As technology advances I have an observation, and a question that needs to be asked and answered. And this could be a pretty interesting question. Back in the day, say 100 or 150 years ago, there were not so many people. Many activities occurred where there were few people and impacts on others were minimal. In some cases ecological damage was significant, but we were not so worried about that because few people were impacted by that ecological damage. In the 20th century, in urban locations, the impact of one’s activities on others became the basis for zoning laws – limiting what you could do with your property because certain activities negatively impacted others. And we certainly had examples of this – Cuyahoga River burning for one. Of course this phenomenon of zoning and similar restrictions was mostly an urban issue because there potential to impact others was more relevant in urban areas. We also know that major advances in technology and human development tend to occur in population centers (think Detroit for cars, Pittsburgh and Cleveland for steel, Silicon Valley, etc.). People with ideas tend to migrate to urban areas, increasing the number of people and the proximity to each other. Universities, research institutions, and the like tend to grow up around these industries, further increasing the draw of talent to urban areas. The observation is that urban areas tend to have more restrictions on what people do than rural areas. So the question – do people consciously make the migration to urban areas realizing that the migration for the potential financial gain occur with the quid pro quo of curbing certain freedoms to do as you please? Of does this artifact occur once they locate to the urban areas? And is there a lack of understanding of the need to adjust certain activities understood by the rural community, or does it become yet another point of philosophical or political contention? I have blogged previously about the difference between rural and urban populations and how that may affect the approach of utilities, but read a recent article that suggests that maybe urban citizens accept that financial gains potential of urban areas outweighs the need to limit certain abilities to do as you please to better the entire community. They are motivated by potential financial opportunities that will increase their standing and options in the future. So does that mean urban dwellers understand the financial tradeoff differently than rural users? Or is it a preference issue. And how does this translate to providing services like water to rural customers, who often appear to be more resistant to spending funds for improvements? While in part their resistance may be that their incomes tend to be lower, but is their community benefit concern less – i.e. they value their ability to do as they please more than financial opportunities or the community good? I have no answer, but suggest that this needs some further study since the implications may be significant as rural water systems start to approach their life cycle end.
Big week – water and otherwise. Here are a couple discussion boards/blogs that might be of interest to follow as they evolve:
And an ethical consideration to contemplate:
I am working on a book on engineering ethics. My wife and I were talking about the ethical obligations of engineers and how that compares to the medical industry (which she is in). Engineers by canon, creed, code and law, have an obligation to protect the public health, safety and welfare above all else, including their clients and their firms. It is one of the reasons that engineering services provided to the public require a license and why codes exist to help guide design. My wife recently raised an interesting question – if licensure means that you must protect the public health, safety and welfare, can you sign and seal a project for which the consequences are not perfectly known? It harkens back to a lecture I do in my summer environmental science and engineering class – the infamous “What could possibly go wrong?” lecture. In that lecture we look at logging, mining, oil and gas and agriculture. I should note that we need each of these industries and will continue to need them for the foreseeable future, so abandoning any of them is not an acceptable answer. But in each case there are large, historical consequences, as well as current ongoing consequences. Let’s start with logging which fed the rapid development of many cities by providing accessible building materials. And actually let’s just start in the upper half of the state of Michigan where loggers cut timber across the state for over 50 years, eliminating white pines form many areas. The logs were sent down small streams and rivers, many of which had to be altered to take the logs. Rivers like the AuSable and Manistee changed completely afterward (starting with the loss of sweepers, increased siltation, the loss of the grayling (fish), and the need to introduce trout. Siltation is a difficult issue for water plants to deal with. Today the AuSable is a “high quality fishing water” with open fishing season, but limits of zero trout kept in many places or only really large fish (rare in cold water), which means catch and release only, which sounds more like – “not enough fish, so put them back” as opposed to high quality fishing waters. We needed the logs, but the impacts of logging were never considered and 150 years later, we still suffer the effects. Few engineers were involved.
Next we look at mining. Again we needed the gold, silver, lead, iron, etc. from the mines. The gold rushes started in the 1840s and expanded across the west. Material was dug out, metals processed and mines abandoned. The tailings from these mines STILL leach metals into waterways. The metals content remains toxic to ecology and to us in drinking water, and will continue be so for years. Metals are often expensive to remove via treatment. Sometimes the situation is serious enough that the federal government will construct treatment plants to protect downstream waters (drinking waters for people), as they have done in Leadville and Idaho Springs, Colorado. The tailings issue will be with us for years, which is why the mining industry is subject to regulations today. Maybe we learned something? Engineers have become more involved with mining with time, but historically, not so much.
With agriculture (Ag) the big issue is runoff and siltation. Siltation has increases as more property is farmed. The runoff also contains pesticides herbicides, and fertilizers, which impact downstream ecological sites, as well as creating difficulty for water treatment. Ag is largely unregulated with respect to runoff and best management practices are often lacking. The results include dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. Engineers try to deal with water quality issues in rivers and streams, but the lack of ability to effect changes with Ag practices is limiting. There are situations like Everglades where the engineers did exactly what was asked (drain it), but no one asked the consequences (lack of water supply), or the impact of farming north of the Everglades (nutrients).
The Everglades results, along with the unknowns associated with fracking (primarily surface and transport) brought the question to my wife — should an engineer sign off on a project for which the consequences are uncertain, unstudied or potentially damaging the public health safety and welfare, like fracking wells, or oil/gas pipelines across the arctic (or Keystone)? Engineers design with the best codes and intentions and clearly the goal is to design to protect the public, but she has a great point – when you know there are uncertainties, and you know there are unknowns that could impact public health, safety and/or welfare, or which could create significant impacts, should we be signing off? I am not so sure. What are your thoughts?
Give Dad a hug if he is still with us. Remember him fondly if he is not like mine. The impact Dad’s have on us becomes more obvious with time along with the things they teach us. My Dad and I talked a lot about a lot of things over the years and I learned a ton from him. Here are some old photos of my Dad (counterclockwise) after bird hunting, with my nieces, after fishing with me,and with 3 little kids (and Grandma). Fun times.
Happy Father’s Day Pop!!
I am in the initial stages of a project to look at economy of scale, utility bench-markings, asset management and impacts of economic disruption on utility systems. I should note that I am looking for volunteers, so let me know. But an initial question is whether economy of scale still applies. We think it should but given the disparities across the US, does it. As a quick survey, I enlisted several volunteer utilities to provide me with some basic information that I sued to create some ratios. And then we discussed them. The baselines were accounts and cost per millions of gallons produced. The graphics are shown below. Economy –of-scale is alive and well. That means if you have a small utility, you cannot expect to have the same costs/gallon, or the same rates, as your larger neighbors. If you do, you are probably shoring your maintenance or capital programs. That leads to bigger costs later. Instead of comparing yourself to your larger neighbors, see what happens when you compare yourself to cable and cellphones in your area. You may be surprised.