Worried about floods? Better build a stadium!

Published November 30th, 2017

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Insight from Christopher Gasson, GWI publisher

At the opening plenary of our American Water Summit yesterday I caught a glimpse of how awesome it is to be American. It was after a heart-rending presentation by Yvonne Forrest, the deputy director of Houston Water, about how her utility coped in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. I used our audience response system to ask the 380 or so water professionals attending the summit what they thought the most likely response to growing flood risk in America.

I gave three options: 1) invest in greater flood resilience; 2) improve disaster response; and 3) build more sports stadia. The answer I got back was shocking, both in its cynicism and idealism.

18.4% thought the cities would understand the threat, assess their vulnerabilities to floods and invest in green infrastructure, new drainage networks and other urban alterations to reduce the risk of a calamity. 23.4% felt instead that the most likely response would be to accept the risk of a calamity, but instead of spending huge amounts second-guessing the havoc that a big flood might wreak, cities would more likely invest in improving their emergency routines and assets. Forrest’s experience of Harvey was that it created a series of urgent needs in terms of water-related equipment that would have been very useful if the city had been able to anticipate them.

The majority (58.2%) of the audience – which was made up of senior utility leaders, engineers, water technology experts, consultants and related professionals – voted for option three, however. They thought cities would build more sports stadia. To my mind it was a remarkable reflection of both cynicism and idealism that makes America great.

American cities notoriously love to spend hard-earned tax dollars on lavish sports stadia, particularly if they think that a Super Bowl is in the offing. For example, the City of Minneapolis together with the state of Minnesota have put around $500 million towards the new US Bank Stadium that will host Superbowl LII. The same money might have transformed the resilience of the city’s water system, but what is that compared to a great party on 4th February next year? If necessary, at a later date, the stadium might prove a useful place to bring together destitute flood victims if the city is overwhelmed by a future disaster.

Who would want to live in a country where all its citizens spent their lives worrying about disasters that might not happen? This is American exceptionalism at its most idealistic, but what makes it truly great is that it has water professionals who know the score. They know that the people they serve don’t really value what they do: they would rather go to a ball game. They know that they have to fight for every dime they get out of rate payers, and tax payers at every level of government, but they go on fighting for it.

It is only through their unrewarded efforts that a country dedicated to the pursuit of liberty and the pursuit of happiness can exist. USA! USA!