photo by Pixabay user 758139
Residents of my hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Florida have a love-hate relationship with our water.
We particularly love having working toilets, which the water accommodates. Showers are nice too. But that crystal-clear stuff that comes out of taps in most American cities doesn’t come out of ours. Ours has a slight yellowish tint even in ordinary times. Perhaps it’s a reminder that we live on the edge of the Everglades. More realistically, it’s a reminder that our water system is antiquated, poorly maintained and barely adequate for our fast-growing population. Water main breaks are common in Fort Lauderdale, though usually they only affect a particular neighborhood.
But in mid-July, Fort Lauderdale and several surrounding communities lost municipal water service entirely. A contractor mistakenly drilled a hole in a critical pipe that carries raw water from the city’s wells to its main treatment plant. There was a backup pipe – but the valves had not been checked for at least eight years and they didn’t work right away. The accident happened on July 17, but the pipe damage abruptly worsened overnight. We heard early on the morning of July 18 that, by midday, our taps would run dry. We were told to expect no public water for 24 to 36 hours.
Fortunately, while we may not excel at maintaining our infrastructure in Fort Lauderdale, we are as good as most parts of Florida at responding to emergencies. Municipal officials did a great job responding to this one. They flew in repair specialists from out of state, while a replacement pipe was quickly located in metro Miami. A temporary workaround was devised in a matter of hours. A partial patch increased water pressure, allowing supply to resume while crews worked to redirect the water flow. By 4 p.m. on July 18, water was reaching the treatment plant and making its way to our homes and businesses. Some residents were advised to boil water as a precaution for a couple of days afterward. But even so, by nightfall it was possible to flush toilets, take showers and – crucially in a Florida summer – run high-rise air conditioning systems that rely on water for cooling.
Even with this rapid action, the water interruption resulted in plenty of disruption and economic cost. More than 220,000 customers, residential and commercial alike, felt the effects. Hotels had to relocate guests, and restaurants all over the city had to shut down or limit their menus. Bottled water was predictably scarce, although the city quickly set up distribution centers to provide a basic supply of free bottled water to anyone who needed it. Many office buildings had to close, including the one that houses our headquarters. The county courthouse closed, too, creating major traffic snarls. All this for an outage that lasted less than a day.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis initially was quick to emphasize human error as the cause of the original incident. But the state of the infrastructure involved inarguably made a bad situation worse. As Deputy City Manager Rob Hernandez said at a press conference following the accident, “What [this] pointed out to us is that we need to pay more attention to our infrastructure needs and that we need to go back and make sure that these redundancies systems do work when they’re supposed to work.”
The water system to-do list is long. A report by Reiss Engineering of Winter Springs estimated the needed repairs and upkeep would cost $1.4 billion over the course of the next two decades. But the recent crisis illustrates the possible consequences if officials ignore the need for such upkeep.
Fort Lauderdale is far from unique in relying on an aging public infrastructure that has suffered from years of deferred maintenance and underinvestment. Most of us take basic public services like water and sewers for granted, at least until they stop working.
In most places, Americans pay private companies to provide electricity. We expect those companies to make the necessary investments and plans to provide reliable service. They accomplish this in varying degrees, but when they fall short customers quickly and publicly call them to account. Most water and sewer services are not privatized. Historically, politicians have been much more reticent to ask for or to approve price increases than private sector utility managers have.
One way or another, we all end up paying. A day without water reminded everyone exactly what we are paying for.