The concept of regulations is to address problems.  All regulations are based on trying to correct a problem that has already occurred.  We have rules that were developed to try to address contaminants in water, and rules designed to address a variety of potential threat to water supplies.  In a blog over a year ago I asked the question, in light of the mess in West Virginia, why do we permit power companies to store coal ash next to streams?  This is a huge potential health impact to water customers, as well as to the ecosystem that we rely on to protect water supplies in natural areas.  A 20 year old Congressional Act did sorta prohibit the discharge of coal ash to streams from mining, but did not address storage where the accidents actually occur.  So we have rules that didn’t remove the piles from the banks, and didn’t offer a solution to remove it which would have been the appropriate regulatory response.  We should all be on the bandwagon that urges Congress to require power companies to properly dispose of this stuff, and to provide a means to do so.

However, in classic “Failure to Learn from the Past” mode, instead we get a directive in Washington to review the rollback of the stream rule that was developed to address a 20 year old lawsuit over stream protections and “waters of the US.”  That revised stream rule got held up in 2015 by litigation (EPA Secretary Pruitt led one of those suits), and while the directive is not exactly allowing coal ash into streams as noted in the media, it does give you the sense that there will not be any effort to address this problem.  That should concern water industry leaders.


Every water body will be different but in southeast Florida there are a couple options for Lake Okeechobee’s waters.  One option has been in discussion for years – buy back the EAA lands and restore the Everglades flow.  That has two benefits – improved water quality, and less potential for east-west releases.  The downside is cost.  But the sugar industry knows that the muck layer is decreasing and there are plans to develop the EAA into hundreds of thousands of housing units.  That was not the intention in the 1940s when the EAA was created, but trying to stop someone from developing land, especially when the lake communities are challenged economically, is difficult.  Buying the land would remove it from production, but decrease tax revenues.  And it would need to be managed with no guarantee that it would cleaned up quickly.

The alternative?  The South Florida Sun-Sentinel had a front page article that is a little scary.  The figure below is reproduced from that article.  The discussion was if there is no conservation/public purchase of land, Florida may look very different.  The impact of not buying the land is development.  More people.  More taxes.  More stormwater.  The fertilizer does not go away – it now fertilizes lawns and golf courses.  Add wastewater, and human activities.  We find that urban living and farming can have similar impacts from a nutrient perspective.  So development may exacerbate the problem and given that our modeling indicates that sea level rise imperils inland communities from groundwater, this is not a solution to coastal risk.  Given limitations with local governments inland, it may create a larger crisis.  All there things need discussion, but the question is – will the algal issues on the coast improve?

graphic-of-development worse?

The most important parameters regulating algal growth are nutrient quantity and quality, light, pH, turbulence, salinity and temperature. Light is the most limiting factor for algal growth, followed by nitrogen and phosphorus limitations, but other nutrients are required including carbon. Biomass is usually measured by the amount of chlorophyll a in the water column.  Water temperature influences the metabolic and reproductive rates of algae. Most species grow best at a salinity that is slightly lower than that of their native habitat,  The pH range for most cultured algal species is between 7 and 9, with the optimum range being 8.2-8.7. Through photosynthesis, algae produce oxygen in excess of respiratory requirements during daylight hours. Conversely, during low light or nighttime periods algae respire (consume) dissolved oxygen, sometimes depleting water column concentrations. Thus, high algae concentrations may lead to low dissolved oxygen concentrations.

A common solution for algae is copper sulfate.  Copper Sulfate works to kill the algae, but when it dies, it settles to the bottom of the water body where it becomes a carbon source for bacteria and future algae.  One will often see shallow ponds with rising algae.  But there is significant concern about copper in coastal water bodies.  Copper is toxic to marine organisms so USEPA and other regulatory bodies are considering the limits on copper use.  Such a limitation would severely limit options in dealing with algal blooms near coastal waters.

Mixing is necessary to prevent sedimentation of the algae, to ensure that all cells of the population are equally exposed to the light and nutrients.  So oxygenation can help (it also mixes the water.  The depth of south Florida water bodies is problematic (shallow and therefore warmer than normal).  But oxygen will help microorganisms on the bottom consume the carbon source on the bottom, which might slow algal growth.  Analysis is ongoing.

Two other conditions work against controlling blue-green algae outbreaks: climate change and political/regulatory decision-making.  Lake Okeechobee has routine algal blooms from the nutrients introduced from agriculture and runoff around the lake, which encouraged an artificial eutrophication of the lake years ago.  It continues today.  Warmer weather will encourage the algal blooms in the future.  The decisions to discharge the water without treatment is a political one.  From a regulatory perspective, algae is seen as a nuisance issue, not a public health or environmental issue.  But algal blooms consume oxygen and kill fish, so the ecosystem impact is considerable – it is not a nuisance .

The term algae encompass a variety of simple structures, from single-celled phytoplankton floating in the water, to large seaweeds.  Algae can be single-celled, filamentous or plant-like, anchored to the bottom.  Algae are aquatic, plant-like organisms – phytoplankton.  Phytoplankton provides the basis for the whole marine food chain. Phytoplankton need light to photosynthesize so will therefore float near the top of the water, where sunlight reaches it.  Light is the most limiting factor for algal growth, followed by nitrogen and phosphorus limitations), but other nutrients are required including carbon, silica, and other micronutrients. These microscopic organisms are common in coastal areas.  They proliferate through cell division.

A natural progression occurs in many water bodies, from diatoms, to green algae to yellow/brown to blue-green, with time and temperature.  The environment is important.  Southern waters are characterized as being slow moving, and warm.  This encourages cyanobacteria – or blue green algae.  The introduction of nutrients is particularly difficult as it accelerates the formation of the blue green algae. Blue-green algae creates the bright green color, but is actually an end-of-progression organism.

If cells are present in the water mass in large numbers an algal bloom occurs.  An algal bloom is simply a rapid increase in the population of algae in an aquatic system. Blooms may occur in freshwater as well as marine environments. Colors observed are green, bright green, brown, yellowish-brown, or red, although typically only one or a few phytoplankton species are involved and some blooms may be recognized by discoloration of the water resulting from the high density of pigmented cells.

So the desire for development created the idea to drain the swamp, which led to exposure of dark, productive soil that led to farming, which lead to fertilizers, which led to too much water, and water pollution leading to algae.  A nice, predictable progression created by people.  So what is the solution?


Water and wastewater utilities spend a lot of time dealing with current issues =- putting out “fires.”  But there are larger trends that will affect the industry.  Here are a couple recent topics that we should consider in our industry:

Will robots be doing all our repetitive jobs?  If so what does that mean for all the people doing those jobs now.  Most do not require a lot of skills, and many of those in the jobs that will be lost, do not have the skills for other jobs?  Does the $15 per hour minimum wage accelerate this transition?  How does this affect the water industry?  Meter readers might be replaced with AMR systems.  Customer service is already migrating to direct banking.  There is a change coming.

What does the driverless car mean for us?  I am thinking about an old Arnold Schwartzenegger movie.  For utilities the issue may be how we interact with unmanned vehicles, especially when what we do can be disruptive to traffic.  What happens if those cars get into an accident?  And Warren Buffett is thinking about the impact of this on the insurance industry.  He owns a lot of GEICO stock.  It is doubtful many utility vehicles will be unmanned, in the near-term, but do our manned vehicles and the potential disruption leave us open to greater risk of loss?

Speaking of Warren Buffett says the economy is far better than certain candidates suggest.  I tend to trust Mr. Buffett.  He’s been doing this a long time and has been fabulously successful.  But he notes structural changes to the economy like those noted above, are ongoing.  That will create conflict for certain professions that migrate to automation, much as manufacturing did in the 1970s.  He raises concern about what happens to those workers and suggests that we have not planned enough for those workers who get displaced as the economy undergoes continuing transitions.  In the late 1970s we had CETA and other jobs training programs as we moved from manufacturing to other jobs.  He does not see that in place now.  The at-risk – the poor, minorities, the less educated, rural citizens…. in other words, the usual groups will be hit harder than the rest of the population.  I don’t hear that discussion on the campaign trail but utilities may want to follow these trends is the hope that we can acquire some of the skillsets that we need.  Or provide that training.

Florida’s flood protection plan received a C- from a study called States at Risk.  It said Florida lacks a long term plan for rising seas, despite being vulnerable.  On an unrelated note, the state is expecting insurance premiums to increase 25% or more for flood insurance for homeowners.  And local officials are working busily on FEMA maps to exclude as many properties as possible from flood insurance requirements.  Maybe those things are all related, just at opposite purposes, but who is going to get the calls when flooding occurs?  Storm water utilities, and sewer systems where the manholes are opened to “facilitate drainage.”  The question is what the ratings are for other states as Florida was not the least prepared nor is it the only state with exposure.

A final current trend to think about is this:  Current sea level rise projections have increase the high end, but remained steady for the 50 percentile case.  By 2200 we may see seas at 10 ft higher. That would be a major problem for south Florida.  But the world population will be over 15 billion, which exceeds the carrying capacity of agriculture (at present projections and techniques).  It also places over half the world in water limited areas.  So sea level rise is going to be huge in south Florida, but will concern be localized because of more pressing issues?   Is the number of people going to be our biggest issue in 2200?  Note both will be critical for a large portion of those 15 billion people, but the solution to either is…..?



Most water suppliers realize that the more natural their land is upstream of their water supplies, the less risk there likely is for their customers.  Under the source water protection programs that state, local officials and water utilities implement, the concept is to keep people related activities out, and let the natural forests and landscapes remain.   For the most part the natural areas support only a limited amount of wildlife (sustainable) and thereby there natural systems are attuned to compensate for the natural pollutant loads, sediment runoff, ash, detrital matter, etc., that might be created through natural processes.  For thousands of years these systems operated sustainably.  When people decide there needs to be changes, it seems like the unanticipated consequences of these actions create more problems.  Now many of these same ecosystems do not work sustainably and water quality has diminished, increasing the need for treatment and the risks of contamination to the public.  It would be better, but decidedly less popular on certain fronts, to provide more protection to natural systems that extend into watersheds (which is most of them), not less.

So this leads to a series of questions that go to the greater questions about natural environments:

Is it really necessary to cull the small Yellowstone bison herd by 1000?  What do bison have to do with watersheds?  Well, the bison create much less damage to grasslands and underlying soil than cattle due to the size of their hooves.  An argument is that we need to cull the herd because they transmit disease to cattle, but Brucellosis has never been demonstrated to move from bison to cattle, so disease is not an answer.  What is really happening is that there is competition between buffalo and cattle for grazing.  Competition with cattle means that the cattle are on public property, not private ranch lands, and the cattle trample the public lands which creates the potential for soil erosion and sediment runoff.  So I am thinking water folks should be siding with the bison. Of course without wolves, there is no natural predator for bison, which raises a different sustainability problem, so maybe instead of killing them, we move them to more of their native ranges – maybe some of those Indian reservation might want to restart the herds on their lands?  That might be good for everyone, water folks included.

Part 2 – is it necessary to continue to protect wolves or should we continue to hunt them in their native ranges?  Keep in mind wolf re-introduction efforts are responsible for most of the wolf populations in the US, specifically in the Yellowstone area.  Without wolves, there is no control of large grazing animal populations (see bison above, but also elk and deer), and there is a loss of wetland habitat because the elk eat the small shoots used by beavers to build dams and trap sediment.  Eliminating wolves has been proven to create imbalance.  Wolves = sediment traps = better water quality downstream.  Sounds like a win for everyone. (BTW there is a program in Oregon to protect wolves and help ranchers avoid periodic predation of calves by wolves so they win too).

Part 3 – Is it really necessary to kill off coyotes in droves?  The federal government kills thousands of coyotes and hunters and others kill even more.  This is a far more interesting question because it leads to one of those unintended consequences.  !100+ years ago people decided wolves were bad (we still have this issue ongoing – see above).  So we eradicated wolves.  No wolves means more rodents, deer, elk, etc. which mean less grass, less aspens and less beavers, which means more runoff which does not help water suppliers.  It also means more coyotes, because there is more food for the coyotes.  Interesting that coyotes have pretty much covered the entire US, when their ranges were far more limited in the past.  Coyotes are attracted to the rodents and rabbits.  But the systems are generally not sustainable for coyotes because there is not enough prey and there is no natural control of the coyotes – again, see wolves above.  A Recent Predator defense report indicates that culling coyotes actually increases coyote birth rate and pushes them toward developed areas where they find cats and small dogs, unnatural prey.  Not the best solution – unintended consequences of hunting them on more distant land pushes them into your neighborhood.  Not the consequence intended.  So maybe we keep the small dogs and cat inside at daybreak and nightfall when the coyotes are out and let them eat the rats and mice that the cats chase and once consumed they go away.   Coyotes need to eat grazers and rodents but you need the right mix or the grazers overgraze, which leads to sediment runoff issues – which is bad for us.  That also seems like a win.

Everglades restoration is a big south Florida issue.  The recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer is the Everglades.  So water there seems like a win for water suppliers?  So why aren’t we the biggest Everglades advocates out there?  Still searching for that answer, but Everglades restoration is a win for us and a win for a lot of critters.  Federal dollars and more federal leadership on restoration is needed.  Which leads to ….

Do we need more, not less management of federal lands?  Consider that the largest water manager in the west is the federal government, which has built entire irrigation systems to provide water to farmers who grow crops in places that are water deficient.  Those farms then attract people to small towns that consume more of the deficient water.  Then people lobby to let cattle graze on those public lands (see bison above), timber removal – which increases sediment erosion, or mining (what could possible go wrong there?).  So since the federal government manages these lands, wouldn’t better regulations and control to keep the federal properties more protected benefit water users and suppliers?  Contrary to the wishes of folks like the guys holed up in a federal monument in Oregon, or the people who have physically attacked federal employees in Utah and Nevada, more regulations and less freedom is probably better in this situation for the public good.  If we are going to lease public lands (and most lands leased are leased to private parties for free or almost free), and there should be controls on the activities monitoring for compliance and requirements for damage control caused by those activities.  There should be limits on grazing, timber and mining, and monitoring of same.  Lots of monitoring.  It is one of the things government really should do.  And we need it to protect water users downstream.  Again a win for water suppliers.

So as we look at this side issue, ecosystems, bison, wolves, coyotes and the Everglades seem very distant from our day-to-day water jobs.  But in reality they are not.  We should consider the impacts they might have on water supply, keeping in mind natural system decisions are often significantly linked to our outcomes, albeit the linkage is not always obvious.


So everyone is doing their Top 10 questions for 2016 (although with David Letterman off the air, perhaps less so), I figured why not?  So it the vein of looking forward to 2016, let’s ponder these issues that could affect utilities and local governments:

  1. How wild, or weird will the Presidential election get? And part b, what will that do to America’s status in the world?  Thinking it won’t help us.  Probably won’t help local governments either.
  2. Will the economic recovery keep chugging along? Last time we had an election the economy tanked.  Thinking a major change in direction might create economic uncertainty.  Uncertainty (or panic) would trickle down.  Status quo, probably keeps things moving along.  .
  3. What will the “big” issue be in the election cycle and who will it trickle down to local governments and utilities? In 2008 it was the lack of health care for millions of Americans and the need for a solution. Right after the election we got the Great Recession so most people forgot about the health care crisis until the Affordable are Act was signed into law.  And then ISIS arose from a broken Iraq and Arab summer.  None helped local governments.
  4. What are we going to hear about the 20 richest Americans having more assets than the bottom 150 million residents? 20 vs 150,000,000.  And while we are at it, the top 0.1% have more assets than the bottom 90%, the biggest disparity since the 1920s.  While we will decide that that while hard work should be rewarded, the disparity is in part helped by tax laws, tax shelters, lobbying of politicians, etc. as Warren Buffett points out, indicate a discussion about tax laws will be heard.  Part b – if we do adjust the tax laws, how will we measure how much this helps the bottom 99.9%?
  5. What will be the new technology that changes the way we live? Computers will get faster and smaller.  Phones are getting larger.  Great, but what is the next “Facebook”?  By the way the insurance folks are wondering how the self driving car will affect the insurance industry.  So reportedly is Warren Buffett.  Watch Mr. Buffett’s moves.
  6. Along a similar vein, will the insurance industry start rethinking their current risk policies to look at longer term as opposed to annual risk? If so what does that mean for areas where sea levels are rising?  The North Carolina coast, where sea level rise acceleration is not permitted as a discussion item could get tricky.
  7. Will unemployment (now 5%) continue to fall with associated increases in wages? Will that help our constituents/customers?  Will people use more water as a result?
  8. Where is the next drought? Or flood?  And will the extremes keep on coming?  Already we have record flooding in the Mississippi River in December – not March/April?  Expect February to be a cold, snowy month. IT is upper 80s here.  Snowing in the Colorado Rockies.
  9. Will we continue to break down the silos between water “types” for a more holistic view of water resources? We have heard a bunch on potable reuse systems.  More to come there, especially with sensors and regulations.  But in the same vein, will we develop a better understanding of the link between ecosystems and good water supplies, and encourage lawmakers to protect the wild areas that will keep drinking water cleaner?
  10. Will we get water, sewer, storm water, etc. customers to better understand the true value of water, and therefore get their elected official on board with funding infrastructure neglect? And will that come as a result of better education, a better economy, breaking down those silos, drought (or floods), more extreme event, more breaks or something else?

Happy New Year everyone.  Best to all my friends and followers in 2016!

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