Sunday, June 5, 2016

New Deal Sanitation: Sewer Lines

(A CWA worker excavates for a sewer line in a national park, ca. 1933-1934. Photo from the book America Fights the Depression: A Photographic Record of the Civil Works Administration. Used here for educational, non-commercial purposes.)

(WPA workers installing a sewer line in Hurlock, Maryland, 1935. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

Between 1933 and 1943, the New Deal built or improved many thousands of miles of sewer lines all across the country. The work-relief programs, alone, built or improved well over 30,000 miles of storm and sanitary sewer lines. A 1935 report from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration reported that a new sewer system built in Las Vegas was considered "one of the best sewer jobs in the West."

But that was 80 years ago.

In 2013, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave America's wastewater infrastructure a letter grade of "D", noting: "Although access to centralized treatment systems is widespread, the condition of many of these systems is also poor, with aging pipes and inadequate capacity leading to the discharge of an estimated 900 billion gallons of untreated sewage each year." According to the advocacy group American Rivers, "3.5 million Americans get sick each year after swimming, boating, fishing, or otherwise touching water they thought was safe... Untreated human sewage teems with salmonella, hepatitis, dysentery, cryptosporidium, and many other infectious diseases."

Wouldn't it be great if we created work-relief programs today, for the 20 million Americans who are un- or under-employed, so that wastewater and other infrastructure systems could be improved? Obviously this isn't going to happen--since our federal government is so hyper-focused on pampering the wealthy and looking for new military adventures--but I'm just asking, wouldn't it be nice if we connected the dots of unemployment and old wastewater systems, and kept "human waste... household chemicals, personal hygiene products, pharmaceuticals... pesticides, fertilizers, automotive chemicals, and trash" out of our streams, lakes, and rivers? (Also see Jared Bernstein's op-ed, "May’s Seriously Downbeat Jobs Report... Underscores Need for Deep Infrastructure Dive," Huffington Post, June 3, 2016).  

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