston, Tennessee, a coal ash dam breached and spewed more than 1 billion gallons of hazardous waste over the dam.

In 1976, the Grand Teton Dam breached after heavy rains and snow killing 14 people.

In 2006, a 44-foot-high, privately owned earthen dam in Kauai, Hawaii collapsed and killed seven people. The state of Hawaii classified this dam as a "low hazard."

Electricity/Power Grid

When the U.S. loses electric power, no pumps move drinking water, no sewer plants operate, and much of our transportation system - particularly in the east - comes to a halt, and airports close.

Demand for power has spiked 16 percent in the past decade, but utilities are not building new lines to keep up with demand. The industry needs to spend $1.5 trillion in the next 20 to 30 years to repair and expand the grid. Our transmission lines are overloaded; the more than 160 million wood utility poles in the U.S. are decaying.

The average American experiences an average of 214 minutes of blackout per year compared to 70 minutes in Britain and 6 minutes in Japan.

What has happened to the United States being the leader in the world? We are wasting our tax dollars on frivolous "pork projects" instead of putting this money into our decaying infrastructure which would create jobs, economic stimulus and tax dollars. Ecology groups are crying global warming and are getting $400 billion for research. Why aren't these groups demanding our Congress to do something about the 6 billion gallons of drinking water lost every day or the 900 trillion gallons of combined sewer/storm water going into U.S. waterways every year?

How did our federal government become so involved in our smoking habits, supplying coupons to convert our TV sets, subsidizing child care, and "Cash for Clunkers" clunkers etc., but cannot take care of the things our federal government was set up to do, like protect our borders and keep our infrastructure strong?

Note: Figures from this article came from "The Crumbling of America" a recent special on The History Channel.

Karen Fann is a former mayor of Chino Valley, a former Prescott City Council member, and a local businesswoman.