On a recent road trip I finally got to see the Hoover Dam. Sure, I learned about it in school and watched documentaries on TV, but it is much more impressive when you are standing on it.
The art deco ornamentation reminds me that it was built in the 1930s. It was a phenomenally ambitious project, the largest concrete structure ever built. The costs must have been astronomical. Over 5,000 people worked on the dam, and over 100 died in the 100-degree heat. The location was seriously in the middle of nowhere, so they had to create a whole town for the employees.
Ninety years later, the dam is still providing water for agriculture and over 20 million people as well as electricity for 1.3 million. Most of us take our water and electricity for granted. We turn on the tap and have safe drinking water. We flip a switch and have lights, heat, television, plus electricity for our slew of appliances, including the computer I am using now.
In Minnesota, water is usually plentiful. The Southwest, however, needs a complex infrastructure of reservoirs, aqueducts and canals to bring Colorado River water into people’s kitchens. Irrigation with this water is essential for the farm fields that grow a huge portion of our country’s fruits and vegetables.
Years ago, when I moved to Savage, I took a series of classes called The Citizens Academy. I toured our water plant and learned about Minnesota’s various aquifers, the uses of river water and methods of treatment. The class explained sewage pumping stations and outlined parts of our city infrastructure.
Sewers are another underappreciated system. I recently rented an Airbnb with a septic tank, and it reminded me of the special soaps and toilet paper we used when I was a kid. But the most vivid memory was of watching the septic tank being pumped. We kids certainly giggled about that, and my parents were thrilled when we finally got city sewer and water.
On my recent trip, I noticed how we’ve become totally reliant on GPS to steer us through strange cities. The whole telecommunications system, including phones, broadband and internet, are a much more important part of our lives than we imagine. It is all infrastructure.
Getting money from an ATM requires electricity and telecommunications. Being able to Google the Yelp reviews of a local restaurant, check the hours of a tourist attraction or identify an unknown cactus using Google Lens on the interstate has become as common as listening to the radio. And, of course, now we can stream our own playlist from our cellphone rather than relying on the spotty coverage of local radio stations.
Highways, airports, train tracks, locks and dams are all visible parts of our physical infrastructure. But water, sewer, natural gas and communication systems are often invisible. We don’t see them, and we don’t think about them until something goes wrong.
I had to laugh in California when my navigation system warned me of a pothole — one pothole. In a Minnesota spring, potholes are too numerous to be remarkable. But it reminded me that infrastructure is never finished. The Hoover Dam has had continuous maintenance and updates over the years. As strange as it seems, someone has to constantly remove the recent zebra mussel invaders from the turbines that generate electricity in our dams. Small things matter.
Personally, I don’t think I’ve ever properly appreciated the people who maintain and update the various pieces of our infrastructure. Potholes get filled and roads, resurfaced. Highway engineers are always redesigning our roads and bridges to be safer than their predecessors.
Our water is constantly treated and tested to ensure that it is potable. Sewage treatment plants upgrade their systems to keep us all safe from diseases that used to plague society.
After serious storms, crews of technicians restore our electricity. Fiber optic cable is replacing old copper wires for faster internet. There are crews on standby for Superbowl Sunday to make sure we can all enjoy the game and complain about the halftime show.
There are an unimaginable number of tweaks and preventative maintenance procedures along with constant upgrades and improvements that we rely on to keep our infrastructure running.
When I casually turn on the tap to get water for my morning coffee, I need to remember that elsewhere in the world people have to travel daily to collect their water. According to the World Health Organization, 2 billion people are using drinking water that is contaminated with feces. Oxford University estimates 13% of the world population does not have access to electricity and that 40% of the world does not have access to clean fuels for cooking.
We are fortunate to have a magnificent, complicated, expensive, crazy quilt of infrastructures that allow us to live comfortably. These infrastructures require care, maintenance and funding. Let’s appreciate the systems, and the people, who create and support them.