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Monthly Archives: July 2013


Jim DeMint is a smart guy.  He parlayed a short stint as a Tea-Party Senator from South Carolina into a million dollar a year executive position with a conservative think tank.  Then he sends out surveys to figure out where the “public” stands on certain issues.  For example: 

Because of uncontrolled spending, the federal government ran a $4 trillion budget deficit for 232012 and our national debt is not a staggering #16 billion.  Do you want Congress to take serious action to rein in out-of-control spending?  Yes or no. 

Ok, first the deficit was not $4 trillion in 2012.  So that’s a lie.  But what are the other options?  Reining in spending is not the only option, but it is the only one given.  Certainly the question is most likely to get a “yes” answer which is exactly what DeMint’s organization is looking for. 

Let’s look at another one.  

How would you consider yourself politically:  Very conservative, somewhat conservative, Independent, but lean conservative, independent, but lean liberal, somewhat liberal and very liberal.  

Clearly a “you are either with us or against us” question, but one that tells you everything you need to know about Congress and politics in general.  You can’t be in the middle.  You can’t draw the best ideas from both sides of the aisle.  Precisely the problem gripping Washington and many State capitols.  No one can compromise, so we get sequestered.  This type of polarization does not help America move forward nor does it help use solve problems. It increases the burden on local governments to address the problems that the failure to compromise at higher levels allow to persist, or may even create.

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It surprises me how many utilities ignore their meter stock.  Water meters are the “cash registers” of the utility – they are how we bill our customers.  Many utilities allow their meters to age without checking how much loss their may be.  I have a client who regularly has issues with high unaccounted for water, which is a permit condition.  Every time the issue arises, they ask me what to do.  Each time I ask the Finance Department, which is responsible to for meter reading and billing, to check the number of meters with 90 days of zero readings.  The past two times I had them do this the number of meters was about 10% of the system! Both times I have had them replace all 10% immediately.  The result each time was to decrease the unaccounted for water amount in half (15 to 7%).  In essence they received a 7% rate increase without raising rates.  Yet, the Finance department NEVER runs the zero read report unless I ask them to. 

 

This situation is all too common.  Meters lose accuracy with time.  Small meters lose accuracy slower than big meters, which may lose 50% of their accuracy (for low flows) within 2 years, but the small meters may not last the 15 to 20 years they are typically installed.  The easy way to monitor this is to run a zero read report monthly, and to run a report to compare the water billed 12 months apart to see if the billing amount decreases significantly from year to year.  Water utilities need regular meter maintenance to insure they are receiving the revenues for services delivered.  But it is often too easy, or too politically difficult to spend the dollars to insure meters run accurately and to bill people appropriately.  But we should ask if it is fair to bill others disproportionately to avoid fixing the meter problem?

 

Similarly utilities need to insure that everyone is being billed.  Some cities do not charge themselves for water, which means they cannot track it adequately.  Other potential users that are not metered or charged include churches, parks, and schools.  There is a fairness issues associated with not billing everyone.  Likewise, large losses that cannot be accounted for may be indicative of water theft.  A water audit program can help identify potential water theft.  Theft is an affront to all customers.

 

Utilities should also look at fees for services.  Sometimes these have not been adjusted for years.  Utilities should determine exactly what it costs to provide services like meter turn-ons, turn-offs and call outs.  A couple utility clients of mine have contracted to perform services for other utilities as a mean to raise revenues without big rate increases. 

 

Keep in mind though that rates need to increase because power, chemicals and capital needs are constantly increasing.  Power, cable, telephone and other utilities increase to insure they recoup their costs.  Water and sewer utilities should incorporate CPI-type increases in their rate structures to insure they can sustain ongoing operations and capital replacement programs.  Insuring everyone is billed properly and the meter inventory is up-to-date insures that rate increases are limited to what is actually needed.

 

 


Sequestration is the word we are all using to explain the failure of the Congress to put together a budget with appropriate revenues and expenditures.  Congress can’t figure out how to reach a budget agreement, so the federal government set itself up for mandatory cuts in services. I had a recent grant sequestered, then cancelled.  It really could have helped a local community with long-term water supply and quality problems identify adaptation and mitigation strategies fo rites future.  Minor money for Washington, but a big deal down here.  Likewise I have spent the last 6 months on a subcommittee for USGS that is focusing on what could be cut from USGS.  That means less testing water quality, water levels in groundwater, stream gauges and less evaluation of results.  Most of the water issues USGS looks at crosses local and even state lines.  Since we all rely on water, this is at national concern.  Precisely when we need the information most, we may be getting less.  Expect to start seeing more sequestration issues. 

 

 

The problem is that the biggest expenses, social security and debt, cannot be cut without major backlash in the financial and voter markets.  So the cuts come from the smaller accounts – things like the federal share of state revolving funds, water research and water/wastewater programs.  The community and tribal assistance account was slashed $210 million while the environmental program budget was cut $135 million. While some may be cheering EPA cutbacks, the reality for water and wastewater users is less federal assistance to our industry.  That means more of the onus is on us, and on our customers.  The  unintended consequences of the failure of Congress to act….


I went back to Colorado last week and it’s dry again out there.  Ok, maybe not this past week when it rained a bit, but despite late snow (March to May), the forests are dry.  The bark beetle problem has not made things easier, so lightning from thunderstorms can easily create fires, like the fire down in Colorado Springs or the Big Meadows fire that is ongoing in Rocky Mountain National Park.  The latter has been ongoing (although fortunately mostly out) for over a month, and has closed some trails in the park.  I hiked through the Fern Lake fire remnants (although virtually all the fire was around Cub Lake). That fire burned for a couple months last fall, only finally burned out in the winter after snowfall. 

 

The west is dry and “drier than in the past” is the new normal it seems in Colorado.  So now water managers are faced with three new challenges:  less water, faster runoff and more difficult water to treat.  The fires cause the loss of protective vegetation, which means less water is kept in the forest.  As a result, the tiny, light ash particles easily run off in the rain.  Ash is hard to remove without activated carbon or other advanced processes.  The loss of vegetation increases runoff, which means larger sediment content in otherwise pristine water supplies.  That can make a major impact on downstream water plants that may not have planned for such events.  The cost of fire suppression for the last 60 years confounds the current water supply and quality problems.  There are also ecological effects that may impact local economies. 

 

All this said, I am unsure what the solution is.  Clearly the climate in Colorado is changing.  It is unlikely we can alter the current course any time soon.  Instead we must adapt to the changes and attempt to mitigate the impacts on water supplies.  Creativity, innovation and likely more infrastructure will be required. Concepts like aquifer storage and recovery are coming back to the fore as a result of the current condition. It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. 

 

 


Close UP Radio # 4

Here’s the 4th in a series of radio shows I did on line.  These are topics discussed:

Desalination is often argued as a water supply option.  But the costs for power are significant.  Power requires water.  Water treatment requires power, we can’t make decisions in a vacuum.

We do have ongoing discussions about indirect and direct potable reuse of wastewater – ie toilet to tap.  There are regulatory and public perception barriers, but in truth we do this in rivers every day

It is hard to define that term  sustainability, and it depends on who you are and what your issues are.  But water is a medium of social change as well as economic development.  Too often we look at short term solutions, which frustrate long-term potential.  Klamath River OR is an example.  

Enjoy


A recent Rolling Stone article outlines a potentially dismal future for south Florida.  I was quoted in the article and give the author a bunch of information.  It is hard to write articles that “pop” in the popular press while conveying facts and figures.  But I would suggest that the future is not quite as dismal as the article depicts.  The sea level rise has been ongoing for at least 140 years as indicated by the Key West tidal station, the longest running tidal gauge in the world, but the amount has been 9 inches since 1920.  True it appears that the sea level rise may be accelerating as a result of warming temperatures in the atmosphere that causes the oceans to expend, plus the loss of ice that runs off from glaciers, but 3 feet by 2100 seems the average or maybe the high average.  That is unlikely to inundate all of south Florida, but keeping the water table low will be a challenge.  I suggest that the challenge can be met and accomplish two goals.  In low lying areas the impact of sea level rise is really manifested as increasing groundwater tables.  An increased groundwater table means less soil storage capacity, which means smaller rainstorms will cause flooding.  The increased flooding is already creating a demand by residents for solutions from local public officials.  We have used exfiltration trenches (French drains) for many years, but increasing water tables will mean many of these systems will not function as they may be currently.  But what if we reverse the concept?  Instead of exfiltration, what if we allowed the water to infiltrate the pipe and go to a central wet well, and then pump the water out of the wet well?  I further suggest that the dumping large quantities of groundwater to the ocean or canals may not be permittable as a result of high nutrients, so what if this water is instead pumped to a water plant as a raw water supply?  Wouldn’t that solve two problems at once? Lots of excess fresh water supplies in an era where there are significant limitations in fresh water supplies?  Just thinking….. 

 

 


I have been inundated by articles recently about the issues with integration of Gen X and Millennials workers into the workplace.  Not sure why, but this is a hot issue in trade journals and newspapers.  The recent articles seem to focus in on the potential conflict between older, and younger workers who seem to have different perspectives on how work gets done and protocols.  These folks would do well to read Dan Pink’s book Drive, which discusses the differences in motivation and how supervisors can carefully cultivate innovation and efficiently by recognizing the differences. 

 Since I teach at a university, I deal with Gen X and Millennials all the time.  There are huge differences in their use and comfort with technology versus older workers.  It is truly second nature for the younger workers, while the older generations had to learn these technologies.  Many, if they had access to computers, they wrote programs by using punch cards and wrote their own compute programs in FORTRAN.  The younger workers don’t know even know what a mainframe computer is let alone punch cards.  Technology accelerates exponentially with time, which is why people feel left behind. 

Funny how technology works though.  While the kids I teach today are far more savvy than their predecessors 5 years ago (and those five years before that), they have to keep up of get left behind.  That’s the older worker problem – the older guys cannot compete with the use of technology, but not to worry, in five years, same for these kids.  As a result the older crowd may resist helpful technology.  It surprises me how many engineering firms resist 3 dimensional design programs, despite my students knowing how to do it.  By the way, the contractors hire my students because the contractors see the value in profits (and change orders). Younger workers know how to integrate the technology into the workplace.

 While comfort with technology is the big difference you notice, it is not the driving issue as Dan Pink points out.  Most of them make a decent wage so they are looking for more than salary to motivate them.  Interestingly money is not the primarily motivation like it can be for older workers.  The younger folk avoiding the rigid looks for flexibility, especially as it relates to family and friends.  They are comfortable with working at home and at times throughout the day.  It’s not that they work less, it’s they work differently.  We should focus on productivity, versus conventions.  Maybe we’d spend time appreciating each other more!

 

 

Go back to Drive and you realize that the Gen X and Millennials want to pursue these new technologies and integrate them into their jobs.  They are motivated by responsibility, flexibility and independence, much because that’s what their baby boomer parents taught them.  They are comfortable with flexible schedules and working when needed.  Baby boomers need to help them use these concepts to innovate and create in the workplace.  We need to learn to use this to our advantage in the workplace, not fight it.

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