Sewage problems chased students out of the classroom at a California elementary school last week, a sign of growing wastewater infrastructure challenges across the state that have made school operations difficult in many counties.
“As California schools age, maintenance and repairs become more important to their mission of delivering an education. An increasing amount of schools are forced to put off maintenance and repairs as little problems turn into bigger ones. Bigger is always more expensive,” KTVU reported.
So-called “flushable” wipes, a thorn in the side of wastewater industry pros who say the material clogs up the sewer system, were part of the problem at Westlake School last week. Sewage systems with aging infrastructure have long struggled with "ragging," according to The Washington Post.
"What we had was a situation of excessive paper towels being flushed down the toilet, feminine hygiene products and flushable toilet wipes which we are learning are not really flushable. Do we need to replace our sewage pipes to accommodate some of the things that are commonly flushed down the toilet today?" said Superintendent Bernie Vidales of the Jefferson Elementary School District, per KTVU. "We've had situations at school sites where roots have gone into our sewage pipes and we've had to replace whole sections.”
An aging wastewater infrastructure system means problems crop up frequently at institutions that are aging themselves. Funding is the crux of the problem. On the whole, the U.S. needs $271 billion to upgrade and maintain its wastewater infrastructure over the next five years, according to a U.S. EPA survey released in January. A 2012 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers found that the annual investment needed to raise California’s wastewater infrastructure grade “from a ‘C+’ to a ‘B’ is $4.5 billion annually for the next 10 years.”
Meanwhile, about 80 percent of California public school students go to schools that cannot meet minimum spending standards for infrastructure, according to UC Berkeley's Center for Schools and Cities, per KTVU.
"We certainly do not have enough money to be able to fund an adequate education for our students, not to mention being able to take care of our infrastructure and building needs," Vidales said.
At Westlake School, plumbing crews spent the day unclogging the sewer system and disinfecting bathrooms, according to NBC News Bay Area.
“Classes at Westlake School were canceled due to an emergency situation with the school's sewer system affecting all school bathroom facilities and an inability to get portable facilities in time for school,” the school said in a statement. “To preserve student and staff safety, school was canceled only for Tuesday, August 30.”
Vidales explained the decision to cancel class, per NBC: "We couldn't have student and staff come to school and not have any facilities for them to use," he said. "Anytime we need to cancel school it's a big inconvenience, not just for our staff, but our students. It's a day lost for learning and the routine. We took it very seriously."
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