A U.S. Conundrum – We Can Land On Mars But Not Restore Water 2 Weeks After An Ice Storm

I saw a meme on social media comparing the clear pictures from Mars in recent days to graining security cameras at banks. While amusing, it illustrates a larger problem. My former colleagues at NASA sent Perseverance to a planet 138.3 million miles from Earth. The landing spot was very rocky, yet the scientists and engineers placed it in a perfect spot. Meanwhile, there are still Americans in Mississippi without running water after a winter storm that happened weeks ago. This is a conundrum that has long bothered me so let’s dig a bit deeper.

I have tried to write this for two weeks but could not arrive at the crisp final points or lessons that I often leave with readers so this could end up sounding like a rant of concern. A conundrum is defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary online as, “an intricate and difficult problem….a question or problem having only a conjectural answer.” On the first day of meteorological spring (March 1st), Sarah Fowler’s headline in the Washington Post reads, “In Jackson, Miss., two weeks with no running water and no end in sight.” The city, like many places in the Southeast, lost power or water after a crippling plunge of cold air and freezing rain plowed into the region weeks ago. Pssst, I want to let you in on a little secret, the U.S. South experiences ice storms and extreme temperatures, yet the infrastructure is still vulnerable to these events. Fowler writes in the Washington Post, “The problem has been decades in the making. Without federal help to update the city’s almost 100-year-old infrastructure, officials say it will happen again.”

Ah, there is that word again – infrastructure. The power lines, pipes, bridges, roadways, and buildings that we rely on for the rhythm of life are vulnerable to nature’s extreme events. This realization is not something that we just learned yesterday. Experts have been sounding the alarm for years. A U.S. Governmental Accountability Office report said the following, “The Fourth National Climate Assessment states that the potential impacts of extreme weather events from climate change will vary in severity and type and can have a negative effect on drinking water and wastewater utilities.” The same report went on to say reducing future potential losses requires preparation and planning for weather-climate impacts.

Unfortunately, much of our engineered infrastructure system is designed under assumptions of stationarity concerning weather-climate extremes. My colleague Brian Bledsoe is the Georgia Athletic Association Professor of civil and environment engineering at the University of Georgia. He is also the director of the Institute for Resilient Infrastructure Systems (IRIS). Bledsoe often cautions that “hydro-” meteorological events (extreme rainfall, flooding, etc.) cannot be assumed to exhibit stationarity. In fact, the scientific literature clearly indicates that storm intensities and/or frequencies are changing in the midst of ever-expanding societal infrastructure.

This brings me back to NASA. I worked at the storied space agency for twelve years. During my tenure, I also served as the Deputy Project Scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) Mission. This mission is currently in orbit providing critical information for weather, hydrology, climate, and stakeholder communities. The success of the mission is rooted in decades of planning, science, and predecessor missions. I know first hand from being at the table. The success of NASA’s Mars Perseverance mission certainly has a similar story. Investments and risk planning for a mission like that starts decades in advance. Perseverance is actually carrying a family portrait of previous Mars rovers. While that it is cute, it is symbolic of the planning and legacy of the program.

In 2020, the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Mississippi section issued its 2020 report card for the state infrastructure. The state received a D+. The report considered drinking water, transportation, rails, levees, energy, waterways, solid waste, and wastewater. In a press release, Alexa Lopez wrote, “On the heels of a tornado outbreak in Mississippi on Easter Sunday, the report emphasized that severe weather events – such as tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes, and drought have put stress on the state’s infrastructure.”

NASA anticipates risks associate with sending things to Mars. The agency is also adequately funded to carry out the mission and plan for risks (even if they don’t happen). We need to adopt the same risk scenario and funding models for infrastructure. The Mississippi infrastructure report card agrees. It recommended:

  • Creation of a grant program for 21st century technical career training.
  • Utilization of mainstreams tools for data-driven decision-making.
  • Strategic infrastructure investments that enhance the state’s competitiveness and well being.
  • Employment of mitigation measures.
  • An education and public information campaign that conveys how infrastructure investments save money in the long run.

Ian Giammanaco is an expert in the housing resilience and risk mitigation field. In one of my previous articles on the Texas freeze fiasco, he told me, “Being proactive with resilience has shown even a 10 to 1 return on reducing losses from catastrophic events. One day we’ll get this right.” The New York Times is reporting that President Biden plans to tackle infrastructure after the stimulus package negotiations

Brian Bledsoe has been at the forefront of planning related to infrastructure. He is leading a team of scholars at the University of Georgia in a new partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand and accelerate Engineering With Nature concepts. In the university press release, Bledsoe said, “Together, we can take our research on natural infrastructure to the next level and inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists who will reshape the nation’s water resources infrastructure.”

By the way, I bet this cynical though crossed the mind of a few readers, “Get rid of things like NASA and Mars programs and we can fix our infrastructure.” That’s an extremely short-sighted (and scary) viewpoint for an advanced nation, and it overlooks the many technological advancements used on Earth that come for the U.S. Space Program. Further, once we stop exploring new frontiers, we probably short circuit our own existence. I cannot imagine early explorers saying, “Hey, let’s not explore beyond the Mississippi River so that we can take care of everything back East.”

For me, it is simple as this. We are a great nation with amazing resources and talent. We can surely walk and chew gum at the same time.

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