Monthly Archives: April 2020


January 2020 – sewage in the streets.  December 2019 – sewage in the streets.  November 2019 – sewage in the streets. Over 100 million gallons of raw sewage flow into the Venice of the New World’s waterways in 3 months.  And three water main breaks to start February 2020.  What is going on in Fort Lauderdale?  It is bad materials, bad engineering, bad construction, growth?  The answer is why infrastructure is getting such a poor grade in the US.

Many of the gravity mains in Fort Lauderdale are vitrified clay, installed in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.  Those lines have a tendency to crack and allow groundwater into the  pipe  – infiltration.  And the City has an issue with this as does virtually every city with clay pipes and a lot with pvc as well.  And a lot of water flows off the streets through manhole covers (30 gpm), broken cleanouts, bad laterals, interconnections with storm drains and people creating openings to drain their yard.  That is inflow and most cities have an issue with this because they focus more on infiltration.  That latter is easier to address.

But the gravity lines are not what is causing the sewage spills.  That would be the cast and ductile iron force mains installed at the same time as the sewer lines.  Ductile iron is a great pipe materials, but when exposed to hydrogen sulfide, damage can occur.  Put it in acidic or salty soils and corrosion is accelerated.  And breaks occur – especially near where these iron pipes connect o gravity lines and no longer flow full.  The example repeats everywhere in every community over time.

It is also not bad engineering or construction.  Cast/ductile and vitrified clay piping were the materials recommended for installation at the time – plastic pipes were not in general use and the C900 and high density polyethylene pipes we use today had not been invented.

It is also not growth although more sewage being pumped adds to wear.  But the sewage is old customers, new customers, inflow and infiltration – which one is the tipping point as Malcolm Gladwell would say, is unclear (read the book if you are not familiar with tippling pints – fascinating).  The combination is problematic.

The problem also is not going away – in fact expect it to accelerate as pipes reach their life.  There are many more pipes like these in Fort Lauderdale.  Nearly 50% are pre-1970.  That is not atypical nationwide.  The City has a consultant that suggested about $150 million in force main upgrades/replacements are needed.  The SunSentinel published a map of the problem areas identified by consultants.  They also noted that after 2011, the City diverted funds to the general fund from the water/sewer fund to cover lost revenues from property devaluation to avoid raising property taxes.  That was money that was paid by water and sewer customers, not necessarily taxpayers.  Robbing the utility to fix general fund issues sounds like   About $20 million per year is what the local officials say.  The papers report as much as $100 (in 2017).  Even if the number is the lower $20 million per year is correct, it still sounds like a lot of deferred maintenance issues could have been addressed in the past 9 years.

The situation is not just Fort Lauderdale’s – they are this year’s poster child for pipe neglects.  St. Petersburg was a couple years back (2015/2016).  Miami Dade County before that.  Nearby cities like Hollywood and Pompano Beach, both with similarly aged pipes, have had their challenges in the past 5 years.  Nationwide the trend sis pipes hit 50 years on the wastewater side and something needs to be done.  Pipe does not last forever.  Diverting funds to the general fund, something s that was noticeably different after 2010, needs to change.  The general funds need to pay back the utilities for those borrowed funds.  A tough choice for local officials.  Something residents need to understand.

Regulation is also not the answer and fines is not the answer for cash-strapped communities.  Solutions to help get funding in place and evaluation pipes that have not yet broken is a better solution.  All utilities will need to upgrade their infrastructure.  Current residents will pay the cost – they are using the system.  New residents will pay impact fees and assessments as well.  These systems have remained buried with few worries beyond the life of most residents but as  ASCE’s Infrastructure Report cards show, not doing your homework will cause community infrastructure to fail the test.

At the same time, utilities need to be honest about condition.  Public trust is everything.  Failure is not an option.  But failure to convince local officials there is a potential problem endangers that trust, something Fort Lauderdale is currently dealing with.

The good news was that in Feb 2020, the projection was for utilities to spend over $11 billion for water, sere and stormwater related infrastructure improvements.  Half that was for sewer.  Let’s hope the coronavirus does not derail this goal.


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The Waters of The US (WOTUS) rule that the Obama administration had developed in response to two prior directives from the US Supreme Court (in 2000, and 2006) that the Clean Water Act rules were unclear as to segmented wetlands, intermittent ephemeral streams and various lakes and impoundments.  The 2015 proposal specifically included the ephemeral streams because of the potential for pollutants to be flushed into waters that downstream agriculture, ecological and potable water supply entities were using.  That appeared to address the US Supreme Court’s directives after much public comment.  Ranchers, farmers and private property rights groups objected to the revised definition in the 2015 rule changes, specifically in the area from the Mississippi River into the Rocky Mountains.

The current administration suspended the 2015 rule and has proposed its own that removes the season, ephemeral and subsurface definitions.  It also removed categories that apply to ditches and impoundments.  That makes ranchers, farmers and private property rights groups happy, the has major consequences that were not contemplated.   The subsurface flow change has major impacts on places like south Florida where water bodies and groundwater are completely interconnected.  Even in north Florida and places with alluvial deposits, streams can disappear then reappear later.  Water in canals and stormwater treatment areas, the basis of the Everglades restoration, are exempt.  So are seepage canals. While there will be many lawsuits to fight the rule, including a potential consideration by the US Supreme Court, the changes create much uncertainty that had been removed by the 2015 rule change.

Change is not always better.  In this case water utilities are likely to see degradation of water supplies, and diversion of supplies that are no longer regulated.  Stay tuned

Have you ever pondered this?  We normally think about students – and cheating by students is rampant at all levels because of expectations of parents and others.  The amount of stress that students are under is high – and teachers and counsellors see the signs of mental anxiety.  This is not helpful to students.

But what about schools?  We  rarely wonder that.  If teachers and principals are being measured against a bar.  Does this really create an environment for learning or one to weed out poorer performing students?  Does it encourage charter schools to grab the higher performing students at the disadvantage of public schools?  Does testing encourage teaching the test versus true learning?  Is the desire to keeps moving, allow poor performing students to advance.  For example, when Rod Paige was hired as Education Secretary, he was hired because of the turnaround in the Houston schools, where the reported dropout rate fell to 1.5%.  Later is was determined that the real rate was 25%, not nearly as impressive.  Regionally, dropout rates vary – the upper Plains have very low dropout rates while much of the South has fairly high rates.  For rural southerners who lack job opportunities, this is a never ending cycle.

There are struggling school and school systems.  Enrollment has dropped in many of these schools, while those qualifying for free lunches, and indication of economic distress in the community.  Some of these school systems have as many as 80% of their kids on free lunch.  That means parents struggle to make ends meet, and de-emphasizes education in favor of economic survival.  Parents, often single, do not have time to invest in their kids education. Many of these parents are not well educated, and lack job skills that their kids desperately need.  Kids emulate their parents which means the issues go from generation to generation.

How do we fix this, as if affects all industries including the utility industry.  Finding qualified workers remains an issue across all employment sectors.  Reading, writing and math skills, things that one expects children to learn in elementary school, are cited as the most lacking skills.  Civics, basic science, history and the context for history are rarely to par.  It means the educational system as envisioned by industry when they lobbied Congress 100 years ago to set standards, is not working.  It worked better in the 1960s and 1970s.  Perhaps we should go back and figure out why.


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