2017-02-16 / Voices

Infrastructure – the Key to America’s Future

Freelance Writer & Radio Producer
Making a Noise in this World

The 1889 Johnstown Flood killed 2200 people when the South Fork Dam on Pennsylvania’s Little Conemaugh River broke after several days of unusually heavy rain. Although the court in typical fashion blamed God for the catastrophe, actual responsibility was generally focused on the well-to-do members of the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club – including Andrew Carnegie - for failing to adequately maintain a vital portion of the community’s infrastructure.

Let me repeat those words - ”vital” and “infrastructure”. The absolutely necessary, important or essential basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (e.g., buildings, roads, and power supplies) needed for the operation of a society. Or, more plainly put, the underpinnings that pretty much keep everything going on a day-to-day basis.

If you believe incidents like Johnstown are a thing of the past, think again…or just ask the 188,000 Californians near the Oroville Dam how imminent disaster seemed as “This is not a drill” followed evacuation orders on local media and cell phones last Sunday when major flooding was anticipated due to a spillway hole, erosion and an unusually heavy rainy season.

Ask any expert and they’ll tell you that erosion and holes don’t generally make for solid, reliable infrastructure.

And though most of us take it for granted that “the government” – local, state or federal - has its eye on the ball in such matters, reality says that there’s been quite a lot of blinking going on…and for some time.

Remember that scene in National Treasure where they go below New York City’s Trinity Church and discover a stairway built during America’s Colonial Period? That may seem like part of a Hollywood tale, but such antiquated infrastructure images are real and within my lifetime. The Big Apple is “only” looking at 100 year– old pipes these days, but I remember a report as a kid when a busted Manhattan water main was discovered to be made of wood dating back to the American Revolution… no, really.

Meanwhile, wooden water mains are believed to still be in use in parts of Washington, Alaska, Pennsylvania and South Dakota.

Grant it, Native American reservations across the country where contaminated water or, in some cases, no water at all is available might see wooden pipes as a step in the right direction. But the very fact that such Third World conditions exist anywhere in this country is an indication of how dire is the need for improvement.

In fact, the 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers report card for America’s infrastructure (compiled every 4 years) gives our nation a “D+”- or “poor” – rating overall with particular concerns for roads, inland waterways, dams, drinking water, hazardous waste, aviation, levees and schools.

Want to see some really “D” roads? Take a cruise through the Pine Ridge Reservation. Want to see an inland waterway/drinking water/hazardous waste concern in progress? Visit the Dakota Access Pipeline construction site – just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Specific information on South Dakota’s infrastructure needs as reviewed within the 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers report card appear as “N/A” - which may be an indication of the state’s recent push toward a more open and transparent government. But to his credit South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard has made fixing the state’s roads and bridges a top priority and legislation raising fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees to generate money for that purpose was passed.

Yet, the estimated investment required to fix the country’s infrastructure needs by 2020 (the presumed “expiration date” for many areas) is $3.6 trillion.

That’s a lot of zeros. And it’s pretty close to the 2016 federal budget of $4.1 trillion. You see where that puts us?

If you’re concerned about the country’s future and you think the new administration is going to save it – or destroy it, the real news – the worse news, no matter which side of the political aisle you occupy is that we’re crumbling from within.

The future doesn’t lie with expanding the battle against terrorism around the world to protect our national interests abroad, or even the government’s feigned attempts to protect us here at home.

Our actual future lies in rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure…beginning yesterday. Failure to do so will not only bring our roads, bridges and dams tumbling down around us, it will smother the bright flame that fuels our coming generations.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on South Dakota Public Radio, National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at

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