Sandy's Aftermath: Is There A Silver Lining?
The devastation and heartache that Hurricane Sandy has delivered to the East Coast — especially to New York and New Jersey, as well as my home state of Pennsylvania — is monumental in scope and will be felt for years to come. While the repercussions of Sandy are almost universally negative, they say every cloud has a silver lining, and hers may be no different. The superstorm may be the catalyst for much-needed water and wastewater infrastructure improvements that the industry has been clamoring for.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, with his subway system flooded and raw sewage flowing into city streets, publicly stated that current water and wastewater infrastructure is ill-equipped to deal with the severity of storms brought on by climate change — a conclusion echoed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The declaration made waves in that it was delivered with a presidential endorsement, and perhaps also because climate change itself is still much-debated, but it was landmark for another reason. However loaded his statement may have been, it is significant when the leader of one of the world’s richest and most populous cities calls for an infrastructure overhaul.
Bloomberg has a kindred spirit in Patricia Mulroy, general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District and president of the Association of Metropolitan Water Companies, who has long advocated action on climate change as a member of the Water Utilities Climate Alliance. I heard from Mulroy last week during the 104th Annual Meeting of the Water and Wastewater Manufacturers Association (WWEMA) in Las Vegas, where she said Hurricane Sandy provided “the ultimate wake-up call” and expressed hope that Bloomberg’s call for action would not only be heeded on the East Coast, but throughout the United States.
Mulroy’s message was to make water and wastewater a national strategic initiative, to “pull it out of the shadows and make our elected officials look it stark in the eye” — much in the way, she said, that we did with renewable energy.
There is certainly no debate that America’s water and wastewater infrastructure needs fixing. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) estimates that it will take more than $1 trillion over the next 25 years to maintain drinking water systems and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) quoted another $390 billion over 20 years for wastewater. This huge investment is due in large part to crumbling pipes and population growth, which are undisputed realities. Mulroy argues that climate change is yet another reality, although her experience in Las Vegas is opposite Bloomberg’s in New York.
While hurricanes and blizzards periodically (but more frequently) pound the East Coast, persistent drought is the scourge of the West Coast. Citing Lake Mead as a prime example, Mulroy said she has seen many reservoirs rapidly dry up over the past decade, resulting in water scarcity and the degradation of water quality. To help ensure available, clean water for the future, she seeks more research and data on climate change for water resource planning and adaptation strategies.
Whether it’s too much water on one coast or not enough water on the other, Mulroy said nothing will get done to resolve our water and wastewater issues without a national strategic initiative, and she thinks we have reached a pivotal moment for that cause in the wake of Sandy.
“When Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg stood up and made endorsements based on climate and change and infrastructure, and said we have to adapt, we have to take this seriously, we have to invest — that, to me, was a game changer. I watched it ripple through the national governors and through the national mayors. It’s going to start resonating.”
As the East Coast continues to pick up the pieces, perhaps Sandy’s terrible wrath did indeed come with a silver-lining message for all of America: The time has come to rebuild.