In the last blog we talked about a side issue: ecosystems, bison, wolves, coyotes and the Everglades, which seem very distant form our day-to-day water jobs, but really are not. So let’s ask another, even more relevant issue that strikes close to home. Why is it that it is a good idea to store coal ash, mine tailings, untreated mine waste, garbage, and other materials next to rivers? We see this over and over again, so someone must think this is brilliant. It cost Duke Energy $100 million for the 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 MG of wastewater spilled into the Dan River near Eden NC in 2014. In West Virginia, Patriot Coal spilled 100,000 gallons of coal slurry into Fields Creek in 2014, blackening the creek and impacting thousands of water supply intakes. Fines to come. Being a banner year for spills, again in West Virginia, methylcyclohexamethanol was released from a Freedom Industries facility into the Elk River in 2014, contaminating the water supply for 300,000 residents. Fines to come, lawsuits filed. But that’s not all. In 2008, an ash dike ruptured at an 84-acre solid waste containment area, spilling material into the Emory River in Kingston TN at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant. And in 2015, in the Animas River in western Colorado, water tainted with heavy metal gushed from the abandoned Gold King mining site pond into the nearby Animas River, turning it a yellow for dozens of miles crossing state lines.
Five easy-to-find examples that impacted a lot of people, but it does not address the obvious question – WHY are these sites next to rivers? Why isn’t this material moved to more appropriate locations? It should never be stored on site, next to water that is someone else’s drinking water supply. USEPA and state regulators “regulate” these sites but regulation is a form of tacit approval for them to be located there. Washington politicians are reluctant to take on these interests, to require removal and to pursue the owners of defunct operations (the mine for example), but in failing to turn the regulators loose to address these problems, it puts our customers at risk. It is popular in some sectors to complain about environmental laws (see the Presidential elections and Congress), but clearly they are putting private interests and industry before the public interest. I am thinking we need to let the regulators do their job and require these materials to be removed immediately to safe disposal. That would help all of us.
Most water suppliers realize that the more natural their land is upstream of their water supplies, the less risk there likely is for their customers. Under the source water protection programs that state, local officials and water utilities implement, the concept is to keep people related activities out, and let the natural forests and landscapes remain. For the most part the natural areas support only a limited amount of wildlife (sustainable) and thereby there natural systems are attuned to compensate for the natural pollutant loads, sediment runoff, ash, detrital matter, etc., that might be created through natural processes. For thousands of years these systems operated sustainably. When people decide there needs to be changes, it seems like the unanticipated consequences of these actions create more problems. Now many of these same ecosystems do not work sustainably and water quality has diminished, increasing the need for treatment and the risks of contamination to the public. It would be better, but decidedly less popular on certain fronts, to provide more protection to natural systems that extend into watersheds (which is most of them), not less.
So this leads to a series of questions that go to the greater questions about natural environments:
Is it really necessary to cull the small Yellowstone bison herd by 1000? What do bison have to do with watersheds? Well, the bison create much less damage to grasslands and underlying soil than cattle due to the size of their hooves. An argument is that we need to cull the herd because they transmit disease to cattle, but Brucellosis has never been demonstrated to move from bison to cattle, so disease is not an answer. What is really happening is that there is competition between buffalo and cattle for grazing. Competition with cattle means that the cattle are on public property, not private ranch lands, and the cattle trample the public lands which creates the potential for soil erosion and sediment runoff. So I am thinking water folks should be siding with the bison. Of course without wolves, there is no natural predator for bison, which raises a different sustainability problem, so maybe instead of killing them, we move them to more of their native ranges – maybe some of those Indian reservation might want to restart the herds on their lands? That might be good for everyone, water folks included.
Part 2 – is it necessary to continue to protect wolves or should we continue to hunt them in their native ranges? Keep in mind wolf re-introduction efforts are responsible for most of the wolf populations in the US, specifically in the Yellowstone area. Without wolves, there is no control of large grazing animal populations (see bison above, but also elk and deer), and there is a loss of wetland habitat because the elk eat the small shoots used by beavers to build dams and trap sediment. Eliminating wolves has been proven to create imbalance. Wolves = sediment traps = better water quality downstream. Sounds like a win for everyone. (BTW there is a program in Oregon to protect wolves and help ranchers avoid periodic predation of calves by wolves so they win too).
Part 3 – Is it really necessary to kill off coyotes in droves? The federal government kills thousands of coyotes and hunters and others kill even more. This is a far more interesting question because it leads to one of those unintended consequences. !100+ years ago people decided wolves were bad (we still have this issue ongoing – see above). So we eradicated wolves. No wolves means more rodents, deer, elk, etc. which mean less grass, less aspens and less beavers, which means more runoff which does not help water suppliers. It also means more coyotes, because there is more food for the coyotes. Interesting that coyotes have pretty much covered the entire US, when their ranges were far more limited in the past. Coyotes are attracted to the rodents and rabbits. But the systems are generally not sustainable for coyotes because there is not enough prey and there is no natural control of the coyotes – again, see wolves above. A Recent Predator defense report indicates that culling coyotes actually increases coyote birth rate and pushes them toward developed areas where they find cats and small dogs, unnatural prey. Not the best solution – unintended consequences of hunting them on more distant land pushes them into your neighborhood. Not the consequence intended. So maybe we keep the small dogs and cat inside at daybreak and nightfall when the coyotes are out and let them eat the rats and mice that the cats chase and once consumed they go away. Coyotes need to eat grazers and rodents but you need the right mix or the grazers overgraze, which leads to sediment runoff issues – which is bad for us. That also seems like a win.
Everglades restoration is a big south Florida issue. The recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer is the Everglades. So water there seems like a win for water suppliers? So why aren’t we the biggest Everglades advocates out there? Still searching for that answer, but Everglades restoration is a win for us and a win for a lot of critters. Federal dollars and more federal leadership on restoration is needed. Which leads to ….
Do we need more, not less management of federal lands? Consider that the largest water manager in the west is the federal government, which has built entire irrigation systems to provide water to farmers who grow crops in places that are water deficient. Those farms then attract people to small towns that consume more of the deficient water. Then people lobby to let cattle graze on those public lands (see bison above), timber removal – which increases sediment erosion, or mining (what could possible go wrong there?). So since the federal government manages these lands, wouldn’t better regulations and control to keep the federal properties more protected benefit water users and suppliers? Contrary to the wishes of folks like the guys holed up in a federal monument in Oregon, or the people who have physically attacked federal employees in Utah and Nevada, more regulations and less freedom is probably better in this situation for the public good. If we are going to lease public lands (and most lands leased are leased to private parties for free or almost free), and there should be controls on the activities monitoring for compliance and requirements for damage control caused by those activities. There should be limits on grazing, timber and mining, and monitoring of same. Lots of monitoring. It is one of the things government really should do. And we need it to protect water users downstream. Again a win for water suppliers.
So as we look at this side issue, ecosystems, bison, wolves, coyotes and the Everglades seem very distant from our day-to-day water jobs. But in reality they are not. We should consider the impacts they might have on water supply, keeping in mind natural system decisions are often significantly linked to our outcomes, albeit the linkage is not always obvious.
My cousin once asked me what I thought about deciding on who to vote for for President might be best done when evaluating how well your 401K or investments did. Kind of an amusing thought. In that vein the decisions might be very different than they were. Clearly your 401k did with with Clinton. The economy was flat for George W. Bush, and the end of his term was the Great Recession. Reagan’s first term was flat. We all know about George H.W. Bush. Interesting thoughts. Not so good. So what about the last 8 years? But is raises a more interesting issue. So don’t get me wrong, this blog is not intended to lobby for any candidate (and Obama can’t run), but it is interesting to look at the last 8 years. They have been difficult. The economy responded slowly. Wages did not rebound quickly. But in comparison to 2008 are we better off?
The question has relevance for utilities because if our customers are better off, that gives us more latitude to do the things we need – build reserves (so we have funds for the next recession), repair/replace infrastructure (because unlike fine wine, it is not improving with age), improve technology (the 1990s are long gone), etc., all things that politicians have suppressed to comport with the challenges faced by constituents who have been un- or under-employed since 2008.
Economist Paul Krugman makes an interesting case in a recent op-ed in the New York times: (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/yes-he-did/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Opinion&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs®ion=Body). Basically he summarizes the figure below which shows that unemployment is back to pre-2008 levels, and income is back to that point. Some income increase would have been good, but this basically tracks with the Bush and Reagan years for income growth – flat. So the question now is in comparison to 2008 are we worse off that we were? And if not, can we convince leaders to move forward to meet our needs? Can we start funding some of the infrastructure backlog? Can we modernize? Can we create “smarter networks?” Can we adjust incomes to prevent more losses of good employees? Can we improve/update equipment? All issues we should contemplate in the coming budget.
For those who have never seen WW2 bombers, you should not miss the opportunity. There are very few you can see, and only a couple that fly. A few vets that flew in them show up as well to tell their stories. The Collings Foundation flies a B17 and a B24 to 110 cities every year to display the planes. I go every year – actually flew on the B17 on year. My Dad flew 25 missions on a B17. Started in the ball turret. Got a Purple Heart as a tail gunner. I encouraged our students to take a look (for a little extra credit). Ten took me up on it. One brought her kids and said it was fantastic. The faculty for our design class (me and Dr. Meeroff also went. So we are all included below. Thanks to everyone that went. Thanks to the Collings Foundation for this opportunity. See you new year!
I had the annual pleasure to tour a flying B17, B24 and mustang fighter jet today. It is absolutely fantastic to see these plane fly. I took a trip in this B17 about 10 years ago – well worth it. On the plane were 10 other guys, all 80, all who had flown in a B17 during WWII, just like may Dad. Their stories were harrowing but great – memories that flooded back like they happened yesterday. If you have the chance to see these planes that tour the nation courtesy of the Collings Foundation, please make the effort to go see them. Take the kids – they will love the experience. It is a great opportunity to tell them about grampa or great grampa flying in one of these planes. Some of those guys did not come back., which is even more important to remember. There are always guys out there who flew on these planes – ask them about it. It is a great learning experience. And a great lesson to us all.
My revised website will be up, completed shortly. The focus is changed a little. It is more focused on asset management and financial sustainability, two issues that small systems struggle with. Rate studies, financial planning, asset management tools, are part of the portfolio. The first two are things I have done for many years, but we have been doing asset tools of late. We have project ongoing in Dania Beach and on Florida Atlantic University’s campus. The following are what the preliminary results look like for Dania Beach’s downtown. You can see the assets and the type. And in the second map – those needing maintenance. Very cool stuff. Lots of fertile ground here.