TOPICS > Science

Into Pungent Water

BY Miles O'Brien  January 3, 2013 at 11:51 AM EST

I have heard people say television is a glamorous business. But while I was donning a Tyvek suit, face mask, gloves and waders cinched tight with duct tape — to be lowered into a big sewer line beneath Detroit’s Jefferson Avenue — I wondered what on earth they were talking about.

I was there to get a better understanding of the nature and scope of the challenges faced by the people who keep the taps flowing and the toilets flushing.

Most of us don’t think much, if at all, about how clean water gets delivered to our homes or what happens when it goes down the drain. I was among them, until I got this assignment.

So I had to make it my No. 1 (or maybe No. 2) priority.

But when I told friends that I was working on this story, most of them made it clear they would rather not discuss it in any detail. In fact, my girlfriend insisted I use a code word to describe the river of sewage that I would soon be knee deep in.

The flowing tap and flushing toilets that we take for granted are the user interface of a complex system that is in desperate need of repair.Miles O'Brien

 “Call it ‘Kardashian,’” she insisted. Draw your own conclusions on that one.

Being winched down through the manhole into the “Kardashian” may not be an experience for everyone, but more people should take the time to understand this out of sight (and clearly out of mind) infrastructure challenge.

In the interview below, Chuck Hersey, a water and infrastructure expert for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, explains why it’s so hard to get people invested in the state of our infrastructure. 

 

Our big cities sit on top of a spider web of water mains and sewer lines that are often 100 years old. They were designed and built well by our forefathers but have been neglected by our generation for lack of funding.

The American Society of Civil Engineers graded the overall health of the water and sewer infrastructure in the U.S., and it barely passed — earning a D-minus.  I asked Gregory DiLoreto, the society’s president, to explain the dismal grade. You can watch that extended interview here.  

 

 

 

This is not a house-on-fire kind of crisis; it is not obvious or seemingly exigent. Indeed, it is more like a slow motion (subway) train wreck.

The flowing tap and flushing toilets that we take for granted are the user interface of a complex system that is in desperate need of repair. I saw the crumbling evidence of this with my own eyes — even though I was not wearing my glasses.

Shortly after I rappelled into that which repels, they fell into the drink(not). While I was giving them the last rites, my guide for this trip in the turd tunnel, Roberto Sanchez, dropped his bare hand into the gray odoriferous river – rescuing my bifocals. What can I say? We apply the term “hero” loosely and often undeservedly in our society. Not in this case. Roberto is the s**t in my book — part of an impressive team of dedicated people who take care of that which we would prefer to flush with a system that is held together with tape and baling wire.

When I resurfaced, the crew gave me some disinfectant wipes and I gave my glasses a thorough detailing. But my girlfriend could no longer look at them without thinking “Kardashian.”

She dragged me into an optician’s office and nearly forced me to buy a new pair. I guess it was time for me to make an investment in my personal infrastructure.

Cameron Hickey contributed to this report.