The true risk to the community of pipe damage is underestimated and the potential for economic disruption increases.  The question is how do we lead our customers to investing in their/our future?  That is the question as the next 20 years play out. Making useful assumptions about increases in demands, prices, inflation rates etc. are key to useful projections and long-term sustainability. Building too much or too little capacity for example can have disastrous consequences (to the ratepayers on the former, to the local economy for the latter).

Getting funding relies on economic strength, a problem of you are in a depressed area (Detroit) or a boom that could crash at any time (North Dakota).  P3 opportunities are available for cash strapped communities but they come with a cost.  Risk must be allocated fairly – the private community will not take on too much risk without increasing costs significantly. Loss of control is one of those risk conversion issues.  Extensive planning and feasibility analyses should be expected – far more scrutiny than most utilities are used to.  The economic strength of the community is important to private investors.

In a prior blog we talked about the boom towns of North Dakota.  Things were booming in 2013 but the downturn in oil prices may get ugly.  The need for more fracking wells may have decreased (at least temporarily) and the decrease in the oil and gas costs has cut into local revenues, so is this is the time to keep planning for the boom?  South Florida did this in the early 2000s – and well, that real estate boom put quite a dent in the economy and population estimates for 2020 and 2030.  The balloon popped and so did the economy.  South Florida had the resiliency to bounce back because of weather and proximity to South America.  We have seen the result to an industrial economy – where a community relies on industry, well industry can be fickle.  Ask Detroit.  Or Cleveland.  Or any number of other Rust Belt cities.  Now they have infrastructure, but much of it is underused.
So while the Plains states plan for the boom, the boom has settled in some places. Already the oil and gas industry has shed 100,000 jobs (many high salary).  Texas, Kansas, North Dakota and Oklahoma are facing financial challenges in 2015 due to funding losses.  Alaska is dipping into reserves.  But that doesn’t mean the results of the 2010-2014 boom are not continuing, or at least portions of them.  Frack water continues to be discharged to local wastewater systems, but the revenues to pay for the needed upgrades is lacking.  Effluent limits for nitrogen and TOC for some rivers have decreased as a result of constant increased loading to the streams (more flow increases total loads, so if flows remain the same, the concentrations must decrease to maintain total loading).  The costs to reduce ammonia, for example from 10 mg/l to 2 or 3 mg/L can be $1-2/1000 gallon – over 50% or more of the current cost for treatment.

So is it a surprise that some communities fight the boom times?  Booms create disruption and uncertainly, and a need for technology (and costs).  Maybe stability does matter, as it can contain costs and treatment requirements.  However the boom can help communities in financial distress.  Detroit and Flint would love a boom – both have the infrastructure in place to support it as opposed to rural communities in the Plains.  But that’s is a key – they already HAVE the infrastructure in place.  The Plains, well, do not.

There is a lot of older, underutilized infrastructure out there.  Detroit, Flint, Cleveland, Akron, Toledo and Philadelphia are among the older industrial cities that have stable populations – people that live there most of their lives, have a trained and educated workforce, and normally have lots of water and infrastructure, and lots of potential employees, all of which are underutilized and at risk due to economic losses. But the booms rarely go to older cities. How that is?  Is this a leadership issue?  Convenience?  Quick profits?  And how long will the boom last?  Is it a matter of lack of understanding or regulations that creates the boom?  A combination of factors?  A better PR program?

Remember we all play defense.  Industry does not.  Industry plays offense all the time.  The private sector mode is play offense.  Get the message out.  Frame the message.  Win the game.  Is winning the game at any cost the right answer?  For boomers it is.  What about the rest of us?


The US EPA estimates that there is a $500 billion need for infrastructure investment by 2025.  The American Water Works Association estimate $1 trillion.  Congress recently passes the Water infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) at $40 million/year, rising to $100 million in 5 years, which is a drop in the bucket.  Peanuts.  We have so many issues with infrastructure in the US and Congress tosses a few scheckles at the problem and thinks it is solved.  The reality is that the federal government wants to get out of the water infrastructure funding business and shift all water infrastructure to the local level.  This is a long-standing trend, going back to the conversion of the federal water and sewer grant programs to loan programs.

The reality is that local officials need to make their utility system self-sustaining and operating like a utility business whereby revenues are generated to cover needed maintenance and long-term system reliability.  The adage that “we can’t afford it” simply ignores the fact that most communities cannot afford NOT to maintain their utility system since the economic and social health of the community relies on safe potable water and wastewater systems operating 24/7.  Too often decision are made by elected officials who’s vision is limited by future elections as opposed to long-term viability and reliability of the utility system and community.  This is why boom communities fall precipitously, often never recovering – the boom is simply not sustainable.  Long-term planning is a minimum of 20 years, well beyond the next election and often beyond the reign of current managers.  Decisions today absolutely affect tomorrow’s operators.  Dependency on water rates may be a barrier, but this ignores the fact that power, telephone, cable television, gas, and internet access are generally more expensive hat either water or sewer in virtually all communities.  We need water. Not so sure about cable tv or he internet.  Great to have, but needed to survive?

The growth in costs can lead to mergers where a utility cannot afford to go it alone – as the economy of scale of larger operations continues to play out in communities.  Several small plants cannot operate at the same cost as one larger plant.  As a result larger projects will increase – from 87 to over 336 between 2005 and 2014.

But these costs are generally plant costs – treatment and storage, not piping.  Distribution pipelines remain the least recognized issue for water utilities (collection pipelines for sewer are similarly situated).  The initial Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water acts did not focus on piping systems – only treatment and supply.  The national Council on Public Works concluded their first assessment grade for infrastructure in the 1980s – but piping was not discussed.  ACSCE’s first report card in 1998 did not express concern about piping system.  Yet piping continues to age, and expose communities to risk.  In many communities greater than 50% of their assets are buried pipes.  Tools for assessing the condition of buried pipes especially water distribution pipes is limited to breaks and taps.  As a result the true risk to the community of pipe damage is underestimated and the potential for economic disruption increases.  The question is how do we lead our customers to investing in their/our future?  That is the question as the next 20 years play out.  Many risk issues will be exposed.  The fact that there are not more issues is completely related to the excellent work done by the utility employees.  More to come….


A past project I was involved  with involved a look at the feasibility of using wastewater to recharge the Biscayne aquifer In the vicinity of a utility’s potable water supply wells.  The utility was feeling the effects of restrictions on added water supplies, while their wastewater basically unused.  So they wanted a test to see if the wastewater could be cleaned up enough to pump it in the ground for recovery downstream, with the intent of getting added allocations of raw water.  Assuming the water quality issues could be resolved, the increased recovery would solve a number of water resource issues for them, and the cost was not nearly as high as some thought.

So we tested and using sand filters, microfiltration, reverse osmosis, peroxide and ultraviolet light, we were successful in meeting all regulatory criteria for water quality.  The water produced was basically pure water – not constituents in it, and therefore it exceeded all drinking water standards.  We demonstrated that technologically the water CAN be cleaned up.  The only issue is insurance that the treatment will always work – hence multiple barriers and the ground.  This was an indirect potable reuse project and ended because of the 2008 recession and the inability to of current water supply rules to deal with the in/out recovery issues.

The indirect reuse part was the pumping of the water into the ground for later withdrawal as raw water to feed a water treatment plant, as opposed to piping it directly to the head of their water plant.   But recovery of the water can be a challenge and there is a risk that a portion of the injected water is lost.  In severely water limited environments, loss of the supply may not be an acceptable outcome.  Places like Wichita Falls, Texas have instead pursued more aggressive projects that skip the pumping to the ground and go straight into the water plant as raw water.  Technologically the water CAN be treated so it is safe to drink.  The water plant is simply more treatment (added barriers).  So, with direct potable projects, monitoring water quality on a continuous basis maybe the greatest operational challenge, but technologically there is no problem as we demonstrated in our project.

The problem is the public.  You can hear it already – we are drinking “pee” or “poop water” or “drinking toilet water.”  The public relations tasks is a much bigger challenge because those opposed to indirect and direct potable projects can easily make scary public statements.   Overcoming the public relations issue is a problem, but what utilities often fail to convey is that many surface waters are a consolidations of a series of waste flows – agriculture, wastewater plants, etc. by the time they reach the downstream water intake.  Upstream wastewater plants discharge to downstream users.   But the public does not see the connection between upstream discharges and downstream intakes even where laws are in effect that actually require the return of wastewater to support streamflow.  So are rivers not also indirect reuse projects? In truth we have been doing indirect potable reuse for, well ever.

We have relied on conventional water plants for 100+ years to treat surface waters to make the water drinkable.  The problem is we have never educated the public on what the raw waters sources were, and how effective treatment is.  Rather we let the political pundits and others discuss concerns with chemicals like fluoride and chlorine being added to the water as opposed the change in water quality created by treatment plants and the benefits gained by disinfectants.  That message is lost today.  We also ignore the fact that the number one greatest health improvement practice in the 20th century was the introduction of chlorine to water.  Greater than all other medical and vaccine advances (although penicillin and polio vaccines might be a distant second and third above others).   Somehow that fact gets lost in the clutter.

Already the Water Reuse Association and Water Research Foundations have funded 26 projects on direct potable reuse.  Communicating risk is one of the projects.  The reason is to get in front of the issues.  You see, playing defense in football is great and you can sometimes win championships with a good defense (maybe a historically great one, but even they gamble).  Defense does not work that way in public relations.  Offense usually wins. Defenses often crumble or take years to grab hold.

The failure of utilities to play offense, and the failure of elected officials particularly support playing offense is part of the reason we struggle for funds to make upgrades in infrastructure, to perform enough maintenance or to gather sufficient reserves to protect the enterprise today.  And it remains a barrier to tomorrow.   Leadership is what is missing.  It struck me that when looking at leaders, what made them leaders was their ability to facilitate change.  Hence President Obama’s campaign slogan.  But talking about change and making real changes are a little more challenging (as he has seen).  You cannot lead without a good offense, one that conveys the message to the public and one that gets buy-in.  With direct and indirect potable reuse, the water industry has not changed the perception of “toilet water.”  That needs to change.  We need to be frank with our customers.  Their water IS SAFE to drink.  They do not need filters, RO systems, softeners, etc., or buy bottled water, when connected to potable water supplies (private wells, maybe).  We CAN treat wastewater to make it safe, and the technology tis available to make it potable.  . The value they pay for water is low.  Yet in all cases, others, have made in-roads to counter to the industry.  That happened because we play defense.


I got hacked again this past week.  I had the week nicely structured to stay in my office and get lots of work done.  Things I had been trying to complete for the past couple week.  This is the second time I have been hacked with this computer and I have only owned it for 3 months.  So the first hack involved someone diverting my email for 6 hours.  I could not get it back, but I stopped the diversion (I think) with the help of ATT.  Who knows what information was transmitted other than a lots of what is really spam.

Ok, so then I start getting these phone calls from “Microsoft Windows” noting errors they are receiving from my computer.  Now most you recall that Microsoft used to ask if you wanted them to be notified of errors, but since everyone said yes, they now just do it automatically.  Mostly the “Microsoft Windows” guys left messages on my cell phone since that is the number registered with Microsoft.  I picked up the phone one time, but the “Microsoft Windows” guy could not tell me which of my computers was sending the messages (I have more than one).

But that did not stop the calls which have accelerated of late.  So I get another call that I answer (from a number in Washington state) from “Martin” with “Microsoft Windows”  who, without accessing my computer, knows over 9,000 errors had been sent, starting the day I bought the computer.  He also knows the software serial information, computer serial numbers, etc., all of which he can recite over the phone and ask me to check to verify he is with “Microsoft Windows” because otherwise he would not have that information.  And then he notes that because the 25 digit codes for Windows 8 is not visible, “Microsoft” will cause a key lock on my computer – a message that I again could verify without him accessing the computer.  And of course that’s how he tries to convince me he is calling from “Microsoft Windows.”

NOTE:  Miscrosoft DOES NOT Call you – it is a scam (see the internet).  So I have the hacker on the phone.  He emails me his info (of course he has my registered email like everything else), which I note says pcsync.org, not “Microsoft Windows.” I asked and I was suddenly disconnected.  And within the hour, the computer is locked.  Clearly the acceleration of calls was because the hackers knew about the key lock because they installed it and they want to get to the last minute.  Now Martin called back about 20 times in the next 2 hours trying get me, but the number he left is not valid (despite his website listing it). And of course he will fix the problem for $239 plus whatever else he can sell you.  That’s the hacker scam – create a problem than get you to pay to fix it.

And when it locks – the result is a window that asks for Startup password – which Microsoft will tell you, indicates you have been hacked.  Except, then Microsoft says they need the 25 digit code for the operating software to fix your computer.  “But you need to get that from Dell” even though Dell only loads the software – you need to register it with Microsoft to make it work.  So I called Dell, and the first person says sure they can give it to you, but the second “no they need to send CDs.”

OK they are both wrong.  With Windows 8.1 the code is not on your computer if pre-loaded.  And of course Dell does not give you a recovery disk when you buy it.  Dell knows about the code.  So does Microsoft.  So an hour plus wasted there with two good organizations who clearly do not communicate.  So I am shut out of the new computer and the email.

Good news though is that maybe 10 years ago I was advised by Gateway (the old cow computers) to use iyogi.com to fix a prior issue.  So 13 hours later and lots of time with Amit, we are sort of back up running.  And of course iyogi knows about the code issue that Dell and Microsoft mis-advised me on and told me the story above.  And yet we both wondered how pcsync.org (the hackers) was tracking my computer error messages to Microsoft from day 1?  Have they hacked Microsoft?  Dell?

And the next day one of my friends, in talking about this says – “Hey wait, I keep having pop-ups for pcsync on my computer also.”  And later in the day, another says the same thing –“ pcsync is on mine too.”  And neither has a Dell – but they do have Microsoft Windows 7 or later.  And makes me wonder, who is taking responsibility for protecting the consumers here?  Clearly the computer manufacturers do not take responsibility.  Maybe they can’t.  Microsoft doesn’t appear to either, so that leaves us . . . . . vulnerable.  Mr. Gates you have a great operating system, but this problem costs us lost productivity, money, time, irritation…even when you have all kinds of anti-maleware and anti-virals on your computer.  If the hackers can get in day 1, how do you stop that?  And apparently the maleware doesn’t see it (hint).

So the questions:

  • Does “Microsoft Windows” know about this?
  • If so, why have they not fixed it?
  • Do the computer manufacturers know this issue occurs?
  • Why have they not talked to Microsoft about it?
  • Why doesn’t the maleware address it?
  • How are they getting in?
  • Is Microsoft hacked – perhaps the biggest hack of all?
  • And why have the internet police addressed pcsync and their ilk? It is all over the internet!!!!!

Clearly the penalties for hacking are not nearly severe enough.  And from a law enforcement and cyber security perspective, we clearly lack the resources to protect individuals, so beware!

And if you see pcsync – call iyogi or someone who can help.  Quickly!!


So what does ability to pay really mean?  We hear this discussed by political pundits and local officials but few really understand what this means.  Likewise the “I’m on a fixed” budget argument pops up a lot, and it is hard to understand what this really means.

The ability to pay concept was developed many years ago by political scientists and economists looking at the allocation of costs to consumers for government services.  Property taxes are a logical place to start – higher value homes have more potential for loss, so their taxes were more (the percent was the same but because of their value the amount was higher).  For income taxes, those with higher incomes we deemed to have more disposable income and again more to lose, so the rates increased as income rose (we forget that until 1963 the highest income tax rate was 90%, and the economy was growing quickly!).  People with lower incomes had little disposable income because all their money went to food and housing.  Today the issue of affordability arises with water, sewer, taxes and storm water fees, as well as federal and state taxes.  The SRF and bonding agencies often look at 3.5% or 4.5% and the maximum water or water/wastewater cost as a percent of income, but few  utilities charge this much.  Few water and sewer utilities (combined) approach the cost for power per household, let along the cost of cable or cell phone use for all but the cheapest carriers.  Certainly water, sewer and storm water are essential service, but not so much cable, although there are those who will argue the point.  So somehow the ability to pay issue does not apply to private sector services, but does to essential services, especially when we all know we do not collect enough money to cover significant infrastructure needs on those public works systems?  That just does not make logical sense except in the political world.

Likewise the “fixed income” argument is often applied in tandem.  Fixed income is generally applied to retirees, but let’s not forget that 10% of those in poverty are retirees, but 18% of millionaires are over 65.  But don’t most people have a fixed income – their income is fixed by their employer.  They can change jobs but the argument that younger folks should change jobs if they want to earn more is like telling retirees to go back to work.  There is only so much we can do and only so much income to be earned because few control their income.

So on both counts, the ability to pay argument seems like an argument created to keep public service costs down and prevent the full cost application to many.  The squeaky wheel gets coddled, at the expense of society.  Somehow that is not fairness, and subjects us all to unnecessary risks.  The question is who is going to be the person/group to stand up and say enough?

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