The Center (of the Pipe) Cannot Hold

It is said that civilization is in trouble when neither a man’s arguments nor his pipes can hold water. If that is true, than Amarillo is in a world of hurt, because we’ve been having water-line breaks left, right, and center since Dec 30 or so. Age, weather, and rising usage have taken their toll on the original 50+ year old pipe, with quite obvious results. Brown fountains should not appear at the end of the ally, nor rivers of muddy water gush through the gutter. When all is well, the water does not get cut off at 0300 while trucks with flashing lights trundle back and forth through the darkness. But the Panhandle has always been hard on pipes.

It’s a truism that we in the western world take roads and pipes for granted, so long as they are working. We also take our digestive and circulatory systems for granted and for the same reason: you don’t really want to have to think about getting that last bit of salad from the fork to the final outlet valve. Roads and pipes are supposed to lay there and be, carrying traffic and fluid to their final destinations. Unless you have recently had plumbing trouble, I suspect most of my readers don’t walk out in the evening, look at where the (buried) sewer pipes run, and proclaim, “Gosh, the sanitary sewer certainly is flowing well tonight.” It either does, or we call a plumber or report the problem to the sewer department. A few of us may mutter about water pressure, especially if we live in a place where everyone insists on irrigating their lawn at the same time, or if a sibling decides to take a shower and steal our hot water. Otherwise the buried pipes remain buried.

Alas, time, hard water, trees, and weather take their toll on infrastructure. Cast iron, orange paper, and cement are not as impervious as one would hope, especially after sixty or seventy years of time-in-service. We notice it by a higher water bill, a suspiciously damp spot in the yard, or a knee-high geyser in the middle of the street. Oops. And then we grouse for the three or four hours it takes for the city or rural water department to cut off the water, drain the leaky pipe, make a temporary patch, and then do it again in a more permanent way a few days or weeks later. Or for the road department to fix the pothole, crack, or worn chunk of road.

There are a few exceptions. The joke in New Mexico about the construction zone on I-25 in Trinidad being an annex of purgatory comes to mind. I have to admit, in the 25 or so years I’ve been going through that stretch of road, there has always been construction on the interstate in Trinidad. One does start to wonder . . .

But what does it mean when the pipes break more and more often, and the roads break down faster and faster? Coincidence, probably at least with the pipes. When a large swath of the city has pipes of the same age, and they are ten years out of warranty, well, more breaks will happen, get repaired, and then reveal other weak spots. Anyone with Orangeburg Paper pipes is living on borrowed time, although you won’t probably know that your pipes are made of waterproofed cardboard until that fateful and expensive day . . . There was a big kerfuffle in the news in and around Amarillo in 2015 about a contractor not doing a rather important swath of road to the proper thickness and taking longer than the contract permitted. Weather played a role, but it became the butt of local jokes and the focus of much grousing for a while among those who had to use that bit of road. Given the age of the pipes, I don’t think we can blame the original installers back in the 1950s and 60s for the failures. Our increasing domestic water use (a pattern that repeats every single time a municipal water system gets upgraded, going back to the East Coast in the 1700s), the region’s mineral-rich water, and soils that tend to move play larger roles. There’s a sub-soil that, once disturbed, shifts more often than a teenage girl’s romantic fancies. And that’s in places that are not sloping or in what had once been playas.

But the roads? I noticed recently that a very major route has started developing low-spots of crumbled pave where the dirt shows through. It was repaved a few years ago. Bad materials? Three years of heavy weather? Traffic that has increased beyond predictions, in part because of construction diversions elsewhere and the summer’s high water? Or is it a hint of looming trouble, as budgets get trimmed, material costs increase, and repairs become thinner and weaker? Are more potholes and water leaks the trend for the future? I admire the guys working in the water-filled hole at 0300 on Sunday morning at 20 degrees F, but I do not want to be one of them. What happens if we don’t have people willing to do that kind of critical work?

At that point, I fear neither our culture nor our pipes will hold water.

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One thought on “The Center (of the Pipe) Cannot Hold

  1. “What happens if we don’t have people willing to do that kind of critical work?”

    One of the reasons I get irritated at the constant mantra of, “you need to go to college,” being pushed at todays kids. Sorry, but a whole lot, in fact I would say a majority of jobs do not require a college degree. Those jobs are necessary, and often pay well (usually because everybody else is like you, and doesn’t want to do them). Going to college and getting a masters in history, just to fix leaky pipes is a rather expensive extended adolescence.

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