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Build giant water tanks, land on Mars, keep people from freezing — if we go big, we can do it all | COMMENTARY

Snow blankets the site where two storage tanks nearing completion will hold more than 50 million gallons of drinking water underground at Druid Lake.
Snow blankets the site where two storage tanks nearing completion will hold more than 50 million gallons of drinking water underground at Druid Lake. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore now has the largest underground storage tank for drinking water in the whole wide world. That’s according to city officials and engineers who have earned the boast. The massive tank, located in Druid Hill Park, will be tested for leaks next month and, if all goes well, it should be in service to the city’s 1.8 million water customers a year from now.

I went out to see it the other day because I wanted to be awed, I needed to be awed. The country has had too many failures. My city has had too many failures. I needed to be reminded of the good and sometimes amazing things we do.

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I’ve been following the big tank’s construction, and that of the one next to it, for three years. The $135 million project — putting millions of gallons of public water in two giant tanks while turning the previously open-air reservoir into a lake for recreation — is a major engineering feat. (I love to use those words.) It reminds us of the power of human ingenuity, of the wisdom of foresight, of the value of common sense, of the need for applied intelligence, of the importance of science and the elegance of engineering. I love that we landed a robotic rover on Mars this week. But I’m equally excited about new giant water tanks in my city.

The big one is 560 feet in diameter with 24-foot interior walls, all concrete. (Imagine Baltimore’s War Memorial Plaza, in front of City Hall, filled with water about two stories high.) Contractors poured the huge roof in 14 stages, topping off last summer. That’s what you see now — a sprawling disk of light gray concrete. It will be covered with more than three feet of earth and finished with a massive landscaping job to create a lakefront green space.

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The second tank measures 406 feet in diameter. Between them, the tanks will hold 52 million gallons of water from the Montebello filtration plant. Because the water will already be treated, it will be readily used. Mike Hallmen, the city’s project manager, says the entire storage should turn over in two to three days, requiring no further treatment of the water, a cost savings over the previous open-air storage at Druid Lake.

(In case you were wondering, Druid Lake was, indeed, part of Baltimore’s municipal system; it was not there simply for our viewing pleasure. But the Environmental Protection Agency requires that municipalities cover open-air reservoirs of treated water, and that’s what prompted the Druid Lake project as well as two similar ones, at the Guilford Reservoir and Lake Ashburton.)

Along with Hallmen, I met David Wiley, the construction project supervisor, and Mike Lyons from AECOM, one of several contractors that worked on the Druid Hill project. They were pleased with the results of a recent leak test on the 406-foot tank, and they’ll conduct a similar test on the bigger one in a couple of weeks.

The project, which commenced in 2017 with the construction of a temporary dam across the lake, is scheduled to conclude in March 2022. The public will see a 14-acre lawn and amphitheater along the western edge of a slightly smaller Druid Lake. They won’t see the tanks nor the millions of gallons of drinking water we all take for granted — except, of course, when the bill arrives.

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But, as I was saying, a project like this has wow quality, more so given the current state of the country — a deadly pandemic that was mismanaged from the start, that has killed nearly a half-million Americans and caused a recession that will have long-lasting effects on the nation’s workforce; an abysmal power grid failure in Texas that highlights threats posed by the changing climate and the austerity measures imposed by shortsighted, conservative politicians; our neglected infrastructure; the regressive environmental policies of the Trump administration; our backsliding on public education and public health.

I am not surprised that significant majorities of Americans say in polls that they support President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion disaster recovery plan. Everyone with a good grip on reality knows the jig is up, that the country has come of middle age and needs massive investment to not only survive but again thrive. We have put off major repairs for too long, cutting taxes and concentrating wealth instead of seeding more innovations that will make life on the planet livable for future generations.

A September report by the Council on Foreign Relations called the nation’s infrastructure “dangerously overstretched.” The report ranked 12 developed countries ahead of the U.S. in infrastructure quality and ranked us 19th in projected spending. (China was first by far.)

Meanwhile, a report from the McKinsey Global Institute says the pandemic has wiped out millions of jobs that are probably not coming back once the coronavirus cloud lifts.

That’s why the timing is right for the Green New Deal, the idea being to go big with public-private investment to avoid climate calamity and train Americans for jobs in hundreds of new fields that will open up as we change the way we travel, heat and cool our homes, dispose of our waste and grow our food.

We are a nation with the brain power to turn problems into opportunities. We can send a rover to Mars. We can build massive water storage tanks. We can do anything.

But it’s not enough to say that. We have to actually do it.

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