Liquid Assets MN goes … NATIONAL!

“Bringing the Message Home”

By Ted J. Rulseh
Special Feature
October 2010 Issue
View this article in the E-Zine

The 2009 TV documentary, “Liquid Assets: The Story of our Water Infrastructure,” sent a powerful message      about the importance of water and wastewater infrastructure.

Now, a group in Minnesota hopes to personalize that message with a documentary for state residents. “Blueprint Minnesota: Liquid Assets” (www.BlueprintMN.com) is a grassroots initiative seeking to create a 30-minute public TV program that builds awareness about the critical role water infrastructure plays in protecting public health and promoting economic prosperity in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

Like the national “Liquid Assets” program, produced by Penn State Public Television and supported by major water, wastewater and other industry associations, the Minnesota program is a major team effort …

Among the leading instigators was Andrew Sullivan, a utility operator with the City of Eden Prairie, a southwest suburb of Minneapolis. Inspired mainly by the national “Liquid Assets” program, he helped pull together a group of organizations that deal with infrastructure (see sidebar) to begin discussion of a state-based program.

As of mid-summer, the project was still in its formative stages, but Sullivan and the team planned to cover topics such as the necessity and value of water infrastructure and the hazards of continued neglect; the watershed protection approach to building and sustaining infrastructure; the engineering challenge of building and maintaining water distribution, collection and treatment systems; modern rehabilitation solutions; and the financial and political challenges of getting vital infrastructure work done.

Sullivan talked about the Minnesota documentary project in an interview with Municipal Sewer & Water magazine.

MSW:

Why did you become so interested in this project?

Sullivan:

I’m one of 12 people who take care of the water, storm and sanitary sewer systems in Eden Prairie. It’s a great place to work. We have some very proactive leaders when it comes to infrastructure. We have goals, and we’re held accountable.

I’ve been in this profession for about 20 years. I’m a guy who wears a hardhat and gloves, but I also really enjoy interacting with the public and contributing back to the industry that has given so much to me.

MSW:

What led to the idea for a program on Minnesota’s infrastructure?

Sullivan:

Our water and wastewater organizations here have often talked about what could happen if we all combined our efforts to build awareness about critical water infrastructure. For one thing, it’s a way to combat what I call our competitors — the cable, gas, electric and phone companies.

They have $20 million advertising budgets. We use our budgets to make sure the infrastructure works, that people get clean water, and that their wastes are collected and treated without incident. It made sense for us to get together and combine our knowledge, resources and reach and go at this.

What helped kick it off was seeing the “Liquid Assets” program created by Penn State. Those guys knocked it out of the park. Their program is about an hour long, and it’s fantastic. So we started lobbying Twin Cities Public Television, because we thought that was something the public should see more of.

They said they liked the “Liquid Assets” program, too. They ran it once, and then they said, “Why not a Minnesota version?” So we invited our infrastructure leaders to a meeting. They all showed up and said, “Heck yeah, let’s give it a go.”

MSW:

What is the state of Minnesota’s infrastructure today?

Sullivan:

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infra-structure, our state’s water systems need investments of $5.46 billion over the next 20 years, and the wastewater systems need $2.73 billion in the same time period.

Minnesota is known as the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” but it’s really the land of more than 12,000 lakes, the freshwater sea we call Lake Superior, 10.6 million acres of wetlands, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, and 69,200 miles of natural rivers and streams. We take our water pretty seriously here, and our critical water infrastructure plays a role in that.

MSW:

Do you think the public is truly interested in infrastructure?

Sullivan:

Definitely. I’m in a position where I deal directly with customers. I’m in their homes, hovering over their meters while they look over my shoulder. I talk to them about how the water enters the house and how it leaves the house. I used to think people didn’t care, but man, they are very interested.

They’ll watch me dig holes in the yard and find the curb stops, and if I’m opening up a manhole, they’re peering in and asking where the water goes. Contrary to popular belief, I think people are fascinated by how things work.

MSW:

How much of an in-depth look do you plan to take in this program?

Sullivan:

We’d like to give the folks a quick overview of everything, from the treatment plants, to the piping and manholes and pumps. We’ll talk about the important role infrastructure plays in health, the environment and the economy, what it takes to keep infrastructure working, and the repercussions of not taking the proactive approach that Minnesota is known for.

The organizations working on this project definitely have a vision for what things should look like in the 21st century, and it will be nice to share that with the public. We looked around at some other states that have had problems, and we realized we can’t let that happen here. Right now, we are at a crossroads where you ask yourself: Do you love infrastructure or do you leave it? Embrace it or ignore it?

MSW:

Are you optimistic about the future of Minnesota’s infrastructure?

Sullivan:

Yes. We’re fortunate today to have GIS and GPS technology. It helps us answer the three most important questions in infrastructure: What do I have? Where is it? What is its condition? Now we can pull out laptops in our trucks and see all that, so when it’s time for budgeting, we can see what we have in the ground, and what work needs to be done, and budget that in.

We’re also lucky to have trenchless technologies that often let us do work at a fraction of the cost compared to the old days. So we’re optimistic about what we can do, but we have to get the public behind us, too.

MSW:

How and when did work on this project actually begin?

Sullivan:

It began in spring of 2009. I got on the phone and got all the groups on board. We held our first meeting shortly after and it really got rolling by fall. Once Twin Cities Public Television said they were willing to partner with us, it wasn’t hard to talk anyone into getting involved.

MSW:

What basic approach are you taking to this documentary program?

Sullivan:

We’ve asked all the partners to come up with examples of failures and successes. We don’t want to get too “doomsday,” but it needs to be about real problems, real solutions, and real people.

For filming, we’re going to do something very interesting. Twin Cities Public Television held a seminar to train some of our people to use basic handheld video cameras that are compatible with their editing environment. People in our profession will use those cameras to film many of the segments. We can certainly get access to sites more readily than a TV crew could, since we work around the infrastructure every day.

We put out an all-call, and we got a terrific response from people wanting to help. We have some very passionate people out on the front lines who are not afraid of the video technology. Meanwhile, Public TV people will shoot the interviews with experts.

MSW:

What sort of funding does it take to create a program like this?

Sullivan:

Our goal is to raise $30,000. The handheld cameras are going to save us considerable time and money, as well. We’re glad Twin Cities Public Television was able to work with their unions to allow us to do that. Of course, Public TV, as one of our partners, is contributing substantially to the production.

MSW:

Besides raising awareness of the infrastructure itself, do you see this program raising the profile of the people who take care of it?

Sullivan:

This is certainly a shot in the arm for the people out there making infrastructure function every day. In general, the only time they are seen and heard of is when infrastructure fails. That’s no way for the public to get to know their infrastructure, and no way for us to get to know the public. It’ll be good for the people who take care of infrastructure to have a part in sharing this with the public. It reinforces the importance of the roles we play.

MSW:

Besides putting this program on TV, how do you envision using it?

Sullivan:

Our people will be able to pop in this DVD in front of a council meeting, or even have a special community get-together where residents can watch it and then deal with the tough questions: What is the condition of our infrastructure? What is it going to take to fix what we have?

We’ll also design it so that it can stand alone, or we can chapter it out and play pieces of it on YouTube, and post them live on community Web sites. We’re looking at airing it on local access cable. There are lots of directions we can take this.

MSW:

Did your group take any lessons from the collapse of the I-35W bridge in the Twin Cities in 2007?

Sullivan:

That was a wake-up call. It’s scary. An analogy has been made that we have infrastructure that’s just as critical right under our feet, that is older and in worse shape and can have the same if not worse consequences if it fails.

MSW:

Do you see other states in the future doing something such as Minnesota is now doing with this documentary?

Sullivan:

Long-term, we’re hoping that will happen. Infrastructure is something people only notice when it fails, and when it does, it always seems to happen to someone else. When they see that it’s their state and their community it becomes a whole different story. That’s powerful stuff.

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