Monthly Archives: July 2012

My apologies for the delay in posting as I have been traveling.  But on my mind has been the events of two Thursday night ago, which was truly tragic and horrendous.  We should send our thoughts, hopes and sympathies to the victims, their families and those who were terrorized in the theatre but escaped, uninjured physically.  No doubt the psychological effects will linger for all the survivors and many of their families.  May we all pull together to help these people as they will need us.  We should also commend all the first responders for their efforts, in a situation that is difficult for most to imagine.  Yet they were there, doing the job we expect public employees to do when they are needed.

No one expects events like this to happen to them.  There is no way to anticipate such events which makes the tragedy all the greater.  And in the aftermath of this horrific event, were a series of threats for similar actions.  But why does this happen?

In the developed world, most of us have access to good food, decent shelter, adequate clothing and access to affordable quality water and wastewater services, all the basic needs we have to survive.  Most of the infrastructure that support us, works well.  We have cars, decent education and ability pursue jobs we want and interests we have.  We may disagree over philosophies in a variety of areas, but most of the hot political issues of the day affect few of us directly and even fewer are life threatening. Sure there are ups and downs, but how does someone deem attacking innocent people in a theatre is reasonable action?

We are all people.  Regardless of our differences, solutions can only be achieved when we all pull together.  May this tragedy serves as a catalyst for us to start working together to solve our problems, all of our problems, to provide a better future.  What better way to pay tribute to all those caught up in that theatre tragedy in Aurora……


The need for more water for urban and agricultural uses has drive even more competition for limited supplies in stressed basins.  The effects of urbanization and agriculture on surface water supplies are obvious to most people.  We have also seemed the ecosystem impacts from surface water diversions and pollution.  As a result, many areas have pursued groundwater, the unseen resource.

I have been touting a USGS report (#1323 by Reilly, et al, 2009) to many in the water industry.  It is an important report that gives us a little insight on state of groundwater supplies in the US.  As we have developed arid regions and developed better pumps to irrigate in dry places, groundwater has been the obvious choice.  And it is not regulated in some states.  However the extensive and in many cases excessive use of groundwater creates the long-term potential for loss of water supplies in many jurisdictions.  Determining groundwater availability involves more than calculating the volume of groundwater within any given aquifer:  it requires a consideration of recharge, water quality, the economics of recovery or of poor quality, interconnectedness with the hydrologic system and ecosystem/user demands.  Rarely is a consultant paid to determine that sustainable water supplies are not available.  The result is the potential for aquifer drawdown that are accompanied by aquifer mining and land subsidence.  The result is declining water levels in aquifers.

Confounding the situation are confined aquifers that are disconnected for localized recharge and often have overestimated recharge.  The common practice to evaluate aquifer productivity is pump wells that have a significant drawdown for only a few hours each day, allowing an extended period for the aquifer to recover.  Reilly et al, 2009 estimates that the pumpage of fresh ground water in the United States is approximately 83 billion gallons per day (Hutson et al, 2004), which is about 8 percent of the estimated 1 trillion gallons per day of natural recharge to the Nation’s ground-water systems (Nace, 1960), which sounds like it is not a serious issue.  However, Reilly et al, 2009 found that the loss of groundwater supplies in many areas will be catastrophic, affecting economic viability of communities and potentially disrupting lives and ecological viability.

Drilling deeper is not a solution.  Deeper waters tend to have poorer water quality as a result of having been in contact with the rock formation longer and dissolving the minerals in the rock into the water. Additional power will be required to further treat limited, lower quality supplies.  Therefore, while some deep aquifers may be prolific, the quality of water obtained from a well may not be desirable or even usable for drinking water without substantial amounts of treatment.  In addition, most deeper aquifers are confined and therefore do not recharge significantly locally.  The withdrawal of water may appear to be a permanent loss of the resource in the long-term. For example, portions of the aquifer in eastern North and South Carolina were virtually denuded in due to pumpage because there is no local recharge.  As a result the aquifer was mined, exceeding its safe yield, and the large utilities converted to surface water. Likewise, most of the aquifer use in the western states of the U.S. are poised similarly since they have minimal potential for recharge.  In parts of the western plains state and Great Basin, the aquifers have dropped hundreds of feet, but with an average of 13-18 inches per year of rainfall, and high evaporation rates throughout the summer, little of this water has potential to recharge the aquifer (Bloetscher and Muniz, 2008).


Rarely will permit writers or consultants tell you there is no more water available, but if groundwater levels keep declining, clearly the groundwater is over allocated.  It also appears that we have misjudged recharge to most confined aquifers.  They simply do not recharge at the rates estimated creating a long-term decline.  In some cases, maybe many cases, recapturing the water needed to recharge the aquifer will not happen in our lifetimes without specific capital to do otherwise.  Nature just doesn’t recharge confined aquifers quickly.  One reason we like them for water supply.
So the questions are these:

Are many confined aquifers better suited to be drought protection, backup supplies to surface supplies, as opposed to primary water supplies?

  • What is the solution for agricultural operations and utilities where groundwater is quickly diminishing?
  • When can we start the dialogue to manage groundwater resources better in the US without all the legal and political constraints that currently work against protecting our nation’s groundwater supplies?

Clearly we won’t make everyone happy, and may make a lot of people very unhappy.  But better to make those decisions now, than in 20 or 30 years when the groundwater runs out?

A recent comment on the blog posts reminded me of this discussion of a community on the beach that was populated by mostly retired executives from Chicago, Cleveland, Toronto, Louisville, Indianapolis and Detroit.  This was the 1970s and 1980s.  The community was wealthy, and had very low taxes.  It’s water and sewer rates were similarly low, while the community was starting to grow fairly quickly.    The mayor was on of these retired CEOs.  He was asked what helped his community be so successful.  His answer was simple:  they had a vision for the community that they all agreed on – a retiree utopia of beach, golf and dining.  They wanted to hire the best and brightest younger people to manage their community, hoping they would bring with them new ideas to improve efficiency.  They were willing to pay people at the 25th percentile to bring them to an out-of-the-way community, where medians and yards were heavily landscaped, where beach access was granted to all, where taxes remained low and housing values continued to rise, with the expectation that the community would continue to prosper.  Their experience had taught them to hire the best and brightest to increase their productivity and introduce new ideas.  By all measures, the strategy was successful.

But all good things come to an end.  By the mid 1990s, most of these old CEO had departed, replaced by newer people.  While many were also executives, there were more of them, and their focus was changing.  They were retiring from companies where profits were far more short-term and the politics were different.  They did not have the same experience in hiring people, and they did not see the need to pay higher salaries to attract employees. Unlike the prior generation, they wanted their kids close-by, which meant that there needed to be lower cost housing because most of their children were not making CEO salaries.  This also meant more services, and higher costs.  Cost control because the them, and cuts to government, to keep the low taxes low, became the norm.  So where were all those “best and brightest” hired 10-15 years earlier?  Gone.  When the attack on government workers started, who was the first to leave?  Those who were easiest to employ elsewhere of course, which does not help the professionalism of government.  It’s like another community where the Mayor said that the town was needed to provide employment for the otherwise unemployable!  Really?

This attitude does not help our industry at a time when reinvestment needs are in the hundreds of billions of dollars in the US alone.  Public investment has been billions because government was the solution for many needs of society, because it could not cost effectively or fairly be delivered by the private sector.  It’s like owning a multi-billion house and deciding not to fix the roof!  The leak can only get worse and delay the (much higher) cost of repairs to the next person.  So what about our infrastructure?  Who pays those costs?

And of course thisis all true….

A question raised on the internet last week was whether our current delay in replacing infrastructure was simply delaying the costs for infrastructure to our children and grandchildren?  The amount of money we spend on infrastructure today, as a component of GNP, has decreased.  That should be troubling for a couple reasons.  Just as the economists will tell you that the economy cannot expand at a greater rate than the population grows, the investment to maintain the infrastructure needed to expand that economy should have some relationship to the growth rate.  If investments in what makes the economy go are half the rate they used to be, clearly our priorities are elsewhere which portends future expenses to catch up.  While it makes a good political sound-bite to cut costs, reduce government, cut funding to infrastructure programs, etc, the reality is that this is akin to the short term profit outlook on Wall Street – it does not plan adequately for the future.

So how does this help utilities?  Well, let’s think about your community’s priorities.  How many of you have compared your customer’s rates to those of cable television?  Or to typical telephone plans?  Rarely are the average costs for our customers, typically in the 5000 to 6000 gallons per month range, exceed the typical costs for a family cable or telephone plan.  And which one is needed to survive?  While the phones are needed for business, and cable is great to have (Game of Thrones is excellent if you have missed it) neither is needed to survive.  This is a missed opportunity for the utility industry.  It is one where we have been out-marketed, with the potential for huge costs to impact out kids and grandkids, just to maintain the current systems.  Many of our central city utility systems were started pre-WWII.  WPA was a 1930s program that constructed piping across the US.  Expansions occurred in the 1950s as people started migrating to the suburbs, and from the 1960s-today, but the reality is that many people reading this were not alive when the bulk of the piping in the US was constructed.  Which makes it “old!”

It is important that the utility industry convey to local officials the need for reinvestment in a system that runs well now, so that it will continue to provide good service.  We need to project the long-term program needs.  Asset management can help, but we need to plan, inform and market our product.  So who out there is doing any of this?  What input have you received and are you getting your needed rate increases?

It is budget season again which means the annual battle for water and sewer rates.  The costs for power and chemicals go up every year, and billions of dollars of deferred maintenance obligations exist.  So why is it that utilities find it so hard to get the revenues needed to update and operate?  The easy answer is politicians, but the issue is more complicated than that.


Much of the growth and expansion of the US and Canadian economies can be traced to the development of water, sewer, storm water and transportation infrastructure.  Without water, and associated wastewater disposal, the public health suffers, people get sick, and are less productive than if they are healthy (and you don’t need transportation then).  The lack of clean water is a major barrier to growth and development in many parts of the world.  So going back over 100 years, the federal government saw the benefit of improving drinking water quality.  Utilities responded, building filtration and disinfection facilities which were so successful that we are still reaping the benefits of those improvements.  Many central cities began expanding their systems as a means to provide service to surrounding communities.

Development of regulations relating to metals in water occurred in the 1940s, and developed through the 1962.  The Safe Drinking Water Act reaffirmed many of these standards, and of course added new ones as new constituents.  Over 90 percent of the US population has access to safe, potable drinking water on a 24/7 basis.

Unfortunately we do too good a job and have for 100 years.  People take safe water and sewer for granted.  Regulation or not, people assume it’s all good (the bottled water folks aside (see Peter Gleick’s new book).


The solution?  Marketing.  Local governments, their employees, their systems and their solutions are all kept under wraps.  No one actively markets the benefits of utilities?  Why not?  Why don’t we use our CCRs, monthly newsletters, meetings, and community involvement to market ourselves.  True most of us in the industry are not great marketers and we see so many other issues it is not a priority.  The private sector sees the benefits of marketing, but utilities often see the lack of active marketing in the attitudes of our elected officials, who do not often understand the value of the service.  IF people value your product they will pay for it.  The difficulty that many utilities have in getting rate increases to update and improve their inrastructure is an indication of failure to understand the value of the product.  That’s a marketing failure!  I once had an elected official tell me marketing was not something the public sector should do.  I asked why.  There was no answer, but he acknowledged it would help.  So we need to make marketing our efforts, and products.  So who’s got some great ideas out there to market?  Who has some great success stories we can all use?

There may be few topics that raise more discussion in the US than climate change. Whether arguing it is catastrophic to the other end of the spectrum that is it all nonsense, the discourse masks the real question:  Is there a concern for the utility industry?  Interesting the answer seems to depend on where you are.  The focus here is to discuss why and where it matters, and why for many of us, it may not.


The scientific literature provides strong evidence that global climate change is affecting the world’s water resources (Karl et al, 2009; UNEP, 2009; IPCC, 2007), including ocean acidification, global temperature rise (Figure 1), receding ice caps, melting glaciers, changing precipitation patterns, and sea level rise (IARU, 2009; Karl et al, 2009; USEPA, 2008; IPCC, 2007). These effects may result in more severe drought or flooding, varying stream flow patterns, rising sea levels along the coasts, and contamination of freshwater aquifers and coastal water bodies as a result (IPCC, 2007).  Eleven of the 12 years between 1995 and 2006 rank among the warmest years in the instrumental record of global temperature data (i.e., since 1850) (IPCC, 2007). The global average sea level has risen at 3.1 ± 0.70 mm/year since 1993 (Cazenave, 2008), which is more than the 2.1 mm/yr for most of the 20th century. The rise in atmospheric and water temperatures may result in greater uncertainty in the amount, intensity and timing of precipitation. Much of the precipitation effect across the United States will likely be manifested by changes in the magnitude of rainfall during existing seasons, such that most regions will likely see wetter wet seasons and drier dry seasons (P. Gleick, 2008; Tebaldi et al, 2006; Groisman et al, 2005).


The reality is that if you have lived for 40 or more years, your perception that the summers seem less severe and the summers hotter, is a correct reality.  And most people perceive this.  So how does this affect utilities and should everyone be concerned?  Well it depends…..


The first utilities focusing on climate impacts on waters supplies were in the Pacific northwest.  Why?  Because many of these utilities rely on glaciers to store water for raw water supplies.  For years the glaciers have melted slowly after the winter, providing water supplies consistently throughout the summer months, only to be regenerated in the winter again.  But many of these utilities noted that the glaciers were getting smaller and projecting ahead, there might not be any glaciers in 50-100 years.  That’s like having your reservoir go dry and no precipitation to refill it.  This is a problem, and given the location, significant planning efforts are required to address the problem.


Utilities in the Rocky Mountain states noted that winters were warmer and often less snowy.  The current beetle problem is indicative of the loss of the weather-related stressors that controlled the beetles (cold and wet).  The mountains hold heavy snow for summer built environments, that are expanding rapidly.  Less snow to fill reservoirs is a similar concern to loss of glacial material.  Summer of dry right now in Colorado.


Along the eastern seaboard, planners have noted that sea level has risen 9 inches since the 1929 vertical datum survey.  The sea level rise appears to have accelerated recently.  Ocean temperatures area reported by NOAA to be higher, which means that sea level rise may be driven by thermal expansion f the ocean (basic heat equation form chemistry), and glacial melt is reported to be a contributing factor.  Sea level rise is troubling for coastal communities and may threaten local water supplies.


In southeast Florida, the geography is different – the land actually slopes downward as you go inland.  50+% of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, over 4 million people, live on land below 5 feet above the 1929 sea level.  The South Florida Water Management District reports that they have lost 15% of the drainage capacity of the canal system already and could lose 70% with another 9 inches of sea level rise.  Huge problem is you live at elevation 3.  Moving is an obvious, but unrealistic solution.  I mentioned over 4 million people.  How about over $3 trillion in property and $300 billion/yr in economic activity?  That would be a catastrophic disruption for the state.  Hence sea level rise is an action item for the area, but gains no traction state-wide.


In each of these areas, the focus has been strategies that utilities and planners should pursue for adaptation to se level rise.  Heimlich et al (2009) suggested a milestone approach – when you hit a certain milestone in the climate change scenario, you should have completed certain armoring activities and be poised for another set.  That relives local officials of the problem of not planning ahead, while preventing the premature expenditure of funds.  The key is adaptation solutions to protect the current conditions.  And most of the infrastructure needed is local, so expect local funding to be the impetus for local armoring, not federal or state funds.


But why isn’t everyone concerned and is this purely a political issue – “red” vs “blue” states?  In a recent paper I published (Bloetscher, 2012) I noted that much of the state of Florida is unconcerned with the issue, and while very much a “red” area, the issue may not be completely politically motivated.  The same is true of much of the heartland of the US.  Their impacts may be less rainfall that today, but given limited rainfall now, how much difference will that make?  It may be that in these areas, the heat, and power demands created by higher summer temperatures may be a far more critical factors, and one that only tangentially impacts the water industry as a result of competition for cooling water.


So is there a concern for the utility industry with respect to climate variation or change?  The answer is it depends on where you are, and where is matters, efforts should be ongoing to deal with the long term problem.  For the rest, maybe not so much.  Where we really may see a problem is with power demands and water, another subject for another day.

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