Nashville Struggles with Water, Sewer Systems

Several American cities are struggling to maintain their aging water systems, and Nashville, Tenn. is one of them. Karl Dean, the city's new mayor, says Nashville needs more than $500 million for capital improvements to its century-old water and sewer system.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

The founding fathers might have been astounded to learn that today there is some 1.2 million miles of sewers winding through our country's water infrastructure, and they'd be dismayed to learn that it may cost nearly half a trillion dollars to fix the crumbling pipes and water systems across America.

One city that's facing a looming crisis is Nashville, Tennessee, where Mayor Karl Dean anticipates around $500 million worth of repairs.

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CORNISH: Last week I went for a boat ride with Mayor Dean and Water Services Director Scott Potter. We set out from a city dock on the Cumberland River, which runs right through the heart of Nashville.

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CORNISH: Now, Mayor Dean, why in a conversation about water and sewer infrastructure did you want to meet here on the Cumberland River?

Mr. KARL DEAN (Mayor, Nashville, Tennessee): Well, the Cumberland River, I'm not sure everyone realizes, is the source of our water. This is the water we drink, this is the water we take showers in and use every day. And the river means really two things to me about Nashville. Number one is that this river demonstrates that we have an ample water supply, unlike other cities in the southeast.

Our growth, our prosperity is not going to be hindered by a lack of water. We have all the water we need. And our responsibility is to be stewards of this water supply, to make sure we handle it appropriately and maintain the infrastructure of our water and sewage system.

And secondly, the river, with the herons and everything else you see here, is a great opportunity for us particularly in the downtown area to really focus the city more on the river and to make it a valuable part of our downtown community for recreation and...

CORNISH: So, beyond the city's drinking supply.

Mr. DEAN: Right, for beyond the drinking supply. But in terms of the infrastructure issue, this is a great resource, and you can just sit here in the sight of all these blue heron nests and look at this broad river and know that we have a lot of water. And, you know, if you look at urban America, there's always a lot of discussion about cities that are kind of built in places where people wonder why are you building the city in the desert or why are you building the city where there's no water.

Nashville is built in the right place. I mean, we are built in an ideal place. We're on a beautiful river, this is a tremendous asset for us going forward. It's something we should be very proud of and something that's going to help us in ways that we can't even think of right now in the future. But we need to be responsible and we need to maintain the infrastructure.

CORNISH: What kind of condition are those pipes and the pumping stations and the infrastructure? What kind of shape is it in?

Mr. DEAN: Scott probably can best answer there.

CORNISH: So, Scott Potter of the Water Services Department, tell us what kind of shape the water infrastructure of the metro and the city is in?

Mr. SCOTT POTTER (Water Services Department, Nashville, Tennessee): The infrastructure's in good shape. The question is it's older and as a city east of the Mississippi River, some of our water and sewer infrastructure dates to the 1800s. The building practices and materials that were used in the 1800s and the early 1900s in the sewer example specifically, a lot of it was fired clay pipe. And that fired clay pipe is very brittle.

And if you introduce any kind of an environmental stress to the pipe it will break. So, the fact that these years of the day were making decisions they thought were perfect at the time subsequent, it has been determined that may not have been the best decision. So, when you have clay pipe in the ground and you have a freeze and fall cycle, as an example, it will crack.

And the only way to correct that is to replace the pipe.

CORNISH: So, Mayor Dean, how does all of this affect what comes out of my pipes and my shower and that sort of thing? How does it affect the average resident here in Nashville?

Mr. DEAN: Well, I mean, right now in terms of what comes out of your pipes and how sewage is handled, we're doing a very good job. What we're talking about is the need to make sure that we continue to do that job by investing in the infrastructure. And the debate becomes really one of about money.

The water department now has really no bonding capacity. We need to issue bonds to be able to invest in the infrastructure. We have not had a water rate increase in 12 years, which is a long time. Obviously, you know, we're in an economic slowdown, nobody wants to pay more for anything and I'm fully there with them and I understand that.

We have to go through a process of finding what the best way to do it in a fair way, a way that people feel that their voices are being heard and they have something to say as we discuss what the rates should be. And that discussion will take place this year.

CORNISH: So, infrastructure is not something that's on people's minds just yet?

Mr. DEAN: I mean, I think it is. This is an issue, you know, your day-to-day life as you're going to work and taking care of your kids and worrying about education and all the other issues confronting the city, you don't worry about your pipes very often. You might worry about it if your basement floods, you might worry about it if your yard floods.

But the average person is not sitting around worrying about the water infrastructure right now, 'cause it works. On day-to-day basis, Scott's department does a fantastic job and everybody's satisfied with their water, everybody's satisfied with the way sewage is handled.

But if you start digging a little deeper, you start looking at, you know, aging infrastructure and thinking about that, you know, we need to be responsible and do the right thing.

CORNISH: Lastly, what do you think other cities can learn about where Nashville is going with this discussion?

Mr. DEAN: Well, I think it's true almost every area of urban management, whether you're talking about roads, you're talking about sewage and water infrastructure, whether you're talking about air quality, you've got to pay attention to these things that are really going to the quality of life issues.

And you got to pay attention to them all the time and you can't put off maintenance of them. And I think people around the country are realizing that if you do, you do that at your peril. Number one: you can damage the resources you have; and I think number two, as we said, if you put it off it's only going to cost more further down the road 'cause you're going to see further deterioration. And things just don't tend to get cheaper, they tend to get more expensive with the passage of time.

So, I think really what's occurring all over the United States is people are realizing that infrastructure, whether it's water, roads or whatever, it's something we've got to be serious about. It's not an exciting issue. You know, when you're out giving a speech it's not like talking about crime or schools. It's not something that people can immediately relate to.

But it's an issue that's well worth talking about. It's an issue that's well worth having a public discussion about and it's well worth being responsive about in terms of the funding.

CORNISH: All right. National Mayor Karl Dean and head of water services, Scott Potter. Thank you so much for speaking with WEEKEND EDITION.

Mr. POTTER: It's my pleasure, thank you.

Mr. DEAN: Thank you.

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CORNISH: The Rockefeller Foundation contributed $150,000 this year to the 2050 Forum, a conference devoted to finding fresh ideas to improve America's infrastructure. Judith Rodin is president of the foundation.

Ms. JUDITH RODIN (President, Rockefeller Foundation): Philanthropy's role is to bring together stakeholders from across these various sectors to invest in new policy solutions, to bring these issues before the general public and to take the longer view.

We're not focused on the election next year, we're not focused on the low risk solution, we're not focused on next quarter's earnings. So, we're in a very significant and really opportune position.

CORNISH: We'll have more from Judith Rodin next week and we continue our focus on America's infrastructure with an examination of the state of the country's dams.

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CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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