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Opinion
Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

A water main break reveals the aches and pains underneath Charlotte's skin

Most of what we see of where we live is the skin — the streets and buildings on the surface. But every town and city has a whole anatomy underneath. The bones and veins are the pipes and cables underground. We don’t think about them much until they fail. Last week, in Charlotte, one of those pipes had an aneurysm.

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It was a 36-inch water main, buried under a creek bed off Remount Road, and when it burst, it shot a geyser into the sky. It’s still not clear what happened, but the results were clear: Big chunks of Mecklenburg County lost some or all of their water pressure. There were a couple of dicey days where thousands of us boiled water before we drank it, just in case anything had contaminated the waterline.

The break exposed problems in the city’s alert system and the humans who run it. It happened in late afternoon, but it wasn’t until 1:30 the next morning that the city said people should boil their tap water. It turns out there’s a service to get alerts from our local governments for this sort of thing — you can find it at charmeckalerts.org. But you have to sign up for it, and I suspect most people didn’t know it even existed. I didn’t.

Still, those are relatively small mistakes the city can learn from. The bigger problem is that our city is starting to show its age. And like most of us who are getting old, things don’t work like they used to.

Charlotte is a teardown city, where the old always makes way for the new. That’s true on the surface. But underneath, a lot of the connective tissue of our city has been there for decades. The water main that broke was installed in 1955. Sixty-six years is a long time for a pipe to last.

This is a problem all over the country, not just with water and sewer pipes, but with roads and bridges and lots of other things we count on to get us through a normal day. It all falls under a big word called infrastructure, and it’s something we hate spending money on. It’s never as fun to fix the plumbing as it is to go to the beach for a week. But when the plumbing fails, suddenly there’s nothing more important.

President Biden got a bill passed in the Senate that would spend $1 trillion in maintenance and new spending on roads, water, transit and broadband across the country. That bill is now hung up in the House, part of a political fight over a separate larger spending bill. Either way, the stuff that needs fixing won’t magically repair itself.

Charlotte has to remember that, too. We have a bad habit of devoting our attention to the next shiny thing. A couple of days without water we could count on is a good reminder that we have to put real work — and real money — into the things we never see.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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