Development loans

Spring is in the air, at least in some places, so it gives us a chance to take stock of where we are after the winter.  Boston actually is seeing the ground after record snow.  The west is seeing lots of ground, even though some areas should not be seeing ground at this point.  I recall the Colorado Rockies having snow at 8000 ft a couple years ago, but not this year.  Some ski resorts in western Colorado never opened.  Not a good sign.  Snow was 10% of normal in parts of California which means the drought will continue.  12% in Oregon and Washington is some part – not good for places that rely on snow for water supplies.  So the question is whether the current drought is the start of a longer climate driven issues and/or the result of where demands have permanently exceeded supplies?  And if the latter is true, conservation is one option, but has obvious financial and supply limitations since urban use is less than 12% of water total use (agriculture is 40% and power plant cooling water is 39%).

Better management is part of a toolbox, but when the supply is finite, the economics says that costs will increase, shutting out certain sectors of the economy.  This is where the “market system” theory of economics fails large sectors of the population – at some point finite supplies become available only to those who can afford to pay, but water is not one of those commodities that is a luxury – we need it to survive.  Certainly the argument can be made that water is underpriced, but like energy, low water prices have helped fuel economic development while improving public health.  It is a chicken/egg conundrum where the argument that conservation will solve all problems is not realistic, nor is using the market or curtailing economic activity.  This is where the market fails and therefore governments have a role in insuring that all sectors are treated fairly and the commodity can be provided to all those in need of it – serving the public good.  The public good or public welfare argument is often lost in the political dogma of today, but our forefathers had this figured out and designed regulations to insure distribution after seeing the problems that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We have forgotten many of those lessons.

The public good or welfare does not mean unlimited distribution to areas that would otherwise be bereft of the commodity.  The early engineers in Los Angeles realized that development could only continue if water was brought in.  So massive water movement projects were developed.  The economic benefit was the only consideration – the impacts of these changes were not considered.  Likewise the Corps of Engineers was directed to drain the Everglades, but no one asked if this was a good idea or would have negative impacts.  Loss of the Everglades permitted economic development that is southeast Florida – 40% of the economy of the state, but it impacted water supply and places millions are risk for future sea level rise impacts.  Worse, agriculture was fostered in the upper Everglades as the federal government sold off the acreage to private interests cheaply to encourage sugar cane and winter vegetables.  That agriculture is now planning to develop the Everglades if the property is not purchased by the state.  But purchasing the property rights a prior error in consequences – it is likely in the public interest as an effort to restore water supplies in the Biscayne acquire that feed southeast Florida, and to increase water flows to retard saltwater migration in the southern Everglades.  These are both ”sins” of the past, made with good intentions but with very little thought of consequences beyond the economic benefits.  Both have resulted in water shortages in the areas they were meant to serve as climate patterns have changed.

The question is whether we continue to make these mistakes.  Development in desert areas, areas known to be water poor, and deepening wells to get groundwater supplies who’s levels continue to decline are all poor long-term decision, despite the short-term potential gains.  California farmers continue to deepening wells but those aquifers have a limit in depth.  Deepening wells means those wells do not recharge (otherwise the aquifer levels would not continually decline).  What happens when the wells run dry permanently? Clearly the sustainability criteria is not met.

Meanwhile lower aquifer can divert surface waters into the ground – not enough for full recharge, but perhaps enough to impact surface water flows to other farmers, potable water users, and ecosystems.  Droughts are climate driven- and we have persevered droughts before, and will again.  However in light of the California drought, perhaps we should all assess more closely the long-term trends – lowering groundwater, increasing demands, lessening availability and make better decisions on water use – not only in California but in many parts of the US and the world.  Changing water use patterns is great, but it is just part of a larger issue — do we need to change our current behaviors – in this case water use – in certain areas?  Are there just places we should not develop?  Is there a limit to water withdrawals?  And how do we deal with the economic losses that will come?  All great question – but do we have the leadership in place to make the hard decisions?


In this blog we are going to talk about trends in the power industry and how they may affect utilities.  One of the ongoing themes of this blog is that to be leaders in the field, we need to be cognizant of what others are doing and how those actions might affect utility operations.  Power is a big cost for utilities – often 10-15% of the total operations costs where a lot of pumping is involved. In most communities, the utility system is among the largest consumers of power, which is why many utilities have load control agreements in place – power companies can off-load power demands by having the utilities go to onsite generators.  Our community’s building account for 70% or more of local energy use.

The need for power is expanding, albeit at a lower rate that population growth in many communities.  This is because new building construction measures tend to insulate better and install more energy efficient equipment.  Power companies often will subsidize these improvements to reduce the need for more expensive plant expansions.  Where expansions are needed, purchase/transfer agreements or renewables are often a convenient answer.

But long-term we are seeing that the power industry is changing in other ways too.  Already we see a migration away from coal for power generation.  This was occurring before the new regulations were in place for carbon dioxide.  Certain utility companies like NextEra, the largest wind and solar power generator in the US, and the parent of Florida Power and Light, have reduced greenhouse gas emissions from their plants by converting to other sources like combined heat and power (CHP), and increasing efficiency.  The typical oil or coal power plant is 30-35% efficient, while the newer gas turbine systems are up to 45% efficient.  That makes a big difference in costs as well as emissions when gas emissions are half the coal and oil emissions.  NextEra is well placed for carbon trading, a concept some fight, but the US had been emission trading since the early 1990s, so carbon trading markets are already in place.  The only thing needed is the regulations to put them into play.  Buy that NextEra stock now and hope for carbon trading!

But NextEra is not the only likely winner under this carbon trading scenario.  ExxonMobile is big into gas, Exelon is big in the nuclear power industry, Siemens and General Electric, which make wind and gas turbines, are also likely to see growth.  All have poised themselves years ago as the impact of carbon dioxide becomes more apparent.  Most of the industry executives acknowledge climate issues and recognize that people will expect the industry to do its part (the Koch brothers aside).  Many power generators like ConEd and FPL are making changes as well, in advance of the regulatory requirements to do so.  They see it as good business.  They also see it as a means to make more power at a given facility (by increasing efficiency) while reducing water use.  Water use can be a limiting factor, so we will discuss that in a couple days…



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…..

I recent Wall Street Journal article outlined where growth is likely to be coming.  Of no surprise, Arizona, Las Vegas, Central Valley, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Denver, Albuquerque, Boise, Pensacola, Tallahassee, Raleigh, Atlanta, and the Washington DC area.  Only one of those areas is has water much water availability.  It means that all of these communities are in areas that are water limited.  We already know that Texas, Las Vegas and Arizona have lots of water problems.  Most of these areas have had issues in the past as well, and will have more in the future. 

Low growth areas:  Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Omaha, and a variety of areas with plenty of water, but old infrastructure and limited funding.  So the big questions is how do we redirect development to areas with plenty of water as opposed to allowing development in areas where we know that there will be serious water supply consequences in the future?  It’s a leadership issue, but local officials and states are so in need to the growth we have discussed in prior blogs, that the long-term realities of water supply limits overrides the short term need to show growth in the communities to delay tax increases, water increases and the like.  But is delays the inevitable, with potentially serious future impacts.


A recent Manhatten Institute for Policy Research report titled “America’s Growth Corridor: The Key to National Revisal” noted that the future economy in the US will tend to growth in certain corridors, which echos a prior report that identified “super-regions” where population, manufacturing, education and economic growth were likely to be concentrated. Both reports suggest that the super-regions will prosper, with the rest of the country lagging behind. The seven high growth areas in the Mnahatten Institute report are the Pacific Coast, the Northeast, the Front Range, Great Lakes, the southeast/piedmont, Florida/Gulf Coast, and Texas/southern plains. This new report focuses more on the politics of the region, noting that each region is politically fairly consistent internally, indicating there is more than one way to do business. The current business climate, driven primarily by energy favors the Plains, with the southeast starting to import jobs from Japan and Korean as a result of low wage rates. The report goes on to draw a series of political conclusions about business climates and the politics of why growth is occurring in certain areas. But let’s look at a different view of the report. Each of these regions has had “ it’s day in the sun” so to speak, and some a couple of days, like California. Business cycles are cyclical so shifts in growth corridors is not unexpected. However there are some potential limiting issues that are not addressed in the report that are of significant interest or concern.

First, where is the water? Texas and the Plains have significant water limitations, as does much of the southeast. Trying to build an economy when you lack a major resource becomes difficult. That is why the Northeast, Great Lakes and later the Pacific grew earlier than the south, mountain and Gulf states. The Northeast and Great Lakes had water for industrial use and transport of goods, a real key historically for industry. Those regions also had (and still have) better embedded transportation facilities (rail, roads, airports).

The next question is where is the power coming from? The answer that will be given is that the Plains states and Texas have created 40 % of the jobs in the energy sector in the past 4 years so that is where the energy comes from, but having energy and being able to convert it efficiently to power that is useful to people or industry is a different issue. You need water to cool natural gas plants, unless you want to sacrifice a lot of efficiency. Back to water again. Moving the gas to other parts of the country to convert coal or oil plants to natural gas would work, but getting the electricity back does not come without 6% losses and a real need to make major improvements to the electrical grid. Not a small job.

So while the Manhatten Institute reprort suggest that all seven corridors will grow, but that the southern corridors are growing faster, the sustainability of this growth is at question. I recall a similar prediction when I graduated from college in the early 1980s, when the jobs for engineers were limited to the energy fields in Texas and Louisiana and the prediction was that al the industrial growth would be in the south. And then Silicon Valley happened, and then the housing boom in California, Nevada and Florida happened, and a few things in between. Oh and that energy economy collapsed in the late 1980s …. You get the picture. This is not to say that some marketing the power, water and transportation benefits of the historical industrial areas of the north are not needed – they are, but the fact is that there is significant available water, power, transportation and people capacity that is unused. If I am an industry, I may want to look at the power/water issue a little more closely.

A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that 50 % or people have paid their utility (water, sewer, electric) bills late, but only 24.8% have paid the internet late, 39.5% the cable late and 44% the phone bill. Really? We are willing to pay water, sewer and electric late, but not the internet bill? This should be a wake-up call to water and sewer utility leaders nation-wide that we have a problem. Combined water and sewer bills across the United States average something around $50. True they are often higher in California, SE Florida, and some other areas, but they are also lower in many areas. Most of the time even in those high cost areas, the bill is under $100.

I have done a number of rate studies and I find that the cable bill, and the cell phone bills are almost always higher than the water+sewer bill locally, so why are people willing to pay our bill late, but not the others? Is it the perceived benevolence of local utilities, most of which are public entities? Is it a perception that water should be free so it is not important to pay the bill? Or is it the lack of marketing of an essential product by waterutilities? I have heard all these arguments, but I am thinking the latter may be more important. Most people know they need to pay the bill, and I don’t really know anyone who thinks water should be free in the US. People are used to cheap water, and costs are going up. Complaining to local elected officials often keeps rates artificially low, which means maintenance and replacement programs get deferred. That makes the utility more at risk to failure. EPA, GAO and others report regularly that we have been keeping rates low and deferring capital and maintenance for years to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. So what is wrong?

I suggest that as an industry, we have failed in marketing water. Treatment plants, piping and pump stations are out of the way, pipes are buried. No one sees them and people assume these faciliaites will work, but rarely ask how they work or how long they will work. They do not understand the complexity or the regulatory stringency of operating a utility. They do not understand that the number one priority is public health, and protecting the public health costs money. We have not made people understand this because we do not market our product. I have taught elected official classes where the elected officials tell me public dollars should not be spent on marketing, but they never say why when pressed. Rarely is marketing included in a budget. But if water and sewer is a business, isn’t marketing an important strategy to maintain that business?

Meanwhile we have a host of celebrities marketing cellphones, which are not required to survive. We have a host of glitzy cool advertisements for cable service options, but we don’t need cable to survive. The power companies send out glitzy stuffers in their bills that no one reads, but they do end up in the papers regularly. And power really helps us survive, but we could do without it (although it would be unpleasant). Our forefathers did. But no one ever survived without water. Maybe it is just too obvious. But maybe because it is so obvious, people are less conscious of it. We need to market better. As a private sector marketing manager would say – we have lost our market share!! We need to get it back.

If you live on an island, and your groundwater table is tidal, what should your datum be for storm water planning purposes?  Average tide?  High tide?  Seasonal high tide?  If you are the local official with this problem, what do you do, realizing that the difference from mean tide and seasonal high tide (when most flooding occurs) is 1.5 feet?  Realizing that property and infrastructure is at much higher risk for periodic inundation, does the failure to address the problem indicate a lack of willingness, understanding, hope or leadership?  We see all four responses among local officials, but the “head in the sand” mode is the most curious.  It’s tough challenges that often define leaders.  With sea level rise, there is time to plan, construct infrastructure in stages, arrange funding, and lengthen the life of infrastructure and property.  Meanwhile, those insurers, banks and the public we talked about in a prior blog wait and watch.

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