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“Or is running a local government like s business killing it?”

I had an interesting conversation at a conference recently.  The people I was talking to were advanced in their careers and the discussion moved toward the outlook on management in public settings. Once upon a time, most public works and utility managers were civil engineers, but often they were criticized because they were focused on the engineering aspects as opposed to the people aspects of the community.  Their focus was public health and making sure things operated correctly.  Most did whatever was needed to accomplish that.

This led to schools of public administration, which actually started educating some of those same engineers about management of large public organizations, organizational theory, human resource, accounting and planning  I did all that myself at UNC-Chapel Hill.  The goal was to understand finances, people, community outreach, the need to engage citizens and as well as public service.  The outcomes were providing good service.  That however tends to cost a little more than operations although there are opportunities to be a bit entrepreneurial.

So back to the people in the conversation.  They noted that sometime in the 1980s or early 1990s the MPAs were being replaced by MBAs as politicians were focusing on operating “like a business.”  Looking at the MBAs out there, the comment was that business schools do not focus on service, but profits to shareholders, and the training is to cut unproductive pieces that detract from the bottom line.   Hence investments do not get made if the payback is not immediate.  Service is not a priority unless it helps the bottom line.  In a monopoly (like a local government), there are no other option, so service becomes a lessor priority.

So it brought up an interesting, but unanswerable question for now: has the move to more business trained people in government created some of the ills we see?  The discussion included the following questions/observations (summarized here):

  1. Many water and sewer utilities are putting a lot of time and effort into customer service and outreach now after years of criticism for failing to communicate with customers. That appears symptomatic of the monopoly business model.
  2. Our investments in infrastructure decreased significantly after 1980, and many business people focus on payback – so if the investment does not payback quickly, they do not pursue them. How does that impact infrastructure investments which rarely pay back quickly (Note that I have heard this argument from several utility directors with business backgrounds in very recent years, so the comments are not unfounded).  It does beg the questions of whether the business focus compounds our current infrastructure problems.
  3. Likewise maintenance often gets cut as budgets are matched to revenues as opposed to revenues matched to costs, another business principle. Run to failure is a business model, not a public sector model. Utilities can increase rates and we note that phones, cable television, and computer access have all increased in costs at a far faster rate that water and sewer utilities.

Interestingly though was the one business piece that was missing:  Marketing the value of the product (which is different than customer service).  Marketing water seems foreign to the business manager in the public sector.  The question arising there is whether that is a political pressure as opposed to a forgotten part of the education.

I would love to hear some thoughts…

 

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In the last blog I showed what reclaimed wastewater could do for an ecosystem.  Very cool.  But what about for drinking water.  I actually was involved in an indirect potable reuse project several years ago.  The concept was to take wastewater, filter it with sand filters, filter it with microfiltration, reverse osmosis and then hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light.  This is what they do in Orange County California when they recharge groundwater, and have been for over 30 years.  Epidemiological studies in the 1990s indicated no increased incidence of disease when that water was withdrawn from the aquifer, and then treated in a drinking water plant before distribution.  So our project was similar – recharge to the Biscayne aquifer in south Florida.   It worked for us.  Total phosphorous was below 10 ppb, TDS was less than 3 mg/L (<1 after RO), and we were able to show 3 log removal of endocrine disruption compounds an d pharmaceuticals.  It worked well.  This is a concept in practice in California.  And will be at some point in south Florida since only the Biscayne aquifer provides sustainable water supplies.  Here is what our system looked like.

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sand filters

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microfiltration

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Reverse osmosis

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ultraviolet/peroxide

This is also the same basic concept Big Springs Texas uses for their direct potable program, demonstrating that the technology is present to treat the water.  A means for continuous monitoring is lacking, but Orange County demonstrates that for indirect potable reuse projects, a well operated plant will not risk the public health.  This is how we do it safely.

 


 

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!


As technology advances I have an observation, and a question that needs to be asked and answered.  And this could be a pretty interesting question.  Back in the day, say 100 or 150 years ago, there were not so many people.  Many activities occurred where there were few people and impacts on others were minimal.  In some cases ecological damage was significant, but we were not so worried about that because few people were impacted by that ecological damage.  In the 20th century, in urban locations, the impact of one’s activities on others became the basis for zoning laws – limiting what you could do with your property because certain activities negatively impacted others.  And we certainly had examples of this – Cuyahoga River burning for one.  Of course this phenomenon of zoning and similar restrictions was mostly an urban issue because there potential to impact others was more relevant in urban areas.  We also know that major advances in technology and human development tend to occur in population centers (think Detroit for cars, Pittsburgh and Cleveland for steel, Silicon Valley, etc.).  People with ideas tend to migrate to urban areas, increasing the number of people and the proximity to each other.  Universities, research institutions, and the like tend to grow up around these industries, further increasing the draw of talent to urban areas.  The observation is that urban areas tend to have more restrictions on what people do than rural areas.  So the question – do people consciously make the migration to urban areas realizing that the migration for the potential financial gain occur with the quid pro quo of curbing certain freedoms to do as you please?  Of does this artifact occur once they locate to the urban areas?  And is there a lack of understanding of the need to adjust certain activities understood by the rural community, or does it become yet another point of philosophical or political contention?  I have blogged previously about the difference between rural and urban populations and how that may affect the approach of utilities, but read a recent article that suggests that maybe urban citizens accept that financial gains potential of urban areas outweighs the need to limit certain abilities to do as you please to better the entire community.  They are motivated by potential financial opportunities that will increase their standing and options in the future.  So does that mean urban dwellers understand the financial tradeoff differently than rural users?  Or is it a preference issue.  And how does this translate to providing services like water to rural customers, who often appear to be more resistant to spending funds for improvements?  While in part their resistance may be that their incomes tend to be lower, but is their community benefit concern less – i.e. they value their ability to do as they please more than financial opportunities or the community good?  I have no answer, but suggest that this needs some further study since the implications may be significant as rural water systems start to approach their life cycle end.


I am in the initial stages of a project to look at economy of scale, utility bench-markings, asset management and impacts of economic disruption on utility systems. I should note that I am looking for volunteers, so let me know. But an initial question is whether economy of scale still applies. We think it should but given the disparities across the US, does it. As a quick survey, I enlisted several volunteer utilities to provide me with some basic information that I sued to create some ratios. And then we discussed them. The baselines were accounts and cost per millions of gallons produced.  The graphics are shown below. Economy –of-scale is alive and well. That means if you have a small utility, you cannot expect to have the same costs/gallon, or the same rates, as your larger neighbors. If you do, you are probably shoring your maintenance or capital programs. That leads to bigger costs later. Instead of comparing yourself to your larger neighbors, see what happens when you compare yourself to cable and cellphones in your area. You may be surprised.

economy of scale MGY economy of scale cost per MGY


So I am training a group of public officials about utilities. Many have limited experience; others much more so. The interesting question that came up is how these officials should communicate with their customers. Interesting question and one that often receives little thoughts. So I thought their thoughts might be enlightening, keeping in mind that I have abbreviated some of them, and this was a discussion. Here are the thoughts they provided, in no particular order:

“Not the newspaper, most residents do not receive the newspaper anymore”

“Who are our customers and how do they communicate? Until you can answer that, you will not reach them. Ask them.”

“If 37% percent of your customers are direct deposit – should we send them direct mailings?” Response: “Yes! They will not think it is a bill and they might read it.”

“Most people discard bill stuffers without reading them . That wastes a lot of time and money.”

“We have a Facebook page, but we don’t just talk utilities. We talk about things that might interst them like strawberry shortcake recipes and current community events.”

“We use twitter and Facebook”

“We have a website, but we found the website was useless if we did not keep it current constantly. It takes effort and someone with that responsibility to accomplish that.”

“We use Facebook to get people interested, then use it to direct them to our website.”

“Every utility should have a public relations person that deals with media, and can brand your utility to the public.”

“Understand your demographics and then figure out how they communicate – phone, twitter, Facebook, on line, etc. Maybe all of these, interconnected. You can find local people who will do this for your professionally. The results are worth the investment.”

“Radio is useless, just like the paper. Avoid the television because they really only want to report the bad stuff.”

“Blogs tied to websites and Facebook are helpful.”

“Many venues are needed – make the message the same.”

“Ask the young people in your community – they will know how the reach the residents.”

“Don’t focus just on utility issues, add content on topics they might be interested in.”

“Public relations is as important as providing good service.   It is part of your job.”

“worth every dollar spent.”

Interesting isn’t it. I wonder if the mainstream media will take note? And I wonder how many utilities do not have these things and will consider it as a part of the coming budget cycle?


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….

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