Monthly Archives: September 2013

One of the more interesting issues in Congress the past years is the Farm Bill which did not pass the House.  The issue was too many food stamp recipients.  The program has doubled in the past 10 years and now 1 in 7 families depend on supplemental assistance.   But here is an interesting question – wouldn’t you assume that the states with the greatest percentage of people getting food stamps would be those states that voted for the Farm Bill.  That would be those Democratic states like California, Colorado, the New England States, Pennsylvania and New York?  Well interestingly enough, you would be wrong.  The state with the highest percentage of people receiving food stamps is Alabama, followed by New Mexico and Tennessee, which are red states.  In fact all of the southeastern states are in the upper two third, all exceeding 15% of households.  Yet their representatives voted against their constituents!  This should not be a surprise.  All of the “blue” states, except Washington and Oregon were below 15%.  Some were below 10%. 

So how does this affect water and sewer systems?  There is an ongoing effort at the EFC at UNC Chapel Hill and other areas regarding the concept of affordability of water and sewer services.  The concept is that costs in excess of 3.5 or 4.5 % of income may be burdensome on residents.  Effort is trying to come up with ideas to address low income ratepayers.  The loss of food stamps actually exacerbates this problem since most of these same ratepayers are the ones receiving food stamps.  The conflict between paying for food and water/sewer service increases, putting more low income residents at risk.  Congress is doing utilities no favors by disrupting embedded programs that people depend on.  We can debate whether the program, a transfer of funding from wealthier, blue states, to poorer, red states is a appropriate federal revenue transfer, but the reality is that the dependency has been created.  Compounding the problem is that employment is not nearly back to 2007 levels, and salaries for most of us have declined with respect to buying power over the past 30 years.  As a result, many residents, including many hardworking, employed residents, continue to struggle.  We should be concerned about the acts of Congress and remember some of our representatives may not be voting to help their constituents.  


In June, President Obama made a speech about the increase in renewable power that the United States had created in the last 4 years, and announced goals to double this amount in the next four.  Virtually all of this power was solar and wind power.  Little mention was made of hydroelectric or onsite sources.  But the latter have been around much longer than the former sources and there may be options to increase their contributions under the right circumstances. 


Hydroelectric power has been in use in the US for over 100 years.  By the 1930s, 40 percent of the nation’s power came from hydroelectric dams, including some fantastic accomplishments of the time like the Hoover Dam.  Today we have over 100,000 dams in the US, most of which provide power.  Today hydroelectric is only 6 percent of our total.   The reluctance to continue with hydroelectric power involved fisheries, land acquisition costs and legal issues.  Some hydropower options are excellent.  Hurting fisheries (which disrupt local economies dependent on those fisheries) may not be, and therein lies part of the dilemma.


But water and wastewater utilities are actively looking for means to reduce power costs.  Depending on the utility, pumping water can account for 80-90 percent of total power consumption, especially with high service pumps on water systems that require high pressures.  More efficient pumps is one obvious answer, but of fairly limited use unless your pumps are really old.  Variable speed drives can increase efficiency, and the cost is dropping.  But note that with all that high pressure, how do utilities recapture the energy?  We often don’t and the question is whether there is a means to do so that can benefit up.  The first step is looking at plant hydraulics.  Is there a way to recapture energy in the form a pressure.  For example of reverse osmosis systems, we can install a turbine to recapture the pressure on the concentrate side.  They are not very efficient at present, but the potential is there.  On long gravity pipe runs for water supply, a means to recapture pressure might also be available. 


Of course on-site generation of power is a potential solution. Water and sewer utilities have land, and on the wastewater side, methane, so producing power is possible.  This solution, however, may not be embraced by power utilities due to the potential revenue reduction potential and loss of embedded reserve capacity at water and wastewater plants.  As the water facility takes on on-site generation, their load profile may shift significantly placing them in under a different rate structure. This may greatly reduce the benefit to the facility.  There are, however, approaches to permit win-win solutions. The goal is to put willing power and water utilities together to permit local generation that will benefit both power and water utility systems to encourage public – private partnerships.  A medium to large wastewater plant can generate at least a third of its power needs.  Some even more if they take in grease, oils and other substances that should not be put into the sewer system.  The potential there is significant.  EBMUD has a plant that is a net seller of power.  We should look for opportunities.  But don’t forget, water utilities can create hydropower without impacting fish populations. We just need to seek out the right opportunities.

I love stories about sewage in print.  As a water/wastewater guy, it is amusing to see sewer stories in the local papers and national news when they are about the “oddities” of operations.  One recent article talked about the impact of “flushable items” that should not go down the toilet.  “Flushable” wipes was the offender this time, but past discussion involved tampons, diapers and paper towels.  The reality is that NONE of these items should ever go down the toilet.  Those paper toilet seat covers are questionable as well.  Let’s see why. 

Sewer agencies have a very different view of what is flushable that tampon manufacturers, diaper manufacturers, paper towel and now flushable wipe makers.  Sewer agencies are responsible to insure that waste moves down the gravity pipes and through the lift station pumps without creating backups in the system.  The majority of material in a sewer system is water.  Followed by chopped up solids.  The design of the toilet involved two separate concepts.  One is simply creating the opportunity for a syphon to move waste when flushed but holding water when not.  It is a gravity principle based on partial pressures.  Simple stuff.  But toilets also tend to “chop up” material when the flushing action occurs.  The flush is violent and thin toilet paper and the soft solids in the toilet are easily shredded and blended into the water.  Think about your blender.  Soft stuff gets chopped up.  Enough mixing, it is all liquid.  As a result there is very limited opportunity for either thin toilet paper or most solids to plug up a toilet. 

But people don’t like thin toilet paper.  So we have manufactures making toilet paper with cotton fibers in it to make the paper soft.  And people like the “high quality” paper towels that upscale restaurants use.  Unfortunately too many people use those high end paper towels on the toilet seat, so down they go.  Wipes are reinforced paper also.  Fibers make them strong enough to, well wipe.  Tampons are notorious as absorbant fibers.  The key in each case is the fibers.  Fibers are not chopped up during a flush because the toilet flush is not designed to shed cloth.  As a result two things happen.  First, the fibers then to stay together as a mass.  Grease and other materials in the sewer system will stick to eh fibers making an even larger glob of material.  A recent YouTube photos showed a 15 ton grease ball in a large sewer system.  Grease and fiberous materials in the sewer system – you don’t want that to plug up your interceptor.

The other problem is lift stations.  The pumps at lift stations are designed to pass a 2.5 in ball, but not a bunch of strings.  As a result the fibers get stretched out, and wind around the pump impeller rendering it useless.  Or the material may mat in the impeller preventing the pump from pumping water.  One of the most common lift station problems is fiberous material winding around impeller shafts that burn out pumps.  Pumps cost thousands of dollars to repair or replace, so this is money from the ratepayers’ pockets.  One of my clients had the restaurant problem.  The lift station impellers would completely clog every 3 days.  The lift station would nearly overflow before the pumps were removed, the guys would open up the pump, and dig out the material.  Obviously fiberous paper and there were only two connections to the lift station.  The City ended up installing a $160,000 grinder system to grind up this material because the restaurant was unwilling to change their practice.  The major offender was women using the paper towels as seat covers.  The lines inside were a mess as well. 

The moral of the story is that toilet paper, water and body waste goes down the sewer.  Not napkins, feminine hygiene products, baby wipes or any fiberous paper material that feels soft, but won’t deteriorate, regardless what the manufacturer claims on the box.  These material do not degrade, the only create costly repairs, inconvenient and costly backups and a host of other problems for downstream users and the utility.  Put this material in the proper trash can. 

And see where else can you talk about this stuff, except when talking about sewage?

I went to Colorado in July, and it was bone dry like I noted in a prior blog.  The trend was expected to continue, but then something happened.  It rained.  A lot. It’s been raining for almost a month.  Last week it was wet out there, really wet, devastatingly wet on the east side of Rocky Mountain National Park (Boulder, Estes Park, Longmont, Lyons). The rain has not really let up so mountain streams are over-running their banks, flooding streets, washing away bridges, damaging property and businesses.  Helicopter evaluation of the damage indicates that miles of roadways are badly damaged. Route 34/36, the primary eastern entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park may have 17 miles (of 20) damage pavement and foundation needing immediate repair.  Estes Park is cut off from the world and there was mud in the streets.  Rocky Mountain National Park is closed to allow access from Grand Lake for emergency vehicles, residents and supplies.  And eastern emergency route from Nederland is also available.  Tourism has halted in the peak of Fall tourist season.

How fortunes have changed, and continue to change.  Three years ago it was the west side of Colorado with 300 inches of snow that flooded downstream communities.  Three months ago was drought. Are these changes part of a larger issue, or a continuation of the status quo?  Hard to know, but certainly both events were far above any prior events experienced in the area.  The local infrastructure was not constructed to meet these conditions, so either the climate is changing, our models are wrong, or both.  We see the same issue playing out regularly around the world when the 100 year or 500 year storm event occurs and wreaks havoc on a community which does not have infrastructure planned for events like this.

 Expect NE Colorado to be a federal disaster area.  Expect billions to be spent on reconstruction of roadways.   But the larger question is whether the new, replacement infrastructure will survive a similar, or larger climate event in the future.  Will our infrastructure planning be short sighted or will it be adjusted accordingly?  The potential for us to protect infrastructure, and property is completely related to our ability to adjust to infrastructure needs and to minimize exposure to weather events.  Keep in mind our economy and way of life is directly related to our infrastructure condition.  But people want to live near rivers and streams, but rarely consider the real risk and consequences. 

How do we address these risks?  FEMA evaluates the probability of flooding to set flood insurance, but FEMA does not prevent construction in flood zones.  Where construction can occur is a state or local issue.  Of course, few local entities want to limit development in any way, so we keep putting people at risk.  Local officials, like those in Florida, keep pushing FEMA officials to reduce flood risks, despite evidence of increasing rainfall intensity that would increase flooding.  Florida is not alone.  No doubt Colorado officials have the same views.  We need to impress upon local officials the risks and encourage them to reduce risks to citizens.  It’s our tax money and insurance premiums they are raising.  But they are rarely held accountable.  Nor are non-elected officials.  Somehow, this needs to change.  We need leaders to stand up and draw the  line in the sand.

Why are health care costs increasing so fast?  Did you ever wonder about that?  We keep hearing about how health care costs, Medicare, Medicare, Obamacare are going to bankrupt us, but why is that?  Why are the cots going up so fast?  It is an important challenge for local officials and utilities who generally pay the health insurance costs for their workers.  There is more to the story that we are not being told.

One problem that get identified quickly is that only 80% of the population is included in the health care system.  Many who are not are “healthy” young people who don’t demand the services.  The concept of the health care bill was to solve this problem by spreading the costs of health care across the entire population using private and public providers.  First, I think there are way more unhealthy  people included in the 20% than we realize because the political dialogue keeps focusing on the few that want to live off the grid – I feel great so I don’t need insurance.  That guy is part of the problem.  That guy gets into a car accident, gets taken to a public hospital, gets treated, gets a bill for $26,000 to fix his broken leg, refuses to pay anything, and the taxpayers get stuck with the bill.  My solution to that guy is if you don’t want to pay for health insurance, bring cash.  Otherwise, “no soup for you!” to paraphrase a famous Seinfeld episode.  Of course my doctor, nurse and therapy friends think that’s a little cold hearted. 

The next argument is the cost of doctors, therapists and nurses.  Okay, I know a bunch of them, and that’s not where the money goes.  These people have lost money in the past 10 years.  Many are going form full-time to part-time employments as Medicare, Medicaid and health insurance bureaucrats decide services are no longer needed.  They will tell you the major change in their lives is paperwork….hold that thought for a moment.

The cost of drugs comes up.  Medicare and Medicare are the largest purchasers of pharmaceuticals in the world.  So in other works, they set the lowest price by supposedly bidding the “contracts” for services. Only there is often only one provider, so exactly how does that work?   Sounds like we don’t get a good deal there, which is why the arguments for importing Canadian drugs or drugs from Mexico keeps popping up.  They get a better deal than we do and most of these are supposedly AMERICAN companies.  No home town discount (I guess I know where free agent baseball players get the idea).   And my medical friends confirm this as an issue.  Check out the comments from Mr. Falloon at Life Extension ( for discussion. 

So let’s go back to the paperwork discussion.  Once upon a time doctors simply sent a little paperwork to the health insurance company or the federal government and said you needed some service.  And the insurance company processed the bill for the services.  The cost was paid by insurance premiums collected by the insurance company.  Everyone was happy.  But then someone at an insurance company said, “wait we could make more money if we asked more questions and paid less for these services.  It would help our bottom line.”  So you hear the complaint that the folks at the insurance companies are deciding whether you need that procedure or not.  And contractors decide if someone needs Medicare or Medicaid services, not the government, not your doctor, your nurse or your therapist.  Not any person that knows you, but some unseen, private sector bureaucrat who’s goal is to minimize the amount of your premium spent on services so they can enhance their bottom line.  And apparently they are very effective because the health insurance industry is very lucrative.  So maybe we have stumbled onto something here.  Maybe the cost of medical coverage is more related to drugs and bureaucracy (and it is not government bureaucracy!!) than the actual cost of services.  Maybe the old system, even if there was some fraud in it, wasn’t nearly as bad as it was made out to be.  It reminds me of one of the 4 laws of City management I developed years ago:  Never give elected officials a bad alternative – it becomes a magnet.  It always worked (hence a law).  I didn’t learn why until years later when I realized, that the worst option was the one all the lobbyists lobbied for even at the local level.  It was the option where they could make the most money “fixing

School is back in session.  It is a great opportunity to see what kind of great things we can learn this year.  We can learn from the students as much as they learn from us.  Working with college students, in bridging that connection between my real world clients and my students keeps me engaged and allows me to act as a conduit of information between the two sectors.  That conduit potentially includes jobs for students and technology for clients.  It is remarkable how much the skills sets of the students have changes and increased in certain areas in five years, let alone 10.  I remind them that 5 years after they graduate, the skill set of the next group will be far ahead of theirs. Get your license and keep learning and staying up to date with technology.  It is far too easy to get behind and it is surprising how many graduates figure they are done with learning when the graduate.  Far from it.  The advances and changes in the industry move so quickly.  All my students are doing 3 dimensional projects versus cad drawings 5 years ago.  And those cad drawings were so far above the cad drawings of ten years ago.  All three groups are ahead of a lot of engineering firms with respect to technology.  And there accompanying utilities as well.  My students make great interns for GIS – it comes naturally to them.  My older friends?  Well, let’s say there is a bit of a learning curve.  As we try to be more efficient, training and skill development become continuous exercises.  It is obvious when you compare skill sets of recent, current or older graduates.  Of course skill sets may not translate to knowledge, for there is no substitute for field experience, especially in the water and engineering fields.  The reality is often much different than you expect, for a variety of reasons.  How you adapt means experience.  It is why the older crowd and the younger crowd need each other and need those communication avenues.  I find that my teaching keeps you engaged in the changes in technology, viewpoints and the new generation while maintaining the relationships with the real world

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