WIFIA was approved:

Good news for water funding, but still a drop in the bucket of what is needed


Power utilities are not really interested in coal regardless what Congress and the President do to encourage it.

Are we surprised?  Coal is dirty and creates obvious problems.  Coal emissions caused English kings to ban coal in London 400+ years ago.  Coal jobs are not coming back.  Nor are manufacturing jobs.  It has nothing to do with China – everything to do with technology (robots).

Broward College is seeking $29 million for classroom upgrades because there are not enough seats in the classrooms.  The rooms are cramped and the “old seal with a  wooden table on top isn’t big enough to accommodate students today.”  It doesn’t take much to read between those lines.  About like Texas making manholes 28 inches in diameter because the guys cant fit into the smaller ones anymore….

But Beijing is sinking:

Not sure how that correlates, but interesting….



Many communities that have issue with older infrastructure may suffer from loss of economic opportunities (Flint, Detroit, Cleveland).  This compounds the problem with local capacity for maintenance and report of infrastructure. Many of these issues result from the lack of funding due to the unwillingness of local officials to raise water rates and address hidden infrastructure. Others may feel limited due to the loss of economic activity – Rust Belt cities and the northeast are older; inner cities may be more impacted.  Different areas of the country will have different needs and maybe different magnitudes of need.  Rural communities may not have funding to replace infrastructure.  The first community that abandoned their system was rural.  Newer communities with newer pipe will have far less needs today, but few are taking steps to avoid the infrastructure pitfalls that have hit older communities.  Ultimately these conditions make for a huge backlog of deferred infrastructure investments, mostly in pipe and service lines beneath roads. The only good news is that by correcting the piping, much of the roadway base issues could also be resolved concurrently.

A concurrent problem in the communities hardest hit with infrastructure issues is often that there is pool of skilled labor, but said labor may not be skilled in areas to address their own infrastructure problems.  Likewise youths may be challenged to find work local. The solution to both issues may be similar to that posed by the CETA programs in the late 1970s. In those programs local and state governments were given funds to hire staff to be trained for certain jobs, with the intention that these trained workers would become part of a permanent, expanded workforce.  A similar solution today as a part of an infrastructure bill could be to provide local and state governments for funding for personnel to be trained to perform such work.  The workers could receive training on safety, OSHA issues, and equipment from a local community college or university that would be paid for by the infrastructure bill.  These same people would then be hired by local governments to perform rehabilitation and replacement work, fully funded initially by the federal government s but with an anticipated transition period where by 10 years out, the workforce could be demonstrated to have been expended as a result of the program.

Note that hiring by local governments is a key.  Private sector hiring tends to be job specific and the jobs disappear when the activity moves or ceases.  Hence finding the private sector likely leads only to a temporary increase in labor development.  Local government hiring would more likely increase permanent employment.  The local agencies would need to be given an incentive to encourage this since far too many elected officials see government employment as a negative thing.  This is partly why we have the infrastructure quagmire today.  That attitude needs to change.

The private sector will want their share, and privatization is a confounding issue because people get laid off through privatization and indications are that the middle class gets hurt by privatization (lower wages for the same job).  But the public sector does not manufacture pipe, equipment like backhoes and rollers and other materials would be paid to private vendors in accordance with local and state bid rules.  That would move monies for capital to private vendors.  For large projects the work rules could be applied to contractors much like the ARRA funding requirements – shovel ready and US materials and newly trained staff making up a portion of the work force.  That would meet the tenets of local jobs, fixing local problems with federal dollars for a period of time, perhaps as a mix of grants and low interest loans.

At least 20 years of infrastructure needs exist.  Hence the longer term program could be sustained.  A funding mechanism is in place via state revolving fund programs for a portion of the effort, much like the water, sewer and stormwater funds were channeled through the SRF programs under the ARRA program.  WIFIA and other programs could be used as a dispersal agent, so new bureaucracies would not need to be created.   A prior pattern for implementation is in place and would just need to be “dusted” off an updated.  Bi-partisan support enacted these program in the past and it would seem this would be good for all.

The potential for concern would be raised by private utilities (power, cable, telephone and private water and sewer utilities) which would be effectively shut out of funding, but they are private entities and they have the ability to raise funds on the private equity market.  Capitalism will work well for these organizations, but it does not for most local public works infrastructure systems.  That is why they are public, not private.  Some local governments would resist the requirement to expand the workforce – but that is their choice – a requirement to participate is not implied just as it is not with SRF funds.  Local business communities would likely drive the effort to be involved.

So now we wait and see if anything happens……

Public infrastructure has been poorly rated by the American Society of Civil Engineers and most public officials acknowledge the deterioration of the infrastructure we rely on daily.  However, many jurisdictions have limited information about their systems, and little data to use to justify spending.  The resistance to impose fees or taxes to upgrade infrastructure also remains high.  Hence the infrastructure tends to deteriorate further each year.  At present the United States spends about 1.6% of its GNP of infrastructure, as compared to 3.1 % prior to 1980.  Half as much money, and a large portion of that was for growth as opposed to repair and replacement.  Hence the need for better tools for asset management.

Utilities that utilize asset management programs experience prolonged asset life by aiding in rehabilitation and repair decisions while meeting customer demands, service expectation and regulatory requirements. The general framework of asset management programs involves collecting and organizing the physical components of a system and evaluating the condition of these components. The importance and the potential consequences associated with the failure of the individual assets are determined by this evaluation. Managers and operators can then prioritize which infrastructure are most critical to the operation of the system and furthermore which infrastructure to consider for repair, rehabilitation or replacement. It is a continuously reviewed and revised strategy that implements the acquisition, use and disposal of assets to optimize service and minimize costs over the life of the assets. An asset management plan (AMP) considers financial, economic and engineering goals in an effort to balance risk and benefits as they relate to potential improvement to the overall operation of the system.

Over the last 2 years, we have been working to develop a means to quickly, effectively and in a cost efficient manner to collect data and assess public infrastructure using simple, readily available means, without the need for significant training and expertise.  The idea was to use student efforts to coalesce a common evaluation without the need for destructive testing.  There are three successive projects used to improve the collection of data for ultimate use in an asset management program.   Students were provided with Leica and Trimble units to gather data.  For the first project, an app was created by FAU students that included photographic tools and entries to document the asset condition and location and permit offsite QA/QC from the cloud.  This app was initially developed for stormwater, but was updated to include all public assets for the second community. Data retrieval was created to be able to log data directly onto a smart phone or tablet in the field to save time and the information is instantly downloaded to the internet for quality assurance. The collection system also was programmed with a condition index to help with organization A session was held in the field with student groups to normalize the assessment process.  The approach began with an inventory and location of each asset. The assets were field inspected and assessed for condition.  A numbering system and photographic tools was used to document the asset condition.  This was accomplished by physically locating each asset in the field and marking it with a global position system (GPS) coordinate which allowed the data to be populated in a geographic information system (GIS) and organized with the other assets of the system

The results include this senior design project by our geomatics students. It is a 3-dimensional map of all infrastructure from the ground down on FAU’s Boca Raton campus. 800 acres and over 5000 points, many of which must be stitched together.  They also created building extrusions for a future project.  Very cool and useful from a tablet.  So the question is – do you have a 3D map of your utility?

Geomatics Engineering Senior Design Project 2016 (2)

IMG_7385One of the issues I always include in rate studies is a comparison of water rates with other basic services.  Water always comes in at the bottom.  But that works when everyone has access and uses those services.  Several years ago a study indicated that cable tv was in 87-91 % of home.  At the time I was one of the missing percentage, so I thought it was interesting.  However, post the 2008 recession, and in certain communities, this may be a misplace comparison.  A recent study by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman notes that the top 0.1% have assets that are worth the same as the bottom 90% of the population!  Yes, you read that correctly.  Occupy Wall Street had it wrong.  It’s not the 1% it is the 0.1%.  This is what things were like in the 1920s, just before the Great Depression.  The picture improved after the implementation of tax policies (the top tax rate until 1964 was 90% – yes you read that right – 90%).  Then the tax rate was slowly reduced to deal with inflation.  The picture continued to improve until supply side economics was introduced in the early 1980s when the disparity started to rise again (see their figure below), tripling since the late 1970s (you recall the idea was give wealthy people more money and they would invest it in jobs that would increase employment opportunities and good jobs for all, or something like that).  Supply side economics did not/does not work (jobs went overseas), and easy credit borrowing and education costs have contributed to the loss of asset value for the middle class as they strove to meet job skills requirements for better jobs.  In addition wages have stagnated or fallen while the 0.1% has seen their incomes rise.  The problem has been exacerbated since 2008 as they report no recovery in the wealth of the middle class and the poor.  So going back to my first observation – what gets cut from their budget, especially the poor and those of fixed pensions?  Food?  Medicine?  Health care?  My buddy Mario (86 year old), still works because he can’t pay his bills on social security.  And he does not live extravagantly.  So do they forego cable and cell phones?  If so the comparison to these costs in rate studies does not comport any longer.  It places at risk people more at risk.  And since, rural communities have a lower income and education rate than urban areas, how much more at risk are they?  This is sure to prove more interesting in the coming years.  Hopefully with some tools we are developing, these smaller communities can be helped toward financial and asset sustainability.  But it may require some tough decisions today.

Income percent


For the new year, my PUMPS website (not this site) will be undergoing reconstruction.  It has been a few years and some things are out of date.  Instead the focus will be more on rate studies, financial planning and asset management as opposed to all the other issues (like publications).  I will have a separate website for me, with all that stuff since some folks have hit the website looking for it.  My main goal is to partner with some folks and try to help smaller utilities with financial and management issues.  I will be adding work products, including the asset management stuff we are doing in Dania Beach and Davie.  My hope is I  energize PUMPS a bit.  At the same time via FAU, we will be developing a study of utility costs and revenues since 2005, with emphasis on the impact of the 2008-2009 Recession.  This will be instructive  – and be an update to the 1997 and 199 studies I did (hard to believe they were so long ago).  We will be looking nationally, as well as at different types of treatment, location and size.  The idea will be to develop some tools to help utilities benchmark where they are in the bigger picture, and to help with identifying trends and potential missing issues.  COnncection rates and asset  is improtant to insure hte timely renewal and repalcement of critical infrastrucutre.  After all, the people who get fired when things go wrong with a utility are not the politicians – its us!.  I will be solicitng (or my studnet will) data from over 300 utilities across the country.  If you are interested, or have clients who might be, let me know.  I have tnatively discussed publication with AWWA – but it won’t jsut be water.  Resue, wastewater etc will be included.  Should be fun!  Look for the results next summer!!

How much money goes to the states from the Federal government? Ever wonder about that? And how do we react? We talk about the need to tighten the federal spending so we keep cutting back on the Superfund cleanup monies ($1 billion/yr), the State Revolving Fund loan system ($2.35 billion/yr), and under $2 billion/yr for clean energy systems. We are concerned about the projected increase of $66 billion/yr for the Affordable Care Act. But these sums are just a tiny component for the federal budget, which is dwarfed by the $3.1 trillion sent to the states during its 2013 fiscal year. So what are these funds? Retirement benefits, including Social Security and disability payments, veteran’s benefits; and other federal retirement and disability payments account for over 34% of these payments. Medicare in another 18%. Food assistance, unemployment insurance payments, student financial aid, and other assistance payments account for another 9%. Another 16% is for grants to state and local governments for a variety of program areas such as health care (half the amount is Medicaid), transportation, education, and housing and research grants. All the SRF and grant monies are in this 16%. Those water programs are barely visible in this picture. Contracts for purchases of goods and services for military and medical equipment account for another 13%, while smallest amount – salaries and wages for federal employees is 10%.  Keep in mind that federal employees have dropped from nearly 7 million to 4.4 million since 1967. No federal employment expansion going on there.

growth in fed payments

fed payments

So how much does this affect the states? Federal funds account for about 19 of the total gross domestic product of the US, a number that has been relatively consistent (within a few percentage points) for years. That is below its all-time highs, and about typical over the past 30 years. Figure 1 from a PEW report shows that federal funds are greater than 22% of the GDP in most southern states (which interestingly enough have the people that complain the most about the federal government intrusion), while the Plains states, Midwest, northeast and the west coast are generally below average, and the two coasts, especially complain the least. Mississippi, Virginia and New Mexico all top 30%.

figure nat fed spending by state

So let me see if I have this right – those that pay the least, but get the most, complain the most about their benefactors, and those that pay the most, but collect less, complain less. That is the message! What is WRONG with that picture? And those people? The problem is I see it every day at the local level and it is truly baffling. It means that somehow our politics gotten so out of whack that those in need the most, seem to continue to vote against their best interests? Marketing clearly is a problem but are we fooled that easily. A message that distracts from the reality is obvious, but this continuing trend is just truly weird. No wonder it is so hard to accomplish things.

I have a friend in south Florida who is a lawyer who is starting the conversation about farmland for sale.  Ok, in south Florida is might be about 40 years too late, but he has a great argument to make, even here, now.  Developers have paid handsomely for agricultural land near urban areas, especially in areas with nice weather (see Florida).  The problem is that many of those lands have been productive and because they are close to urban areas, convenient for the movement or produce to feed those communities or export the food to other areas.  It would seem obvious that buying food locally would be preferred to buying food from far away, unless you are an Agribusiness or developer that is.  And most family farms have been handed down to generations that, well, just don’t want to work farms, given the amount of money that the land can be sold for.  So it is an easy economic argument to make – sell your farm to developers and live happily ever after.  Except that means farmland that is no longer producing.  And as my friend notes, there is a finite amount of farmland out there and we are decreasing that acreage in the US every year.

Now true, some will argue than development is less water intensive than farms, but much of that argument is due to the traditional practices used for farm watering, as opposed to newer, less wasteful means.  So they argue, development is preferable to farming, but that argument may be limited to areas that are a) water poor  b) bring water in from elsewhere, c) extensively use groundwater which may not recharge, or d) should probably have neither farming or development.  But is Florida, we see fewer oranges, fewer row crops and less ranching than 20 or 40 years ago.  All that land is condos and houses, and our food gets trucked or shipped in from many places, a lot of them not Florida and few local.  He suggests that might not be a good thing for the long term.

Of course Florida is going to be faced with another of these land dilemmas.  When Crist was governor, he negotiated a deal to buy land from US Sugar to help restore water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades.  Now the powers say they can’t afford to maintain the land, so US Sugar can keep it.  Of course US Sugar has plans for 100,000 houses in the Everglades Agricultural Area, or more, once farming stops.  I see my friend cringing.  That land, while not beneficial as farmland, surely would be less beneficial and farm more vulnerable as development.  Maybe we should rethink that land purchase?  Worth thinking about anyway.

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