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Monthly Archives: April 2014


Hi All

I had to post this Miami Herald Article (p 1 and 2) regarding a sea level rise hearing conducted by the US senate here in Miami Beach. I was one of six asked to testify. This is a very rare opportunity. I was very privileged by that opportunity. Check it out.

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I had to share this, from a nonscientific survey of people adamantly opposed to any consideration of changes to our climate:

1. I can’t do anything about it so I don’t care about it
2. People can’t alter what is happening with the earth because it is too big
3. It’s natural, so we can’t do anything about it
4. It’s not an issue now, so it’s somebody else’s future problem
5. The science is inconclusive so why do anything yet. Let’s see what happens
6. Trying to address it will cut jobs
7. We won’t be competitive (i.e our profits will drop)
8. It requires changing our business model (energy)
9. If we talk about it no one will develop in our community
10. Costs too much

I had to post this as many of you will have comments. But before you do, these about this a minute……

The first five are based on no facts, but a desire to ignore the issue entirely. The second five are more poignant because aren’t these pretty much the same arguments to deny the need to correct water pollution concerns in the 1930s? Or 1950s? Or even 1970s? Or even today with hog farms, frack water, acid mine waste, coal dust slurries, etc.? Or actually pretty much every regulation? I seem to recall Tom Delay making this argument when he was in Congress before he was indicted.

Now think about the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and others. These regulations are designed to correct ills of the past that were simply ignored due to the first five arguments above, ignoring the fact that prevention is always less costly than cleanup afterward. To we pass regulations to clean up problems and protect the public health going forward. Otherwise why have a regulation?

So let’s talk about that jobs impact. The reason is that after the passage of these regulations, didn’t the number of professional jobs (like civil and environmental engineers, environmental and other scientists – STEM jobs) increase? Isn’t increasing STEM jobs a priority? So won’t dealing with climate issue perhaps create a similar increase in STEM jobs? Yes, costs for water increased and the cost for the effects of climate changes will cost money, but don’t these challenges create opportunities? Isn’t this akin to dealing with problems with development from the past? Just asking…..


At a recent conference I was listening to a presentation by the Army Corps of Engineers explaining the investments made over the last 80 years.  Subsequent presentations discussed that the need to reinvest in infrastructure appears to be about 3.6% of infrastructure value per year, but that the US is spending about 2.4%.  The best condition of our infrastructure was in the 1980s, but decreases in reinvestment due to funding limitations has caused an ongoing decline in infrastructure value, which is why the ASCE report cards show most of our infrastructure at the D or D- level.  It is getting old and it needs repair and replacement.  You would rarely buy a house, never maintain it, and expect it to live in it without problems for 50 years.  Roofs leak, pipes need replacing, mechanical equipment, lights and appliances fail.  It is the cost of owning a home. You have to update.  Most times the new equipment is more efficient that the old stuff, saving money.  So why do we do this with infrastructure?

More interesting was the response to how some of these agencies may deal with this backlog of deferred maintenance.  So far I have heard the Corps, state transportation agencies, state land agencies and another federal government say that they are figuring out means to prioritize the assets and dispose of those not needed.  So let’s see how that would work and I kid you not, these are suggestions:

  •          Abandon state roadways and let local governments deal with them.  Of course these are roads that are challenged – like they flood constantly and the cost to raise them is cost prohibitive, but the city has development along the corridor
  •          The state has low value wetlands they will donate to the underlying county – not that you can do anything with this land- it is not developable, but needs to be monitored and maintained
  •          There is a waterway that has leaking dikes but serves very few people.  Let’s give it to the local community as they are the only ones who use it.
  •          We have monitoring equipment, but it really provides more information locally that regionally, so let’s give it to them 

Hey I like the idea of giving, but seriously, how does the “recipient” deal with this problem.  The low value assets are low value because they serve limited people and are deemed to have little economic or useful value or are too expensive to maintain.  So what does the recipient do with it?  They do not have nearly the resources that larger governmental entities have, and if the big guys cannot find the money, will locals?  Are we just kicking the problem to the next guy?  Sounds like used car sales to me.

It sounds suspiciously like the argument I have heard several times from a city manager who talked about cutting the size of local government, only what he did was contract with other entities to do the services, which means cuts in employees for his city, but the cost is just transferred to another entity.  The rate/taxpayers will foot the bill unless the service is completely discontinued.  In his case, they all paid more.

The State of Florida and the federal government have both cut employees and both contract heavily for services that never used to be contracted.  There is a whole industry of contracting for government work that used to be done in-house.  In other words, they privatized portions of the operations.  But did the cost of government decrease in either case?  No. 

So going back to the initial question – will governments abandon infrastructure?  The answer appears to be yes, but the problem is that that infrastructure IS being used by people so the reality of full abandonment is impossible.  The result will be that underlying local entities will be stuck with the bill.  Planning is needed.  “Fail to plan = Plan to fail” as my friend Albert says.  We need to identify where these “gifts” may occur and identify a means to deal with the inherent obligation that goes with them.  For water and sewer utilities, waterways and roadways are of particular concern, but so could watersheds and well sites. 

 


Let’s start with the basic premise of this conversation – fracking is here to stay!  It doesn’t matter how many petitions you get in the mail, fracking is going to continue because the potential for gas production from fracking and the potential to fundamentally change our energy future, near or long-term, far outweighs the risk or economic and security disruptions from abandoning fracking efforts.  It looks like there is a lot of trapped gas, even if the well exponentially decay production in the first three years, although many well can be recovered by refracking.  It is an issue that residents and utilities need to accept.  The question is really how to assess the risks to water supplies from fracking and what is what can we do about it?

There are a number of immediate regulatory issues that should be pursued, none of which Vikram Rao (2010) suggests are truly deal killers.  They start with the disclosure of the fracking fluids, which for most legitimate companies that are fracking are relatively benign (and do not include diesel fuel).  Baseline and ongoing monitoring of formations above the extraction zones, and especially in water production zones is needed.  Research on water quality treatment solutions is needed because t may be impossible to completely eliminate escaping gas is needed.  Requirements to improve and verify well construction and cementing of formation is needed in all states (they are not now) and recycling frack water and brine should be pursued to avoid impacts on streams and wastewater plants, which limits the loss of water due to fracking operation and the potential for contamination of surface water bodies.  It will be important to push for these types of regulations in states like Ohio and West Virginia that need jobs and are likely places for fracking to occur, but they are also likely places where there will be political pushback that is afraid of discouraging job investments, but in reality this is unfounded.  The gas is there, so the fracking will follow. The question is will the states implement needed regulations to protect the public.

More interesting will be the ancillary issues associated with gas and wet gas.  A lot of by products come from wet gas, like polyethylene which can be used as stock for a host of plastics.  “Crakers” are chemical processing plants that are needed to separate the methane and other products.  Where will those facilities be located, is an issue.  Right now they are on the Gulf coast, which does not help the Midwest.  Do we really need to ship the gas to Louisiana for processing or do we locate facilities where the gas and byproducts are needed (in the Midwest)?  The Midwest is a prime candidate for cracker location, which will create both jobs as well as potential exports.  Also stripping the gas impurities like ethane, DEM and others needs to occur.

So what do utilities need to look at the potential impacts on their water supplies and monitor.  If the states will not make the fracking industry do it, we need to.  Finding a problem from fracking after the fact is not helpful.  We need to look at potential competition for water supplies, which is in part why recycling frack water brine is needed.  Eliminating highly salty brine from going to a treatment plant or a water supply are imperatives.  Sharing solutions to help treat some of these wastes may be useful – something we can help the industry with is treating water.

We also need to look at the processing plants.  We need to be looking at the impact of these facilities in light of water and sewer demands (and limitations). Wet gas facilities will require water as will plastics and chemical plants. Historically a lot of these facilities were in the Midwest and the research and skill sets may still be present.  How can these industries can be merged into current water/sewer scenarios without adverse impacts.  Communities will compete for these facilities, but good decisions may dictate that vying is not the best way to locate a plant. 

But there is another impact to utilities and that affects green technologies. The cost of gas is low and looks like it will remain low in the near future.  Low gas prices mean that renewable solutions like solar and wind will be less attractive, especially if federal subsidies disappear.  Wind is the largest addition to the power generation profile in the last 5 years, while many oil facilities changed to gas.  Cheap gas may frustrate efforts to create distributed power options at water and wastewater treatment plants throughout the country which can directly benefit utilities, not just where fracking occurs. So we need to be cognizant of these cost issues as well.  And you thought the fracking discussion might not affect you….

 


Once upon a time, many years ago there was a young city manager in a backwood town in the south. He had been told he was a bright young man, and had done well in city manager school. He was full of ideas on how to serve the public to make things better for the community and the people in the community, realizing you can’t get rich being a city manager. Getting rich was not his issue – he wanted to help people and thought he could bring his education and ideas to bear on the many problems city’s face. He was also very entrepreneurial – he tried to organize the city to operate like the business that it was by trying to make operations more efficient, providing training to employees that basically never had any, developing mechanisms to track work performed, and updating infrastructure (piping, curbs, sewers, treatment plants). He spent 60-80 hours a week, including countless nights each week at his job, no doubt underpaid. For the most part, the employees bought into his ideas because, well, he never asked them to do something he wouldn’t do, and often would go into the field to work with them on important projects to show them what was needed or what he expected. The staff became well trained and efficient. So far, so good.

Over time he noticed a few interesting trends, but because he was young, he did not have a point of reference to understand them all. One he noticed was that the elected officials always asked for multiple alternatives. But when he presented more than one, he found that the worst option, the one most difficult to implement, or the one that would create added problems, always seemed to be the one chosen. Bad options were like a magnet for these elected officials. So he became more reluctant to present more than one option because doing so made his job much more difficult and, well the point of presenting options that have issues seems counterproductive to good government. Of course that created some friction.

Ok now that you are done laughing hysterically at this young man, keep in mind the story is true and happened less than 30 years ago, so this is not ancient history. It took a few years after frustration and stress took their toll and this young man moved on in his career. City management was just too stressful. It took a few more years to understand that answer to the options riddle – the bad options were chosen because some was lobbying the elected officials for that bad option. Why? Because those lobbying always knew someone who could benefit from the need to “fix” the problem created by that option. So the idealist meets the reality – kind of deflating. He moved on from there.

So how does that affect utilities? Think about your budgets, and especially your capital budgets. Figure out what you NEED to do your job, and then figure out if you have a budget strategy to get it. Do you pad your budget to insure the budget office doesn’t arbitrarily cut your request, because “that’s what they do?” Do your elected officials delay capital projects because it is an election year and they do not want to raise rates? Does the city manager remove the new hires because he needs more money to be diverted to the general fund? Sound familiar? Welcome to the game this young man found so many years ago. 30 years and things definitely have not improved. When you run a business, you know what you need to do the job. You should be able to ask for what you need, and get it without a lot of conflict. Your budget and finance directors should be SUPPORT positions, not gatekeepers. Their job is to find money to pay for operations. You should set the need, and they find the funds, but it doesn’t work that way does it?

The budget battle is a huge expense for every community, and one that largely provides no real benefit but detracts from productivity. None of the game playing helps the utility or the ratepayers, just like the bad options don’t help the community at large either. Yet it is funny that over time, city managers have moved away from people with technical backgrounds in public works and public administration toward people with business experience. The argument is that we need to run the city more like a business, so this should be a good fit. But it is not in part because there is a lack of understanding of the underlying public works services. Public works is a service, not a business. As a result, we see far too much political expediency as opposed to benefits to the payors.

From a business perspective, creating a series of enterprise funds like water, sewer, storm water, roads, and parks is a step in the right direction, but only if those separate enterprises (think companies) can stand on their own. For example, it is completely inappropriate to use your utility to fund the general fund. Borrow from it, yes; some purchased services, yes; huge subsidies, no. When large amounts of funding are diverted, it means that both the general fund and the utility suffer (and for the moment let’s ignore the legal issue if the utility rate base is not the same as the city tax base). Business rarely diverts large revenue streams from other enterprises to keep them afloat for long, so why in government, do business people pursue this path? In the business world, if the general fund was such a loser, we’d cut it loose, or spin it off and make it stand on its own. Ok we can’t really cut the general fund loose (police and fire are in there and we love them), but making is stand on its own is what finance, budget and city managers should be pushing elected officials to do. That would make set up a system of full-cost operations, which will allow residents to understand the true cost of their services, which is completely appropriate. Subsidizing services at the expense of public health is not a good long-term policy is it? . And while you are at if general fund, where are those surpluses we ran to allow us to reduce borrowing for capital projects?


So Detroit defaulted on it’s debt obligations.  Do does that impact you?  Well, that depends on whether you are a utility looking revenue bonds, a city looking for general fund bonds or some combination.  The issue in Detroit with debt is that they pledged the full faith and credit of their taxing authority to repay the debt.  Their taxing ability was insufficient to accomplish this goal, which means that there could now be distrust in that promise for other cities.  So if you are a city and you are making this pledge, Detroit could impact you, or at least create more review on your balance sheets.  If you are a utility that is pledging revenues that have no limitations on amount, the concern is likely less.  Of course in either cases, the question is what the rest of your balance sheet looks like.  If you have no reserves, do not charge the full cost for service, have a heavy debt load, have high rates already, or send a lot of funds to the general fund, that could be a problem.  If you have avoided these pitfalls, the bond market will see much less of an issue. 

Keep in mind that Detroit is not the only default – another big one is the Birmingham and several other create questions about general fund uses of funds, which makes it of greater importance to keep our financial house in order.  IN part this can be done by creating the appropriate enterprise funds and remove those services from the general property tax fund.  That permits local focus on the true cost of general taxing users and creates a delineation between general fund and enterprise costs.  That can help elected officials focus on the true general fund issues:  police, fire, EMS, administration without hiding those costs with subsidies from other funds.

 


My students are back from the ASCE Southeast Regional Student Competition.  They received 2 second place awards out of 18 contests.  Not too shabby considering there were only about 30 students that were active in putting this together, all going to school full-time, and many working and supporting families.  And they were competing against 30 other schools, including several far bigger engineering schools like the Universities of Florida, Alabama, and Central Florida and Auburn University. 

So how did they do?  Let’s start with the canoe.  The canoe was indestructible (see photo).  The students rowed well given very little experience.  Far better than some of the other schools despite the wind and currents in the canal.  The canoe was 700 lbs and it still floated.  They finished second on plan reading and professional paper competitions.  The environmental filter worked super well the first trial.  A little plugging on the second but a good job regardless.  The balsa bridge held 700 lbs and the 186 g 2 x 2 x 2 inch cube – 1400 lbs.  They also did surveying, shuffleboard with concrete materials, and several others.  All good efforts, and each year gets better. 

If you have never seen these competitions, you need to.  The students work hard, compete well and have fun.  It is a good means to meet other students and see what they do.  The key is to autopsy the results to help the next students.  Overall a good experience for all of them.  So congratulations!

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