Going Nuts with Aging Infrastructure

Photo by Robert Osborne

Photo by Robert Osborne

Fall for me is football, acorns, and pumpkin beer. Right now our 80 year old white oaks in our yard are dropping acorns like rain. This is music to my ears as long as I don’t get hit by one of them.

Did you know a fully grown oak tree can plummet the ground with over 2,000 acorns? I didn’t know this either until my seven year old asked me how many acorns can drop from a tree. Here is the equation and resulting graph.

Acorn Production

I know. You have seen this curve before. It is the classic “S-curve” or Sigmoid function. I have used this curve in managing project budgets or as a basis for population planning. When I blogged about historical dam construction in the US, you could see it there. It’s everywhere.

You can see this same curve with most technology trends; slow acceptance, followed by rapid growth, and then a leveling off. Facebook, iPods, etc.

If you can fit most natural systems or processes to this curve, where would the state of our infrastructure be on this curve. Personally, I think we are at the top of the curve. I would call this the maturity stage, but with an uncertain future.

I was reminded about how uncertain this future is yesterday, when I read a new report from the National Research Council titled “Corps of Engineers Water Resources Infrastructure: Deterioration, Investment, or Divestment?“. Here is a quote from the report.

 There are today approximately 700 dams across the nation that were constructed by the Corps of Engineers. Approximately 95 percent of the dams managed by the Corps are more than 30 years old, and 52 percent have reached or exceeded the 50-year service lives for which they were designed.”

This sentiment is often repeated by many. According to The American Society of Civil Engineers now famous report card, they gave America’s water supply system “nearly failing grades.” There are some estimates that a trillion dollars between now and 2035 are needed to invest in our water infrastructure.

Infrastructure S-Curve

Black & Veatch recently published a report titled “The Strategic Directions in the U.S. Water Utility Industry Report”. According to survey respondents, aging water, wastewater and sewer infrastructure was the most important issue facing the water industry in 2012, followed closely by managing capital costs.

So, we are at the end of an S-Curve. We are built out with a large infrastructure tree that has produced lots of acorn dividends throughout the years. I think now is the time to plant some new acorns.

Through twitter, I met Chris Maxwell-Gaines, a fellow engineer. He started his own firm Innovative Water Solutions back in 2004 to bring water conservation solutions to residential projects such as installing rainwater harvesting systems and graywater and AC condensate reuse systems. Chris has a passion that is easy to see even through twitter.

Folks like Chris are the ones planting the acorns that will help lead us to more a sustainable infrastructure future.

“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson