I just wrote an article about a tiny group of homeowners forced to work with lawyers, their county, state regulators, well operators, testing facilities, nonprofit organizations, and each other to form a water and sewer district and devise a state-approved plan for cleaning up their drinking water. I heard about their plight during an American Water Works Association’s (AWWA) presentation by former water and wastewater utility supervisor Jim Jones, now technical adviser for a nonprofit that helps rural communities like Cedar Gulch work out infrastructure issues. As a homeowner with an overactive imagination, it was easy to put myself in their place and I was appalled.
Such situations aren’t that unusual. Rural roads are the nation’s deadliest (this isn’t a criticism of county engineers, who are miracle workers considering what they accomplish with the resources at hand). However, I’ve been more focused on how automated and connected vehicles could change metropolitan roads and the transportation departments that oversee them. I have family in rural Illinois, so I know how farm consolidation and moving factories overseas have decimated once-vibrant towns and small cities. I go to the AWWA and Water Environment Federation (for wastewater utilities) annual conventions and hear how big cities are using artificial intelligence to spot the tiniest leaks and metagenomics to monitor nutrient levels in near-real-time, then hear about something like Cedar Gulch.
The contrast between the two worlds is jarring.
I’ve always pictured Engineers Without Borders as serving the underserved overseas – helping Indian communities remove arsenic from drinking water, say, or building bridges in South American mountains so farmers can haul goods to market. It’s disquieting how much similar need exists in the U.S.
Fortunately, many engineers feel called to help communities here resolve their complicated water and sewer issues. The even better news is these projects give engineering students the perfect introduction to the public works profession. They quickly learn how politically challenging it is to devise solutions acceptable to all parties. In my opinion, that’s the best training they can receive.