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Earlier this year the Journal for AWWA had several articles about water use and infrastructure needs.  One of the major concerns that has arisen in older communities, especially in the Rust Belt and the West is that demands per person have decreased.  There are a number of reasons for this –the 1992 Energy Policy Act changes to plumbing codes that implemented low flush fixtures, the realization in the west that water supplies are finite and conservation is cheaper than new supplies, a decline in population, deindustrialization, and climate induced needs.  But all add up to the result that total water use has not really changed over the past 30 years and in many locales, water sales may have decreased.  Water utilities rely on water sales for revenues so any decrease in sales must be met with an increase in cost.  Price elasticity suggests the increase will be met with another decrease in sales, etc.  It is a difficult circle to deal with.  So less water, whether through deliberate water conservation or other means, creates a water revenue dilemma for utilities.  A concern about conserving to much and eliminating slack in the system also results.

Less water means less money for infrastructure.  Communities do not see a need for new infrastructure because there are fewer new people to serve.  Replacing old infrastructure has always been a more difficult sell because “I already have service, why should I be paying for more service” is a common cry, unless you are in my neighborhood where the water pipes keep breaking and we are begging the City to install new lines (they are on my street J)  Educating customers about the water (and sewer) system are needed to help resident understand the impacts, and risk they face as infrastructure ages.  They also want to understand that the solutions are “permanent” meaning that in 5 or 10 years we won’t be back to do more work.  Elected officials and projected elected officials (the tough one) should be engaged in this discussion because they should all be on the same page in selling the ideas to the public.  And the needs are big.  We are looking at $1 trillion just for water line replacement by 2050 and that is probably a low number(2010 dollars).  The biggest needs are in the south where infrastructure will start hitting its expected life.  The south want west will also be looking for about $700 billion in growth needs as well.  All this will cause a need for higher rates, especially with ¼ less low interest SRF funds avaialalbe this year from Congress.

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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?


I read a recent article in Roads and Bridges on the reconstruction of the roadways to Estes Park.  An excellent effort by state officials and private contractors to rebuild over 20 miles of roads that were wiped away in mid-September when unprecedented rainstorms cut Estes Park off from the front range.  I actually had reservations in Estes Park as part of a plan to go hiking at Lawn Lake, among others.  Lawn Lake was one the harder hit areas in the park.  Went to Leadville.  If you have never been, go.  The early money in Colorado came out of Leadville – silver was the money-maker.   I did a 12 mile hike thought the mining district as it snowed – note it is the 2 mile high City.  Great hike in the am – the photos were fantastic as well.  

But the point is that people expect government to solve problems like the roadways in Colorado.  They expect we will solve water, sewer and storm water problems.  We have done a great job of it because people take these services for granted.  What we don’t want is to have a catastrophic failure, natural or otherwise.. ..


In the field of engineering, the concept of sustainability refers to designing and managing to fully contribute to the objectives of society, now and in the future, while maintaining the ecological, environmental, and economic integrity of the system.  Most people would agree that structures such as buildings that have a lifespan measured in decades to centuries would have an important impact on sustainability, and as such, these buildings must be looked at as opportunities for building sustainably. When people think about green buildings, what generally comes to mind is solar panels, high efficiency lighting, green roofs, high performance windows, rainwater harvesting, and reduced water use.  This is true, but building green can be so much more.

The truth is that the built environment provides countless benefits to society; but it has a considerable impact on the natural environment and human health (EPA 2010). U.S. buildings are responsible for more carbon dioxide emissions annually than those of any other countries except China (USGBC 2011). In 2004, the total emissions from residential and commercial buildings were 2,236 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), more than any other sector including the transportation and industrial sectors (USGBC 2011). Buildings represent 38.9% of U.S. primary energy use,72% of U.S electricity consumption (and 10% worldwide), 13.6% of all potable water, and 38% of all CO2 emissions (USGBC 2011).  Most of these emissions come from the combustion of fossil fuels to provide heating, cooling, lighting, and to power appliances and electrical equipment (USGBC 2011). Since buildings have a lifespan of 50 to 100 years during which they continually consume energy and produce carbon dioxide emissions, if half of the new commercial buildings were built to use only 50 percent less energy, it would save over 6 million metric tons of CO2 annually for the life of the buildings. This is the equivalent of taking more than one million cars off the roads each year (USGBC 2011).

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) expects that the overall green building market (both non-residential and residential) to exceed $100 billion by 2015 (McGraw Hill Construction 2009).  Despite the economic issues post 2008, it is expected that green building will support 7.9 million U.S. jobs and pump over $100 million/year into the American economy (Booz Allen Hamilton, 2009). Local and state governments have taken the lead with respect to green building, although the commercial sector is growing.

Green building or high performance building is the practice of creating structures using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource efficient throughout a building’s life cycle, from site to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and deconstruction (EPA 2010). High performance building standards expand and complement the conventional building designs to include factors related to: economy, utility, durability, sustainability, and comfort. At the same time, green building practices are designed to reduce the overall impact of the built environment on human health and use natural resources more responsibly by more efficiently using energy, water, and other resources, while protecting occupant health and improving employee productivity.

High Performance Buildings are defined by incorporating all major high performance attributes such as energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance, natural lighting, and occupant productivity (EPA 2010). High performance buildings are constructed from green building materials and reduce the carbon footprint that the building leaves on the environment. A LEED-certified green building uses 32% less electricity and saves around 30% of water use annually (USGBC 2011). Building owners know that there is a return on investment of up to 40% by constructing a green building as a result of savings to energy and water (NAU 2012).

The cost per square foot for buildings seeking LEED Certification falls into the existing range of costs for buildings not seeking LEED Certification (Langdon, 2007).  An upfront investment of 2% in green building design, on average, results in life cycle savings of 20% of the total construction costs – more than ten times the initial investment (Kats, 2003), while building sale prices for energy efficient buildings are as much as 10% higher per square foot than conventional buildings (Miller et al., 2007). At the same time, the most difficult barrier to green building that must be overcome includes real estate and construction professionals who still overestimate the costs of building green (World Business Council, 2008).

New data indicates that the initial construction cost of LEED Certified buildings can sometimes cost no more than traditional building practices.  A case study done by the USGBC showed that the average premium for a LEED certified silver building was around 1.9% per square foot more than a conventional building.  The premium for gold is 2.2% and 6.8% for platinum.  These numbers are averaged from all LEED-registered projects, so the data is limited, but demonstrates that in some cases it does not cost much extra to deliver a LEED certified project which greatly improves the value of the building and lowers operating costs (Kuban 2010).  The authors’ experience with the Dania Beach nanofiltration plant indicated the premium was under 3% to achieve LEED-Gold certification compared to standard construction.

So the question is, why don’t we see more green buildings?  We know water plants can be green (Dania Beach Nanofiltration Plant), but that was the first nanofiltration plant in the world to be certified Gold.  The SRF programs prioritize green infrastructure – so why do more people not pursue them?  It may be an education process.  Or maybe the market just has not caught up.  CIties and states are leading the way here.  Utilities may want to look at this as well.Image


Graduation is two weeks away for students in the Fall semester.  The good news is that unemployment is down which means more students may find jobs.  We see my students, civil engineers, nearly fully employed for the second straight semester.  That is a good sign that economy is bouncing back. 

Many are being hired by utilities and contractors.  The utilities are starting to spend money after several years of lean revenues.  Unfortunately many of these utilities were lean because their local governments have increased general fund contributions to reduce tax burdens of residents.  Reducing tax burdens by moving more money from utilities to general funds hits the utility twice – infrastructure improvements get delayed and catchup on deferred maintenance mean the hit is double the pay as you go policy.  It is no surprise that our infrastructure condition continues to deteriorate when funds are diverted for other purposes.  Hopefully the trend will reverse, but I am not optimistic. 

Contractor hiring is more interesting.  It seems that contractors are having many of the same issues as utilities have talked about for a number of years:  an aging workforce in the upper levels of the organization.  However the contractors are seeing that young engineers have a skill set not currently existing in many contractor organizations.  Contracting in lean times is a limited profit margin business.  Competing for low bid contracts further limits profits.  However when 40% of the cost for construction is often associated with materials, and 20-25% of materials may be wasted, finding a way to be more efficient can save a lot of money.  Engineers know software and some schools, like FAU, have their students use 3 dimensional (3D) BIM software for their design projects.  The BIM software allows contractors to merge drawings into 3 dimensions, finding conflicts, solving them early and identifying means to reduce materials.  For example, many pieces could be cut out of gypsum board, but often only one is cut.  The rest is tossed.  Saving big on materials creates added profits at the same price.  The benefit is seen as being well worth the cost to contractors.  As more contractors move this direction, more engineers will the hired; a good trend.

The engineering profession should benefit from this change.  As contractors hire engineers, there is the potential for better communication between engineers on contractor teams and design engineers.  The only question is getting the engineering community to adopt the same kind of attitude toward the new software tools like 3D software.  At present, far too many engineers do not believe the risks are reduced sufficiently by the costs of the software.  But adopting new methods for design will help communication with contractors and other engineers.  That communication has a benefit in saving dollars and limiting the potential for claims against design firms when conflicts are found in the design drawings.  We find that establishing a partnering mentality on projects fosters a better working relationship.  Great things can be accomplished. 

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