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Monthly Archives: June 2013


A recent Manhatten Institute for Policy Research report titled “America’s Growth Corridor: The Key to National Revisal” noted that the future economy in the US will tend to growth in certain corridors, which echos a prior report that identified “super-regions” where population, manufacturing, education and economic growth were likely to be concentrated. Both reports suggest that the super-regions will prosper, with the rest of the country lagging behind. The seven high growth areas in the Mnahatten Institute report are the Pacific Coast, the Northeast, the Front Range, Great Lakes, the southeast/piedmont, Florida/Gulf Coast, and Texas/southern plains. This new report focuses more on the politics of the region, noting that each region is politically fairly consistent internally, indicating there is more than one way to do business. The current business climate, driven primarily by energy favors the Plains, with the southeast starting to import jobs from Japan and Korean as a result of low wage rates. The report goes on to draw a series of political conclusions about business climates and the politics of why growth is occurring in certain areas. But let’s look at a different view of the report. Each of these regions has had “ it’s day in the sun” so to speak, and some a couple of days, like California. Business cycles are cyclical so shifts in growth corridors is not unexpected. However there are some potential limiting issues that are not addressed in the report that are of significant interest or concern.

First, where is the water? Texas and the Plains have significant water limitations, as does much of the southeast. Trying to build an economy when you lack a major resource becomes difficult. That is why the Northeast, Great Lakes and later the Pacific grew earlier than the south, mountain and Gulf states. The Northeast and Great Lakes had water for industrial use and transport of goods, a real key historically for industry. Those regions also had (and still have) better embedded transportation facilities (rail, roads, airports).

The next question is where is the power coming from? The answer that will be given is that the Plains states and Texas have created 40 % of the jobs in the energy sector in the past 4 years so that is where the energy comes from, but having energy and being able to convert it efficiently to power that is useful to people or industry is a different issue. You need water to cool natural gas plants, unless you want to sacrifice a lot of efficiency. Back to water again. Moving the gas to other parts of the country to convert coal or oil plants to natural gas would work, but getting the electricity back does not come without 6% losses and a real need to make major improvements to the electrical grid. Not a small job.

So while the Manhatten Institute reprort suggest that all seven corridors will grow, but that the southern corridors are growing faster, the sustainability of this growth is at question. I recall a similar prediction when I graduated from college in the early 1980s, when the jobs for engineers were limited to the energy fields in Texas and Louisiana and the prediction was that al the industrial growth would be in the south. And then Silicon Valley happened, and then the housing boom in California, Nevada and Florida happened, and a few things in between. Oh and that energy economy collapsed in the late 1980s …. You get the picture. This is not to say that some marketing the power, water and transportation benefits of the historical industrial areas of the north are not needed – they are, but the fact is that there is significant available water, power, transportation and people capacity that is unused. If I am an industry, I may want to look at the power/water issue a little more closely.

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In the past week I have had the opportunity to experience the extremes with water – heavy rains/tropical weather in SE Florida, and dry weather in Denver at America Water Works Association’s Annual Conferences and Exposition. Two months ago with was snowing in Denver and there had been limited rain in SE Florida. Six months ago we were both dry and there was significant concern about drought in both places. How quickly fortunes change and the associated attitudes as well. It is part of a perception problem – looking at the near term – instant gratification, as opposed the long-term consequences. In truth neither set of conditions is historically different or should have created major panic or much shift in attitudes, but it is the potential to predict conditions that require the water manager’s scrutiny. We have all become risk managers.

Managing risk is not in the job description of most water and sewer personnel (risk managers aside, and they are focused on liability risks from incidents caused by or incurred by the utility like accidents, not water supply risks). We spend a lot of effort on the engineering, operation and business side, but less on planning or risk/vulnerability assessments. EPA has required vulnerability assessments in the past, but having seen some of those exercises, most are fairly superficial and many put on a shelf and forgotten. I have had clients ask me if I still had copies because they did not. Clearly we need a renewed commitment to vulnerability assessment.

Vulnerability starts with water supplies. Groundwater is particularly tricky. A new USGS study reports significant decreases in water levels in many aquifers across the US, especially confined aquifers in the west. That situation is not improving, and the situation will not correct itself. Loss of your water supply is a huge vulnerability for a community. Finding a new supply is not nearly as simple as it sounds or as many are led to believe. Confined aquifers do not recharge quickly and therefore have finite amounts of water in them. Remove too much water and all too often land subsidence occurs, which means the aquifer collapses and will never hold the same amount of water. USGS has mapped this and it matches up well with the drawn down aquifers. More data needs to be collected, but Congress is looking to cut USGS funds for such purposes, just when conditions suggest the data is needed most.

Many watershed basins and many aquifers are over allocated and overdrawn, and not just in the west. New England and the Carolinas have examples. Overallocation means competition for water will increase with time and it will be utilities that everyone will look at to solve the problem. Afterall the utilities have money as opposed to agriculture and other users, right? To protect themselves, water utility managers will need to look beyond their “slice of the pie” to start discussions on the holistic benefits to water users throughout the watershed, which will extend to understanding economic and social impacts of water use decisions. It is not just about us, and paradigm shift that is coming and one that we as an industry need to be the leading edge for. Our use impacts others and vice versa. Every basin wants to grow and prosper, but decisions today may reduce our future potential. Klamath River is a great example of misallocated water priorities. The biggest potential economy in the basin is Salmon ($5B/yr), followed by tourism ($750 M and growing), which relies on fishing and hiking. But agriculture ($0.2 B/yr) get the water first. Then power, which warms the water (salmon like cold water). Then a few people (a few 100,000 at the most in the basin). The result, the salmon industry gets reduced to $50 M/yr. Now how could we create more jobs, which would result in more income and a bigger economy? The easy answer is encourage the salmon industry, but that doesn’t sit well with the other, smaller users that will become more vulnerable to losses.

I suggest that to harden our water future in any given basin, we need to start looking a little more holistically at the future. This type of analysis is clearly not in the job description of the utility or its managers, utility managers may have the best access to technical expertise and information. As a result to protect their interests and manage risk, we may need to shift that paradigm and become holistic water managers.


A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that 50 % or people have paid their utility (water, sewer, electric) bills late, but only 24.8% have paid the internet late, 39.5% the cable late and 44% the phone bill. Really? We are willing to pay water, sewer and electric late, but not the internet bill? This should be a wake-up call to water and sewer utility leaders nation-wide that we have a problem. Combined water and sewer bills across the United States average something around $50. True they are often higher in California, SE Florida, and some other areas, but they are also lower in many areas. Most of the time even in those high cost areas, the bill is under $100.

I have done a number of rate studies and I find that the cable bill, and the cell phone bills are almost always higher than the water+sewer bill locally, so why are people willing to pay our bill late, but not the others? Is it the perceived benevolence of local utilities, most of which are public entities? Is it a perception that water should be free so it is not important to pay the bill? Or is it the lack of marketing of an essential product by waterutilities? I have heard all these arguments, but I am thinking the latter may be more important. Most people know they need to pay the bill, and I don’t really know anyone who thinks water should be free in the US. People are used to cheap water, and costs are going up. Complaining to local elected officials often keeps rates artificially low, which means maintenance and replacement programs get deferred. That makes the utility more at risk to failure. EPA, GAO and others report regularly that we have been keeping rates low and deferring capital and maintenance for years to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. So what is wrong?

I suggest that as an industry, we have failed in marketing water. Treatment plants, piping and pump stations are out of the way, pipes are buried. No one sees them and people assume these faciliaites will work, but rarely ask how they work or how long they will work. They do not understand the complexity or the regulatory stringency of operating a utility. They do not understand that the number one priority is public health, and protecting the public health costs money. We have not made people understand this because we do not market our product. I have taught elected official classes where the elected officials tell me public dollars should not be spent on marketing, but they never say why when pressed. Rarely is marketing included in a budget. But if water and sewer is a business, isn’t marketing an important strategy to maintain that business?

Meanwhile we have a host of celebrities marketing cellphones, which are not required to survive. We have a host of glitzy cool advertisements for cable service options, but we don’t need cable to survive. The power companies send out glitzy stuffers in their bills that no one reads, but they do end up in the papers regularly. And power really helps us survive, but we could do without it (although it would be unpleasant). Our forefathers did. But no one ever survived without water. Maybe it is just too obvious. But maybe because it is so obvious, people are less conscious of it. We need to market better. As a private sector marketing manager would say – we have lost our market share!! We need to get it back.


Happy Father’s Day to all those Dad’s out there who work hard to take care of their kids, who spend time with their kids, who participate in their activities, who engage their kids, and who love their kids. You make a difference you cannot imagine. And Happy Father’s Day to all those Dads who made a difference, but are no longer here to celebrate with us. I know you know we appreciate all you did for us and that your lessons and love remain with us always, my Dad among them. Miss you!!


Previously I blogged about retirement systems since they were getting a lot of negative attention in the Florida Legislature and in Congress. One of my tenets was that the economy is more of an issue in dealing with the sustainability of retirement systems than most other factors. Specifically I outlined the current Social Security issues, noting that the long-term borrowing rate and number of people paying into the system affected the apparent long-term viability at any given point in time. I also suggested that as a result, trying to opine about the viability of any retirement system at a specific point in time is a futile exercise, unless there is some underlying political agenda. The economics changes constantly, so the long-term trends are far better means to view the viability of pension programs. After the 2008 economic collapse, few retirement systems looked like they were in good shape, yet a few years earlier, they appeared much better, much like Florida’s did..

Fast forward to 2013. After all the hoopla in Congress about the fate of Social Security and scary Congressional statements that Social Security will not be remain for future retirees unless drastic changes are made, guess what? The annual trustees’s report on Social Security (and you though Congress managed it!) reported that as a result of the economic uptick in the past couple years, the outlook for Social Security in the short term is good, and the long-term is far better than it has been in years. Surprised? Only if you don’t understand how pension systems work. The economy has improved, so the investments made by Social Security likely are getting a better return. The jobless rate has dropped, and more people are paying into the system, precisely the two things that improve the long-term sustainability of any pension system. But we don’t hear Congress talking about that because that doesn’t address the political agenda.

Worse for certain Congressional leaders, the report suggests that Social Security is positioned better than many 401K programs, the type of system some in Congress suggest should be the future of Social Security, because the risk are far lower with Social Security’s investment strategy than any 401k invested in the marketplace. They noted that most 401k programs lost half their value in the 2008 financial collapse, while Social Security’s portfolio, invested in far more conservatively, did not see near the same type of drop in investment value. The report outlined that the lower and middle class retirees were hit less severely buy the 2008 downturn than upper middle class pensioners who relied more on 401K returns. That should be no surprise either.

The findings are particularly important for lower and middle class families that receive 2/3 of their retirement income from Social Security as private pension systems become a thing of the past. Those private pension programs suffered from investments in private companies that can have shifting stock values and outsourcing of jobs to other countries – more risk and fewer payees equals unsustainable pension program. No surprise the private sector has shed many of those programs, but precisely why Social Security becomes more relevant for most Americans. The private pension systems are precisely the opposite of the Social Security model.

So why the push to try to change retirement programs? Some are in difficulty, especially where there are generous benefits, and fewer people paying in due to cuts in government employees, and at risk investments strategies that have performed poorly. All three are management issues, and the second is a political issue. Bash public employee pensioners, because fewer private entities offer them, seems to be politically popular, but it is a political means to pit people with pensions against those who do not to hide the real issue which is simply money. The investment value of Social Security’s portfolio is huge. Wall Street would love to see that portfolio in the stock market. More investment dollars will drive up stock prices. That seems good, but recall that the repeal of the 1930s vintage banking rules that prohibited banks from investing YOUR savings in the stock market, drove stock prices up fast in the 1990s, but it didn’t turn out so well in 2008. Investing Social Security’s portfolio similarly can be expected to have a similar result. And then, Social Security will really be in trouble and someone in Congress will tell you – I told you so. Maybe the better argument is that all these politicians should keep their fingers out of pension plans.


Radio Program last week

Hi all.  Here is another radio show I did last week talking about  my company Public Utility Management and Planning Services Inc. and water sustainability. Take a listen. Let me know what you think.  Thanks

Fred

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