Congress must help communities deal with invisible infrastructure

The 50 water main breaks on Milwaukee’s northwest side over the weekend served as a stark reminder of the importance of what Mayor Tom Barrett calls the “invisible infrastructure” — all those often-aging pipes underground that can leak or break and cause a host of problems.

Congress needs to help make sure that communities with aging systems and fiscal issues get the help they need to deal with that unseen infrastructure, whether through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative or other funding.

Last fall, Barrett said he described pipes as “the invisible infrastructure, because most people don’t think about the sewers at all until something goes wrong. Throughout Milwaukee, throughout southeastern Wisconsin, we have to constantly update these sewers.” He used the phrase again in describing the weekend’s water breaks, and he was right do so.

Although hard-working crews had repaired 41 of the breaks by Monday morning, and the cause of the initial leak that caused a cascade of failure through the system had not yet been determined, aging pipes are often the culprit.

Milwaukee saw another example of invisible infrastructure problems a couple of years ago on its northeast side when heavy rains overwhelmed aging sewer lines and privately owned laterals, resulting in severe flooding in area basements and streets. Local governments and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District have started to fix that problem.

One source that’s been of help to communities around the Great Lakes is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative which provides funding for programs that, among other things, include cleaning up toxic waste, combating the threat of invasive species and reducing storm water runoff. The Obama administration unwisely took $25 million from the $300 million fund, money that can make a difference in fixing aging and deteriorating pipes.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.) called for Congress to restore funding to the original $300 million level. They’re right; these programs are vital to a healthy economy and a healthy environment, and Congress should provide full funding to restore them.

That will help with leaky sewers, something that’s certainly needed in Milwaukee. But aging water supply pipelines also need to be addressed, whether through an expansion of programs under the initiative or through another source of funding such as the Clean Water Act. Congress should make sure communities get the help they need.

A deteriorating infrastructure doesn’t stay invisible for along.

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