Liquid Assets

Liquid Assets is a documentary that resulted from a collaboration entitled Blueprint Minnesota, which describes itself as “a gathering of Public and Private Infrastructure leaders that are focused on one specific goal: Work with Twin Cities Public Television to produce a Documentary Film About Minnesota’s Critical Water Infrastructure.”

Note: This is the first of many “in case you missed it” posts I hope to create over the next several weeks so that I can clear partially my backlog of sources that I have meant to share for a long time.

The first portion of the documentary focuses on cities’ attempts to catch up on infrastructure maintenance that has been neglected due to seemingly continuous funding crises since the 1950’s.  Several of the discussions focus on the tradeoffs between preventative maintenance, utility rates, and long-term replacement.

The City of Duluth, Minnesota was a major contributor the program.  Mayor Don Ness noted that Duluth experienced averages of approximately 50 water main breaks per year in the early 1990’s.  Now, that figure is in excess of 140 per year.  And, officials expect the figure to climb to nearly 300 per year without a significant reinvestment in pipes that are, in some cases, nearly a century old.  Ness added,

For decades and decades politicians have gotten away with lower rates, which is popular with the voters.  But, the integrity of the system has declined to the point where we’re now seeing tremendous increases in cost to fix a broken system.

Jennifer Julsrud of the Duluth Public Utilities Commission added,

It’s the role of city government to build a solid infrastructural system with which businesses can thrive…  Elected officials get really caught up in the discussion of reasonable rates, and they forget about the fact that we first need to talk about reliable rates and making the system reliable.

Julsrud also added that citizens and businesses want stability as much as they want lower rates.  In East Grand Forks, our utilities have emphasized rate stability.  Generally, the City’s water, sewer, and electric rates have been described as middle-to-high relative to its peers (but we are not the highest!).  In its exchange for those above average rate structures, however, citizens have a highly reliable service with stable rate structures for which they can plan.  Most water and sewer lines either have been built in the last half century or are in the long-term replacement plans.  Line replacement occurs annually.  Over ninety-eight percent of our electric lines are buried so that the service is highly reliable and much less susceptible to natural disasters and other catastrophic failures.  And, this reliability is achieved without charging shocking special assessments to property owners to replace utilities.

East Grand Forks is largely on the other side of the rate and maintenance tradeoff experienced by Duluth and most other cities throughout the nation.  Our utilities and commissions are ever-vigilant, however, that cities like Duluth are warning signs for what can result from maintenance and rate complacency.

The second part of the documentary focuses on the full water cycle of a municipal utility from storm water runoff, to water treatment, to waste water collection systems.  If you ever wanted to know about water primary and secondary treatment and precipitate, the full video contains a great primer from the City of Eden Prairie about water treatment starting at the 22:20 mark of the full video.

One can watch selected trailers from the documentary or the entire documentary online the Blueprint Minnesota home page.  Twin Cities Public Television also occasionally airs the documentary.  In the cruelest of ironies, Liquid Assets originally aired barely six months before before Duluth experienced its flash flooding event in June 2012.  TPT produced a follow up to the documentary that for TPT Almanac last July.