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Monthly Archives: October 2012


I had an interesting email exchange with a guy in north Florida who was trying to educate the Legislature on why planners are always wrong with their projections and their studies should be ignored as a result.  His specific issue was water supply, but it could have been any number of issues.  His argument was that the projections for water use made in 1976 were incorrect and in fact total water demands in the State had been basically flat over that period.  He’d be unhappy to know that Florida mimics the rest of the country.

Ok, I admit that in addition to being an engineer, I have a minor in planning and a degree in public administration.  I attempted to communicate with him about the purpose of planning, not that it helped.  Planners outline projections of what things will likely be IF not changes are made.  The reason is to prompt policy or behavioral changes prior to reaching critical tipping points.  The argument in 1976 was that Florida would run out of cheap water if current trends continued.  In the intervening years, there have been major efforts toward water conservation, low flow bathroom fixture and major changes to irrigation practices.  All of which made the water picture far better than the 1976 projection.  See the planners were not wrong – the projections indicated the problem if nothing was done, and acted in part as a catalyst for change.  This is what planners dealing with water supply needs, sea level rise and a host of other planning issues are supposed to do.  If we understand what the potential problems are, maybe we can take action to avoid tipping points.  This is not to say all projections are perfect or even correct, but the idea is to avoid reaching a point of no return.  Isn’t that what smart people should do?  Apparently not to the guy on the other end of the email.  Happy Halloween.  Er, no this was just scary because it was real!!

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The most recent discussions in trade journals, on-line and within the industry is that construction starts have begun to trend upward, a good sign that the economy is moving forward.  Since 2008 when the market crashed just after the election as a result of 2005/2006 packaged loan deals (read The Big Short by Michael Lewis if you really want to understand what happened, but be prepared to be irritated that no one has yet to go to jail), the stock market has crept steadily upward.  The problem is that the returns on investments have not trickled down to the majority of Americans except in low wage jobs (no wonder people can’t pay their mortgage and the IRS collects no income taxes from so many people).  But the tide does seem to be turning according to the construction journals.  In part we can thank low interest rates, but more perhaps more importantly it seems that much of the excess housing and commercial space may be decreasing so investors and owners that are looking to a spurt in economic growth in the coming years.  We see rising house prices in hard hit areas like south Florida.  With luck that will translate to jobs (maybe even decent wage jobs), increased tax revenues for local governments, and increased water revenues form of new or redeveloped users.  While the trend may not hold everywhere, the fact that the construction industry is talking about increases in new starts in the coming year, is a clear sign of things to come.  But are we ready?  That’s the big question.

Down here where I live, the 2007-2009 period was one where utilities ere struggling to find water supplies, with many investing in expensive alternative supplies.  Then reality struck and the 2020 demands are more like 2030 or 2040 demands.  The impetus for investment went away (it did not help that the burden was on the current ratepayers).  Those who invested in the 2008-2011 period got the benefit of much lower construction costs (typically about 70% of 2007 costs), but many sat on the sidelines as a result of political demands not to increase rates on current residents, resulting in lots of deferred maintenance.  While few utilities invested on growth related infrastructure, how many invested on replacement and rehabilitation at the lower costs?  Unfortunately, catching up on the backlog did not happen for many of us, which is why ASCE’s annual report card for water and sewer infrastructure continues to show very low grades (D- in 2009 for water and wastewater, a grade that has not improved).  As a result the legacy of the 2008 recession is that an opportunity to improve the condition of our infrastructure while creating local jobs was lost.  Now we will play catch up at higher prices, and higher interest rates (0.25% since June).

So where is the failure?  We complain about leadership at the federal level, but leadership starts at home (to use a cliché).  Local officials were not persuaded by utility personnel to invest in their future.  Aren’t these the same officials that often move to state and then the federal level?  Our failure to persuade them is an indication that our marketing approach to built consensus is not working.  Our ability to coalesce the community to improve itself is lacking, which readily translate to elected officials.  We can cast the blame upon them, but it starts much earlier than the time they make decisions.  In difficult economic times, we need a better approach to selling our product and the need to maintain the systems that deliver our product.  We need our customer to demand the improvements to protect their health.  People just don’t understand the link.  Water is there, so all is good.  When I flush it goes away.  No problem.  But what separates the US form the Third World is our infrastructure, especially our water and power infrastructure.  Maintaining our place in the world requires that we continuously upgrade and maintain this infrastructure.  That means planning ahead, building reserves, and taking advantage of economic conditions favorable to getting the most for our money.  How many of us missed this last opportunity?  We should be looking in the mirror and asking why…

 

PS  Today would be my Dad’s 90th.  We miss you!!


October is the month that brings us the astronomical tides, or locally to the coasts, the annual high, high tide.  The position of the moon relative the Earth creates a slight alteration in the gravitational pull of the moon on the oceans so high tide, is, well high!  If you lived in a coastal areas, what did you see?  Or experience?  Southeast Florida was rife with email chatter and photographs of flooded streets, yards, and canals.  The City of Fort Lauderdale sent notices to residents warning them about the tides.  We had no rain, just the tide coming in.  These are low lying areas that 20 years ago did not flood except during storms.  This is just a phenomenon that has been monitored in coastal areas over the past 5-10 years, depending on the complaints that have come into local officials.

One of the more interesting complaints I received in my career was in Hollywood Florida where a resident complained about the “fish in the street.”  Sure enough, the storm drain in front of his house was connected directly to the Intracoastal waterway and the October tides had pushed the saltwater up through the catch basin into the street.  Now these weren’t snook or redfish, they were little fish escaping the snook and redfish, about 3-5 inches long.  Pretty funny stuff if you think about it.  Realizing the problem, I called him 3 hours later and asked if the problem had been solved.  He said told me I was a genius to fix that so fast.  My boss told me to take advantage of luck and drop the explanation, but to design a solution (which we did).  My boss was right, but the call made me more cognizant of the issue.

15 years later, I have a student developing models of what happens during the annual high and average tides, especially with respect to the potential for flooding in low lying areas where groundwater is just below the surface.  His work is impressive.  A lot more land, especially inland, may flood as a result of the annual tides, which are a precursor to the long term trend of rising seas.  See the groundwater has a slight upward gradient as you move inland.  As a result, you cannot use the tide levels to predict inland flooding, you need to add the tides on top of historical groundwater levels.  Of course the wet season is the summer in Florida, so the October tides come just at the time groundwater levels are highest.  But at least we can determine where the stormwater pumping improvements need to go.

Determining where stormwater pumping is needed is only part of the problem.  As sea levels rise, more stormwater management will be needed and a place to put the water will become a problem.  Discharging nutrient laden stormwater to tide is not a good answer when you have fragile reefs offshore.  NOAA’s Florida Area Coastal Environment  (FACE) Initiative outline this (see intensives study – http://www.aoml.noaa.gov/themes/CoastalRegional/projects/FACE/Publications.htm).  Instead, perhaps at some point we may develop infiltration systems to capture this high water table “problem” and convert it to water supplies, solving two issues for southeast Florida.  Might be 2030, but we probably should be doing some planning….

 


In a prior blog, I raised the question about marketing your water to your community.  The issue resulted from a comment that public dollars should not be spent on advertising.  There were several comments about this and we perhaps need to explore that option further.  One question raised was “how do we engage our community?”  There are a variety of ways to engage the community, but most utilities pursue only superficial, and inexpensive solutions, if pursued at all.  The typical solutions include speaker’s bureaus, mailers, flyers, notes on water bills, the consumer confidence report, press releases, presentations at commission meetings and water conservation efforts.  But how well do these work?  Certainly every utility should pursue many if not all of these options.  Getting positive information out to the community is needed, but does it change the perception of the community toward the utility?  Hard to say, but if that is the goal, you may be surprised how limited the impact of these efforts may be.  For one thing, most mailers, etc are viewed as junk mail so are not read by the customers.  Likewise most people do not pay attention to commission meetings, or read the paper (assuming the paper publishes the press release).  So many of these well intended, and time consuming efforts may be create limited engagement.  More proactive and maybe time consuming efforts are often needed to create an impact.

So what might work better?  If trying to change perception of the utility, more hands-on engagement may be needed.  It may mean reaching targeted audiences that can change current or long-term perceptions.  This can occur in a number of ways.  Here are a few:

  • School competitions for water conservation, hydrant painting, model water tanks – the concept here is to provide fun to elementary and middle school kids while encouraging them to learn about a given topic.  Normally involves teachers and parents, which enhances the message and spreads the “word.”  There are state and national competitions that students can participate in as well.  Utility management support is required, as and some resources and some devotion of time from staff to coordinate efforts among students and teachers.  But it puts the utility in front of an impressionable audience and provides a learning opportunity very different from the normal classroom.  How would that not be memorable?
  • Middle school programs with utility staff – the concept here is to encourage utility staff to communicate directly with middle school kids about what they do.  The key is to get younger kids interested in pursuing jobs in the field.  One of the ongoing issues in the utility industry is “graying,” and the potential for almost 50% of the workforce to retire in the near future.  Getting students to change their careers in college is too late.  Often high school is as well.  Middle school kids have rarely given much thought to their careers.  What better way to recruit that to put the utility in front of kids and get them thinking about going into the water field.?
  • Tours of facilities for school kids – most students learn visually, so tours of the facility are useful to create interest and enhance learning. Security is an issue, but they are kids.  It is always useful to know what goes on with water and wastewater. And it’s normally a positive, out of the classroom experience.  What kid doesn’t like a field trip?
  • Summer internships for high school students – this is another effort to engage and educate students, while perhaps setting the stage for a future employee who understands what win needed to do the work.  Teachers and parents are required to be part of the process – otherwise who recommends the students ad how do they get to work?  It helps if this is coupled with earlier introductions to the utility, so kids have become interested in the career prior to the job opportunities.  Think about the kid who learns about and tours the utility in middle school, knowing internships might be available in a couple years.
  • Partner with local universities on research issues – The focus is universities, not trade schools or community colleges, because universities do research and this capacity is often underutilized in the business work.  In part this is because their mission is misunderstood – they teach students to think as opposed to technical skills, which means things might take a little longer.  But universities have lots of technical resources, literature and skills that can be useful to utility systems.  Often the cost is less than consultants, and the access to data and knowledge is usually beyond that of consultants as well.  The utility needs to find the right person to connect with for small projects as some university folks avoid small projects, but many engineering professors welcome the opportunities.  Also many universities are public entities, which means bid laws may not apply for public agencies.  That makes it easier….
  • Sponsoring research projects for graduate students – graduate students need projects to complete their thesis.  They need real data and utility projects and research are generally beneficial.  And they need jobs so research is like an extended interview.  Professors are looking for research to collaborate on.  Utilities often need testing of pilot projects before design is initiated or completed.  As a result, utility sponsored research is a win-win for everyone.
  • Offering paid internships for undergraduate students – college students need money to pay tuition and experience to get a job.  The utility can engage and educate students, while perhaps setting the stage for a future employee if they do the job well.  Internships are extended interviews to gauge student skills.  And universities can help recommend good students.  Another win-win.
  • College scholarships – scholarships recognize good students, while creating the potential to attract future talent.  AWWA has found that most students who receive scholarships in from the water industry, stay in the field.
  • Co-hosting conferences – many conferences are looking for sponsors, money and locations.  Local conferences normally get some press, which helps the water profession.  Another win-win.
  • Hosting training programs- like conference, training is something all engineers, finance people, and operations and field personnel need.  Like conferences, many training programs are looking for sponsors, money and locations.
  • Participation in activities like Habitat for Humanity – utilities have tools and skilled labor.  They can help with community based activities.  Management needs to be engaged and show leadership for such projects to be successful, but there can be no losers in activities like this.
  • Awards – Apply for them.  They are noteworthy, and publishable!
  • Newspaper advertisements about events or accolades – some elected officials are opposed to self-laudatory commentary or marketing.  But in the competitive environment we operate in, we need to maximize revenue opportunities.

There are more, how many utilities actually engage in these efforts.  Money is often used as a reason not to, but if long-term engagement is what is desired, perhaps spending limited dollars to pursued these options could present a positive benefit:cost ratio to the utility.  That would make it worthwhile.


Defining leadership is like identifying ethics – it is easier to identify what is not leadership than what is.  In fact Scott Adams titled one of his Dilbert books “Don’t Step in the Leadership,” as a quip to indicate the difficulty in defining what is leadership.  One of the problems is that leadership cannot exist if there are no people following the direction.  Hence a leader of one is not a leader.

 

There is good and bad leadership.  Lemmings are an example of the bad leadership.  That’s what your mother was talking about when she asked you if you’d jump off a bridge to be like the other kids.  No, what we want is positive direction, with a long-term improvement to conditions or reduction is the severity of a risk or problem.  As a result is if often easier to measure results after the fact – it’s what we leave behind that defines leadership.  Hard to tell when leadership is happening now.

Elected officials are often pointed to as leaders, but we could spend pages discussing the fallacy of that argument.  For elected officials it is often circumstances that define their leadership skills:  Lincoln in the Civil War, FDR with the Great Depression and World War II, Washington refusing to be named king are examples of leadership.  Congress today, not so much.

Likewise we have business leaders, but mostly they are making money for their stockholders; few are making a big difference to use today.  The latter is why we all know Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Mark Zuckerberg, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone – they all made a difference in our lives and how we live.  But who is the CEO of Goldman Sachs?  See you probably don’t know and that’s the problem.  The impact on your life is missing.

Hollywood puts up leaders.  Ok I like Clint Eastwood, but aside from some great movies he’s made or directed, I don’t really have much reason to follow him personally.  Mostly we know a lot about what we don’t want, see the  Kardashians.  Music is similar – not much leadership there despite some great, and potentially insightful tunes (thanks Ronnie van Zant, Hughie Thomasson and Danny Joe Brown, RIP all).  No, leadership is not defined in the entertainment industry.

Leadership is defined by leaders, which is the problem since leadership it is how leaders approach situations.  It is what leaders envision that causes others to buy into their vision and cooperate toward achieving their goals.  It is how they approach a challenge and coalesce resources to resolve it, regardless how big the issue may be.  It is how they carry the torch, while supporting their staff which does the work.  It is how they guide as opposed to direct employees.  It is how they share accolades with the staff and accept the blame for failure, as opposed to the opposite.  All good, but most times leadership is hard to see when it is happening.  Ultimately, leaders are defined by what they leave behind – does the organization or product survive their departure, or not?  The goals of Lincoln and FDR survived their passing.

So what is leadership and how do we apply it to the water industry?  Well I’m not sure we are any closer to a definition of leadership, but maybe we have a better idea what to look for.  Clearly leaders in the water industry will be the ones trying to create a long-term vision that will be expected to survive their time in the field.  They will argue for sustainable use of water and the necessity to cooperate and communicate with other users to reach optimal solutions to over-allocation issues.  They will test new technologies as solutions to old problems.  They will implement “outrageous” concepts like indirect potable reuse and develop cooperative efforts with other industries to get to solutions like using water and wastewater sites to generate distributed power,  things most don’t consider cost effective or proper today.  They will participate in research efforts and outreach to the public and the youth.  And they will empower and train their staff.  Ok, maybe not all these things, but look around, where are the leaders in your utility?

We need to talk more about this subject….

 

 

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