Yesterday we “picked on” the poor city of Backus, MN, as just one example of how our system of funding infrastructure, and trying to induce prosperity, has left us all less prosperous. I have spoken with a few people that have read the article and they agreed that spending $3.3 million of public money on Backus is ridiculous. So what do we do with a city where we have low population, a small tax base, limited incomes and massive infrastructure liabilities?
Look at the land use in Backus. Over the last fifty years it has been decentralizing. Not only has almost all new development happened on the periphery of town, property within the vicinity of the historic railroad stop has also become less dense. There is more parking now and more space devoted to horizontal, auto-based infrastructure than when the original, centralized wastewater system was installed.
It is a different development model now, and that calls for a different solution. The centralized wastewater system needs to go. The $30,000 per Backus family for maintaining the existing system is absurd. The centralized collection and treatment system should be replaced with decentralized, privately-owned, individual wastewater treatment systems. The use of decentralized, individual systems would not only be a closer match to their decentralizing land use pattern, it would be roughly a fourth of the cost of maintaining the existing system.
(I realize here that some of our readers may not know the difference between a centralized and a decentralized approach. Short primer: In a centralized system, wastewater is collected, brought to a central place where it is treated. In a decentralized approach, there is no collection system. Wastewater is treated on each property where it is generated. This means many systems, all low capacity and typically privately owned. As an analogy with power generation, Backus now has a power plant and I am suggesting each house instead have their own solar cells.)
Besides a dramatic price savings, switching treatment technologies does another important thing for the future of both the United States and Backus. It un-tethers the two. Right or wrong, as a nation we are unable, in good conscience, to allow the people of Backus to drink their own sewage. This is true regardless of how stupid or irresponsible they collectively might have been along the way.
We don't, however, have the same compulsion about an individual property owner. If some fool wants to poison their own drinking water, we may find that objectionable and we may try to make them stop, but we're not about to give them $3.3 million to make the problem go away for a couple of deacdes.
In summary, I'm telling you that, for roughly $4-$8 thousand per household, we can provide each Backus family with a new individual sewage treatment system that will adequately treat their sewage. We can then walk away and allow the city to continue to devolve as they see fit, free from future public obligation. This seems like common sense. So why are they asking for - and we will likely be giving - $3.3 million dollars ($27,000 per household) for them to continue their cycle of dependency?
We are back to the hammer/nail problem with the engineering profession and the priorities of the federal government. Engineers first. Individual treatment systems are designed and installed by technicians, not by engineers. The profit margins are small or non-existent for this type of work and the amount of hand-holding and customization is immense (you are tearing up 133 individual yards after all). Subsequently, it is not a tool in the limited toolbox of the engineer. You have a treatment system that is not working? Then fix the system. Nail. Hammer.
For the federal government, spending $4,000 on an individual sewage treatment system is not as flashy as spending $3.3 million on a wastewater plant. We can't exactly do 133 ribbon cuttings, after all. For efficiency reasons, the federal government grant programs encourage large projects. This suits the engineers and the politicians just fine.
Switching the treatment approach to match the decentralized land use pattern is a Strong Towns way to decouple the future prosperity of the country from the downward spiral of failing communities that have made all the wrong land use decisions.