Invisible infrastructure

Yesterday I got a notice from the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority about a bunch of work underway in my area: sewer separations, "floatables control" (screening out leaves and other crap that doesn't sink), outfall construction. Despite the fact that it was a legally mandated communication, I read it with some interest.

We live in Northwest Cambridge, a flat area left by sedimentation of a glacial lake: in earlier eras it was known as Great Swamp, though, compared to some "great swamps" in the Midwest, like the Great Black Swamp that once occupied northwest Ohio (1,500 square miles of it), it was pretty small potatoes. Cambridge has always promoted itself with great effectiveness.

Bush-league or not, the area is flat and low, and Alewife Brook, which drains it, only drops 16 feet from Fresh Pond to the Mystic River.  Not only does it flood easily as a result, it has always served as the main drain for all of the industries (slaughter houses, tanneries, brickyards, chemical plants) that occupied the drained swampland.

The industries are so long gone that a local developer considers "Tannery Brook" a classy name for some condos. It is all now residential. Classy development out from Harvard Square stopped when it reached the heights of the Fresh Pond moraine, with nicer developer-type names like Avon Hill and Strawberry Hill. I live where the employees of Avon Hill families lived.

Until recently, our sewers were not separate from our storm sewers, which meant that, when it rained, raw sewage would get dumped into Alewife Brook, and then run to the Mystic, and to Boston Harbor, doing its bit to help Dukakis lose in 1988. Slowly, bit by bit, that situation has been corrected, with slow and steady work to help water quality, prevent backups into basements, and minimize flooding.

Until I get one of these notices, this is all pretty invisible.  Sometimes a street is blocked, and people are digging a big hole. But who knows what's going on down there?

This is a gigantic investment, no question. And it needs constant maintenance, correction, and control. If some societal disruption occurs, there will first be small problems, backups and the like, and then bigger ones, as water quality declines and bacteria fill the streams.

So, while I was reading about "CSO Outfall CAM400" I was reflecting on how little my fiction can capture the unglamorous work that actually keeps civilization running. Not AI bounty hunters or negotiators with mysterious aliens, but hardhats with backhoes and bureaucrats with water-quality metrics.

Enough of unsung heroes, though.  Time to go out for a run.  See you later.