Concrete dreams

A day before the State of the Union address, the American Society of Civil Engineers released a long report about the decrepit state of America’s infrastructure.

The information is not new, nor is the theme: An aging interstate system, decaying bridges, a faulty and antiquated electrical grid–all cling together in a ramshackle framework that supports our consumer-driven society. Not being sexy, or trendy, or marketable–and certainly not the stuff of useful political leverage–infrastructure does not get much serious attention, short of a Great Depression or a Cold War.

Ironic that a business culture focused on immediate profits has not influenced us to appreciate such a long-term concept, and a popular culture based on distraction has not inclined us to notice.

Having lamented, as a writer, wanton development and suburban sprawl, I am tempted to drone “the roof is on fire…” and watch the bankruptcy unfold into delicious themes of deprivation, struggle, and scarcity. People seem to enjoy watching movies and reading novels about that sort of thing.

Maybe the darker reaches of my outlook stretch from the landscape of my youth.

Growing up within miles of the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers, I came to know those waters pretty well, and I regarded gray monolithic walls, spillways, and spinning turbines as simply part of the landscape. Fish ladders were a place to see salmon, and plaques and brochures extolling the virtues of the Corps of Engineers were the stuff of story-telling literature. My working class family of five spent many a weekend afternoon at Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake, marveling at the locks, or driving over the Umatilla Bridge into Oregon just to see the roiling Columbia downriver from Bonneville Dam.

On other days, we would end up across the Columbia from the 300 Area of Hanford, where massive concrete block buildings, domes, and smokestacks ominously resisted (with apocalyptic overtones) any hint of relinquishing their permanence.

Infrastructure all but killed a river and its repercussions may finish the job. Yet today, as Hanford is slowly dismantled, calls ring out for similar treatment of equally anachronous dams. Bit by bit, block by block, the massive monuments to hubris and destructive development that marked my childhood may yet be undone. I’d settle for that, and for thoughtful answers to keeping the lights on and some food in the fridge in ways that we won’t regret.

About Eric Dieterle

A writer of environmental literature and a public affairs coordinator at Northern Arizona University.
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