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American Water Works Association


June was a tough month and looking back I realize I really didn’t post.  I was in Chicago, spent 2 weeks with middle schoolers, prepared my promotion package, god the doors completed on the house, etc. and suddenly it was the 4th of July.  Yikes time flies.  But it was interesting.  Here I want to talk a little about Chicago.

I went to Chicago to do a 3 day, 12 hour class with elected officials.  Most are board members for their local utility, but they went from a small South Carolina system to San Antonio and St. Paul.  A huge variety.  And we learned a lot.  Obviously the Flint crisis was on their minds.  But I thought the most interesting thing was that these folks understood what happened.  I asked what they thought the real issue was in Flint and the resounding answer was – politics.  Bad decision-making.  Poor preparation.  Notably, not lead service lines.  These people got it.  They read behind the headlines.  Of course these are the officials that wanted to learn more about their water and sewer systems, as opposed to the many that do not take the time to, but interesting nonetheless.

Another issue was talked about was finances.  I ask them to bring their budget, water use, pipelines, etc.  The goal is to do a quick comparison between systems and then discuss what it means (if anything).  I have started doing the exercise each year and we find the same thing – smaller systems cost more per thousand gallons to run than larger systems, so hence their rates must be higher or they are not doing repairs and replacements on a timely basis. This group got that as well and understood that comparisons of their system to others needed to be carefully vetted.  No two system are alike, but size, treatment, terrain can all affect costs to the customer.

We also talked about leadership.  I am applying for an AWWA project on leadership, but when asked, these folks had some great answers. They see leadership as a personal trait (inspiration, vision) as well as being driven by event (negotiating crisis or change), and having the ability to bring people along through the rough patches.  Leadership is an issue that needs more exploration, but I thought this was a good start to preface the larger survey I hope to do for AWWA’s members.

In the meantime, I learned a lot about the Chicago River bridges, enjoyed the planetarium, a Cubs night game, Millenium Park and a walk along the waterfront.  Very cool.

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My apologies for being offline for a month. It has been very busy.  I got back from Utah, and it was tests, reports, etc.  Then Thanksgiving – we went to Disney for my stepdaughter.  Then the Florida Section AWWA conference, then student final design presentations with President Kelly present for some of it, then finals, then a trip to the west coast, then posting grades, then it’s now.  Crazy.  And my kitchen is being worked on -see the photos of what is left of it.   Not much, and Christmas is how far away.  Yikes.  At least the wrapping and chopping are 99% done!

In the meantime a lot has happened.  Congress cut SRF funding, but passed the transportation bill.  They passed WITAF, but provided minimal funding.  The debates roll on.  A recent South Park episode is all about illegal immigrants from Canada escaping, then there is a wall built, by the Canadian so t hose who left don’t come back, and then we find out who the new president in Canada looks like… well you just have to watch and be scared.  Very scared.  If you do not follow South Park, well you are just missing it.

Russia had a plane brought down by an apparent ISIS bomb.  The Egyptians deny it.  Too much arguing about was it or wasn’t it to garner much of an outcry.  Best wishes to the friends and families of the victims.  Then France had their 911 event sponsored by ISIS, and most of the world is sending their best wishes to the victims, the victims families and the French population.  In such events, most of the world comes together.  Everybody was French for a day.  Best wishes to the friends and families of the victims. Then the couple in California.  Best wishes to the friends and families of the victims. But it raises a very disconcerting question, and one fraught with far too many xenophobic concerns as ISIS and their allies like the Taliban, Boko Hiram and others continue to reign terror and violence on the rest of the world.  The xenophobic response will be – whom do we trust in the Muslim world?  If you don’t believe in blowback, listen to the debates.  One commentator points out the xenophobia may actually help ISIS (Donald are you listening?).  LOL – of course not.  But utilities should expect another round of security costs and analyses in the future.

The Florida Section conference was great.  The venue was great (Renaissance at Sea World).  The program garnered a lot of buzz and comments.  Who knew at a water conference that potable reuse would be the big topic?  I also won two awards at the Florida Section conference – a best paper award and the Alan B. Roberts award for Outstanding Service by a member.  Wow!!  I am humbled.  A lot of great utility folks were present at the FSAWW conference.  It is a great event for the water industry (that includes wastewater, storm water etc.).  The technical program is designed to be good, timely and useful to those that attend.  While all utilities struggle with costs, please make time to send your folks if possible.  The training cost is reasonable for what you get and who you meet.

My students did well on tests and presentations.  President Kelly was impressed with their presentations and projects at the Dean’s Design Showcase.  We have never had the Dean at student presentations, let alone the President of the University.  My sincere appreciation to him, his staff and those that made it happen.  The students were pleased and impressed.  And they are getting jobs easily.  You can tell people are building and working on infrastructure as most of the graduates get jobs right away, if they don’t have them already.

Grading and the west coast went well.  The Fort Myers News Press-Sunday Headline was “Where has all the water gone” – a discussion on how groundwater is depleting across the country including south Florida which gets 60 inches of rain.  But the article points out what that climate, rainfall, recharge and other factors have been altered in south Florida as a result of development.  We really do make an impact and it is affecting utilities today. This follows another article last week on depleted groundwater around the world.  I have lots of photos in my travels from the air – groundwater use is highest where surface waters are limited – i.e. dry areas.  Except in dry areas, the groundwater does not recharge.  I had a student do a project for his master’s degree that estimated that groundwater depletion is a measureable percentage of sea level rise.  More to come on that.

Next the kitchen.  I will post photos in another blog.

As I said, a busy month.


 

I ended up in the water industry after college. It was kinda by default since jobs were scarce and I just got lucky. But pipes and treatment fascinated me and even after I became a town manager. There I learned everyone wanted my water and sewer skills. So when I moved to Florida, I moved over to water and sewer full-time and continue to do so today.

I joined AWWA in 1986 and came to my first ACE in 1994. I haven’t missed one since. Along the way I have met a lot of great people, written papers, published books and developed training for AWWA and its members. I have chaired several AWWA conferences and technical programs. I am on the committee for WQTC – hence why I am here (and given two papers). The conference combines research, regulations and management into a package. WQTC is the opportunity to and learn about the research in the industry form the researchers and academics performing the work which is the reason to be here.

But I was probably always destined for water. I was born an Aquarius (water bearer). When I was a kid I really looked forward to hanging out along the AuSable River or my favorite place to fish, Kyle Lake. I never really thought about whether it was the water or the fishing that enthused me the both (they both did). Fond memories years later. Then I moved to eastern North Carolina and ended up spending a lot of time on the beach, again, not really asking whether it was fishing or the waves. When I moved to Naples, FL, I was re-energized by the waves, and it was a lot less about fishing as I rarely fished. Same as when I started hiking, I always seem to hike to water. Water falls, calm lakes, roaring oceans, streams, rivers – it doesn’t matter. It’s all water. In my industry – it’s all one water!

#mywaterstory


The US EPA estimates that there is a $500 billion need for infrastructure investment by 2025.  The American Water Works Association estimate $1 trillion.  Congress recently passes the Water infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) at $40 million/year, rising to $100 million in 5 years, which is a drop in the bucket.  Peanuts.  We have so many issues with infrastructure in the US and Congress tosses a few scheckles at the problem and thinks it is solved.  The reality is that the federal government wants to get out of the water infrastructure funding business and shift all water infrastructure to the local level.  This is a long-standing trend, going back to the conversion of the federal water and sewer grant programs to loan programs.

The reality is that local officials need to make their utility system self-sustaining and operating like a utility business whereby revenues are generated to cover needed maintenance and long-term system reliability.  The adage that “we can’t afford it” simply ignores the fact that most communities cannot afford NOT to maintain their utility system since the economic and social health of the community relies on safe potable water and wastewater systems operating 24/7.  Too often decision are made by elected officials who’s vision is limited by future elections as opposed to long-term viability and reliability of the utility system and community.  This is why boom communities fall precipitously, often never recovering – the boom is simply not sustainable.  Long-term planning is a minimum of 20 years, well beyond the next election and often beyond the reign of current managers.  Decisions today absolutely affect tomorrow’s operators.  Dependency on water rates may be a barrier, but this ignores the fact that power, telephone, cable television, gas, and internet access are generally more expensive hat either water or sewer in virtually all communities.  We need water. Not so sure about cable tv or he internet.  Great to have, but needed to survive?

The growth in costs can lead to mergers where a utility cannot afford to go it alone – as the economy of scale of larger operations continues to play out in communities.  Several small plants cannot operate at the same cost as one larger plant.  As a result larger projects will increase – from 87 to over 336 between 2005 and 2014.

But these costs are generally plant costs – treatment and storage, not piping.  Distribution pipelines remain the least recognized issue for water utilities (collection pipelines for sewer are similarly situated).  The initial Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water acts did not focus on piping systems – only treatment and supply.  The national Council on Public Works concluded their first assessment grade for infrastructure in the 1980s – but piping was not discussed.  ACSCE’s first report card in 1998 did not express concern about piping system.  Yet piping continues to age, and expose communities to risk.  In many communities greater than 50% of their assets are buried pipes.  Tools for assessing the condition of buried pipes especially water distribution pipes is limited to breaks and taps.  As a result the true risk to the community of pipe damage is underestimated and the potential for economic disruption increases.  The question is how do we lead our customers to investing in their/our future?  That is the question as the next 20 years play out.  Many risk issues will be exposed.  The fact that there are not more issues is completely related to the excellent work done by the utility employees.  More to come….


Power costs are stable.  Gas prices decreased markedly in 2014 Oil futures are low compared to 2013 and earlier.  .  Production is constant.  Low energy likely is fueling an economic expansion.  Gas economy in vehicles is at an all-time high.  Fuel efficiency lowers GHGs and cuts oil imports.  America is less reliant on foreign oil.  We have more money in our pockets.  Utility power costs and vehicle costs are lower.  Generator operations are lower.  Life is great.  Or is it?

 

Well, that depends on who you talk to.  Politicians in states with in oil and gas based economies are scrambling to deal with large deficits in their budgets.  The railroads are not happy over the Keystone pipeline vote.  Green energy manufacturer are unhappy.  Environmentalists are unhappy.    Heck even the Koch brothers are probably not completely happy

 

The first issue is methane gas.  Pipelines and fracking operations lose about 6% of the gas. A Washington Post article estimates 8 million metric tons of methane is lost each year.  That is where we are trying to capture and transport it.  The Bakken fields lack pipelines for gas, so much if it may be flared.  The amount of fracking will continue (Florida Power and Light has said it will get into the business – but outside of Florida), so more exploration will likely lead to more methane escaping.  Why do we care?  Methane is 22 to 80 times the greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide it (depending on who you talk to).  It accounts for 9% of GHG emission in the US – a third of that from the oil and gas industry.  That gas is concentrated in the western US which makes them ripe for regulation.

 

Enter cap and trade.  The cap and trade “industry” has been opposed by the oil and gas industry for years.  However there are a number of groups –from Indian tribes to NextEra Energy are posed to benefit from cap and trade (C&T) rules.   They have reduced their carbon footprint enough that they can sell carbon credits.  It is doubtful that this Congress with pass C&T legislation, but much of the regulatory focus could be shifted if C&T was in place.  C&T could accelerate green energy efforts.

 

Green energy folks want continued subsides or policies that encourage increased green power supplies, improve technology and reduce prices – all at the same time.  Rolling out a major change in the energy picture is a huge investment that will not gain traction without policies to encourage it   At least for now, green energy creates more jobs per KW-hr than conventional oil and gas, primarily in research and development and product manufacturing.  Sewing up the patents would portend positively for America in the 21st century, much as sewing up the car, gas engine, and nuclear patents did for the 20th century.  He who owns the technology should benefit.  Unfortunately that isn’t the Koch brothers who are unhappy with green energy but are happy that lower oil prices might decrease the competition in the future when oil prices inevitably rise.  But America would be better off in a non-oil based economy in 50 years if we developed an energy policy to address these issues with a long-term view.

 

However, that would take a lot of business and political leadership to overcome some of those who do not want change.  These are people who have more money than the Concord coach makers who could not fight the technology change to automobiles in the early 20th century.  It also takes a vision of what America should look like in 50 years. We might be short on those visionaries.  And how will utilities be a part of it.


Last week I went to Boston for the American Water Works Association Annual Conference and Exposition.  It is a gathering of thousands of water industry professionals – from operators to university professors to engineers to manufacturers.  It is a good group of people and most know a number of people each year.  The industry is smaller than one things despite there being over 50,000 community water systems in the United States.  All are there to network, which allows them to discuss their issue, learn new ways to approach things, create new contacts and see new equipment and techniques.  Over 11,000 registered.  Good job to AWWA staff and the folks in New England that local hosts.

At the conference, one of many tasks, beyond meetings and education, was to do a class for public officials on what water and sewer utilities are, how they operate, how to deal with revenues and expenses and regulations.  The idea is to help local officials understand the complex utility issues which are often second fiddle to more “surficial” activities like parks, and economic development.   The officials get a certificate from AWWA for 12 hours of class time, but the fact that these folks come, spend the time, get involved and can then experience the rest of the program is to be commended.  I have been doing these public officials classes since my book came out in 2009.  The first two days are always based on the book, but the third day can vary depending on issues in the news and preferences form the public officials group within AWWA.  This year the focus was operations and revenues. The responses were positive, and the interaction was very good.  And I had a blast as well.

It had been 40 years since AWWA was in Boston for ACE.  I have been twice previously – once when I was 7 and we went to the aquarium and once to catch a baseball game at Fenway, while on a 5 game, 4 city, 3 day baseball trip.  Boston led off.  This time, I was able to spend a day looking at the City.  Thanks to my friend Chi Ho Sham who acted as chauffer and tour guide – I expect to repay the gesture whenever he can spend a couple days in S. Florida.  Boston as many of you know is the cradle of the American revolution, and visits to the old North Church, Paul Revere’s house, the USS Constitution, several cemeteries and Faneuil Hall.  Fascinating.  Another trip to come as there is much more to experience than a day.

The moral to the story is that conferences allow us to accomplish many things.  We meet new people, hear new things, and if we spend a little time, we can experience how others live or have lived.  The history is valuable to us personally.

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