Professor spearheads documentary highlighting crumbling United States infrastructure
An associate professor at Virginia Tech's College of Engineering is the seed behind a new Public Broadcasting System (PBS) documentary that throws light on a long-buried problem -- America's aging water and sewer infrastructure.
Sunil Sinha of the Via Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering hopes that Liquid Assets: The Story of Our Water Infrastructure, airing on Blue Ridge PBS at 4:34 p.m. on Nov. 9, will spur American cities to take action before our pipes crumble and taps run dry.
Sinha brought the idea for a documentary exposing the nation’s aging water/sewer infrastructure to the Penn State Public Broadcasting Station in 2004 while working as an assistant professor at The Pennsylvania State University. The project took years to complete, from initial research and fund-raising to filming and editing.
During production, in which Sinha handpicked interview subjects and helped layout the documentary’s structure, he took a position at Virginia Tech. Sinha also appears on camera as an expert, representing Virginia Tech, even though he says he never intended to appear in the film. Sinha also consulted on the film’s post-production editing phase.
Also appearing in the 90-minute film is Michael Garvin, an associate professor with the Virginia Tech Myers-Lawson School of Construction, discussing the hefty cost of replacing water systems. Other Virginia Tech academics, including award-winning professor Marc Edwards and Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science director Roop Mahajan, were interviewed for the film, but were edited out because of feature length or to keep the film’s subject based solely on water and sewer utilities. Ninety hours of footage was shot for the documentary, according to Stephanie Ayanian, lead producer and co-director.
The documentary is a startling look at a source Americans use everyday, to the tune of 100 gallons per day per person on average, but rarely consider. The 2-million-plus miles of buried utilities are easy to miss, Sinha said. “It’s out of sight and out of mind. You don’t see it, so you don’t think about it. And who wants to fix the sewer system with millions of dollars when there’s no visibility?”
Yet, scores of American cities face losing water and sewer service as systems crumble because of age and wear, Sinha said. In cities such as Philadelphia, which has the country’s oldest water infrastructure service, pipes are more than a century old. Many city systems haven’t been looked at or maintained since their installation 30, 40, or 50 years ago, Sinha added. The native of India likens American water and sewer lines to the arteries of an old man who has never taken care of his health. Similar to arteries blocked by hardened fat, the utilities are clogged by sediment and rust build-up, are punctured by tree roots, or are otherwise cracked and heading toward failure -- or as Sinha dubbed it, “ a massive stroke.”
Sinha says he never intended water infrastructure to be his career passion. He was midway through a doctorate degree focusing on transportation at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, in 2000, when news broke of a major Escherichia coli, or E. coli, outbreak in Walkerton, Canada. Seven people died and thousands were sickened after wells the town used for water supply were contaminated by cattle manure from a local farm.
Walkerton water officials, according to media reports, had long been faking purity tests and did not catch the contamination before it spread rapidly. Even after determining water was contaminated with E. coli, water officials dodged investigators, insisting the town’s water was adequate. Media from around the world descended on the tiny burg, and the attention was fierce.
Sinha said he was stunned by the deaths. “Those (seven) people had to be sacrificed before anything was done,” he said. The work in transportation planning was stylish, but the challenge in studying and then helping correct the dire condition of crumbling water and sewer infrastructure around the world was more intriguing, Sinha added.
Inspiration to make the documentary came after attending a 2004 conference of the North American Society for Trenchless Technology. The group focuses on technologies that make tearing up entire lengths of streets to repair or replace water and sewer lines unnecessary. The group discussed ways they could most easily and dramatically reach the general public to educate them about the nation’s aging water infrastructure. Sinha said motorists notice when a road is in disrepair or if a bridge collapses, as one dramatically did in Minneapolis in 2007, but not crumbling water lines until after their water tap goes dry.
Sinha said he told the group a documentary film would be best. He brought the idea to the Penn State PBS affiliate, and after an initial smaller educational documentary was completed under an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant, production of Liquid Assets began in late 2005/early 2006. Funding would come from the Colcom Foundation, the American Society of Civil Engineers, The Associated General Contractors of America, and several other sources.
The documentary and its related websites were designed from the start to educate the public, Ayanian said. “We wanted to provide a tool so that people can get a picture on what was going on with our water infrastructure and sewer infrastructure.
The documentary is not all alarm. Metro areas such as Atlanta and New York City are featured as municipalities tackling head-on the issue of infrastructure collapse. New York has been building a new, massive water service line for decades, and Atlanta within the past four years has tackled a previously devastating sewage overflow problem.
The EPA’s Steve Allbee has been looking into the funding gap that the nation faces in needed water infrastructure for years. Featured heavily in the documentary, he says at one point, “We have about 2 million miles of pipe in this nation. If you look at what we’re spending now and the additional investment requirements over the next 20 years, there’s a $540 billion difference.”
Sinha said the cost of not replacing or maintaining water and sewer systems is too high. “We won’t have any more water, and neither will our children or grandchildren.” The economic impact on businesses and hospitals also would be devastating, he added. The health impact, including resulting breakouts of cholera and typhoid fever not seen since 1911, also could result from failed water and sewer lines, a spokeswoman from the Center for Disease and Control warned.
Water and sewer customers must be willing to pay more for the service, Sinha said. Documentary experts, including Garvin, said most people pay far more for their monthly cable bill than they do their water and sewer bill, even though the latter is essential to life.
Tom Keiter served as executive producer of Liquid Assets, having been one of the first people to hear Sinha’s documentary pitch. Keiter calls the film not just a television program, but an “integrated outreach and public education initiative.” From the documentary’s inception, Keiter and Sinha saw it as a springboard for community discussions, including town hall meetings hosted by PBS affiliates across the nation. Some 20 cities have planned or will host such meetings, while other PBS affiliates also have provided local reports on their own municipal water and sewer infrastructure following broadcasts of Liquid Assets, according to Keiter and Ayanian.
Now airing across the country, Liquid Assets already is making headlines and garnering public attention. Recently, two members of Congress sent out letters to all 435 members of the House of Representatives urging to watch the documentary. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chairwoman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, and Rep. John Boozman, R-Ariz., also urged colleagues to contact PBS stations in their home districts to ensure that their constituents can watch the film.
Sinha couldn’t be more pleased at the response, that a problem long-buried and forgotten, but always vital, is gaining national attention. “This was my dream,” he said.
If viewers in Southwest Virginia miss the Nov. 9 airing, it will be repeated in coming months, according to Sherry Spradlin, director of programming for Blue Ridge PBS. Find more information and a full listing of airings for Liquid Assets.
Sinha is the winner of the National Science Foundation Career Award titled “Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management System (SWIMS)” for 2006- 2011, the National Science Foundation International Research and Education in Engineering Award for 2007 and was named the Schreyer Institute InSPIRE Academy Fellow by The Pennsylvania State University in 2006. He is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, American Society for Engineering Education, North American Society for Trenchless Technology and American Society for Testing and Materials. He also holds an adjunct professor of Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo, Canada, and in the civil and environmental engineering department at The Pennsylvania State University.