Never Build Sewers To Last

Preservationists won't let towns replace historically-old and leaky sewers?

Des Moines, Iowa, is about as far from either the Left Coast Elites or the East Coast Elites as it's possible to get.  Unlike the crooked contractors of New York, Boston, and Chicago, who built sewers and other public works so shoddily that they've had to be replaced over and over, the good citizens of Des Moines built their sewers to lastWorld Magazine of August 29, 2009, reports on page 12 that some brick sewers are more than 150 years old and still rolling along, like 'Ol Man River.

All good things come to an end, however, and it's time for the city to replace some of these ancient monuments to sound contracting.  The Department of Public Works would like to send out the bid packages and get started, particularly in these times of dire need for shovel-ready projects.

Unfortunately, they can't.

Instead, the city fathers must to follow the regulations of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 which is administered by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.  Why?  Because these sewers are so very, very old.

The Act requires that before any construction can be done, the city has to spend thousands of dollars determining the "historic significance" of these structures.  That's easier said than done.

Did any historically significant crook make a getaway through any of these sewers?  Were they (literally) part of the underground railway?  Did they carry off water from a historic flood?  One never knows until the question has been thoroughly researched by competent, licensed, peer reviewed, and taxpayer-funded historians.

Historical structure inspector at work.

What's more, it's possible to interpret the regulations to mean that the city has to set up visitor centers near some of the oldest sewers.  That's going to be a real gas because the oldest sewers emit the occasional whiff of noxious fumes - one of the reasons the city would like to repair them in the first place.  Visitor sites sufficiently near the sewers to meet the historical requirements of handicapped walking-tour access would almost certainly not pass muster with the EPA, and for good reason.

We'll leave it to your judgment whether declaring sewers to be historic monuments in need of visitor centers is sillier than the Key West Agriculture bureaucrats declaring that the cats at the Hemingway museum turned the museum into an animal exhibition that needed a license.  Please let us know if you hear of anything similarly ludicrous.

The next time you hear about corrupted contracting, take heart!  The guy isn't just some crook out to make a buck, he's helping you stay out of trouble with the Historic Preservation folks of your great-grandchildren's era.

Now if someone could keep us out of trouble with the zoning authorities and the planning commissions, we'd be all set.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

This article raises my curiosity about the sewers in Paris. After Victor Hugo's infamous mention of them in Les Miserables, I wonder if they have become similarly untouchable.
October 21, 2009 5:03 PM
I think the entire country of France is an untouchable historic district. You should see the fits they throw about keeping their small farms just as they've always been...
October 22, 2009 1:20 PM
At least we don't have to worry about government housing projects becoming historic sites..... they don't last long enough!! Great article about the problems with obeying the letter of the law and not the spirit. Thank you, lawyers!! Finally, did you know that if we took all the lawyers in America and lined them up head-to-toe around the equator....... we'd all be a lot better off!
October 23, 2009 2:44 PM
Add Your Comment...
4000 characters remaining
Loading question...