social vunerability

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?

WTPspiractorI have a question – what was the impact of the 2008 economic crisis on water and sewer infrastructure funding?  I have a hypothesis – the amount of monies transferred to non-water and sewer operations increased.  Is the hypothesis true?

The next question to answer is that if transfer monies increased, did they decrease once property values started to come back?  My hypothesis is no.

Finally what impact does this have on water and sewer infrastructure going forward?  I suspect that the answer is that we underfund infrastructure or justify the lack of funding through actuarial means (I actually had a utility director tell me that his pipes were designed to last 250 years.  Seriously.  Of course that is nonsense, but it is a means to keep your need for replacement funding down).

I have a student and we are working on these issues now.  We are going to gather data from several hundred utilities over the next six months, crunch 11 years of data and let’s find out.  If you or your clients are interested in adding your data to the mix, please send it to me.  I need 2005 -2015 expenditure info.  Also some operational data like ADF, MDF, miles of pipe, customers, treatment type and CCR. We will be publishing the results.   Should be interesting……

FLInt 2

As you probably know, the continuing saga in Flint has two state regulatory folks and an operator with the City of Flint under indictment.  Where that goes remains to be seen, but the Attorney General Bill Schuette felt something needed to be done.  But are the right people under indictment?   The charges are “tampering with evidence, and misconduct in public office,” but these are employees that few know or see and they were the ones dealing with the symptoms since they did not create the problem.  That means the harder question still is not addressed – there are engineers, managers and local officials who agreed to the change in water source for financial reasons, not public health reasons that precipitated this tragedy.  Where is that responsibility since all indications are that the change in water sources created a situation that could not be managed easily?  The question that those in Flint are likely is asking is whether the local officials going to skate on this?  It is worth asking because these incidents occur every few years, and the reasons are similar – a decision gets made for financial reasons by public officials, a problem happens, and there is a series of events that is uncovered that precipitates the concern.  The utility or City gets sued, but that simply means that the public (you and your neighbors) pay (and in Flint everyone was impacted, who do you collect from?).  The local officials are rarely challenged about these decisions and often accountability is lacking.  So the question is:  is the Attorney General done, or are there bigger fish to fry in Flint? And who are those fish?  Mayor?  Council? Managers? Consultants?  Legislators who cut regulatory funding?

photo 2A week or so ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I flew across Middle America to Colorado for a meeting and was again struck by the crop circles that dominate the landscape west of the Mississippi River.  They are everywhere and are a clear sign of unsustainable groundwater use.  I recently participated in a fly in event for National Groundwater Association in Washington DC, where several speakers, including myself, talked about dwindling groundwater levels and the impact of agriculture, power and economies.  The impact is significant. Dr. Leonard Konikow, a recently retired USGS scientist, noted that he thinks a portion of sea level rise is caused by groundwater running off agriculture and from utilities and making its way to the ocean. He indicated that 5% of SLR each year was caused by groundwater runoff, and has upped his estimates in the past 10 years to 13%.  This is because it is far easier for water to runoff the land than seep into rocks, especially deep formations that may take many years to reach the aquifer.  And since ET can reach 4 ft below the surface, many of the western, dry, hot areas lose most of this water during the summer months.  Hence the impact to agriculture, and the accompanying local communities and their economies will be significant.

It should be noted that the US is a major exported of food to much of the world, including China, so the impact on our long-term economic trade may be significant.  Fortunately the power industry has historically preferred surface waters, but must as power demands increase, they have begun to explore groundwater in rural areas without access to surface waters.  Keep in mind that air-cooled power plants are 25% or more less efficient than water cooled systems and many of these communities lack sufficient reusable water supplied to substitute for cooling.  Hence the projection is a long term negative impact on all of us.

So the question is why isn’t the federal government talking more about this problem?  Is it fear of riling up local political officials that see growth at all costs as necessary?  It is private rights arguments that may spawn lawsuits?  Is it a lack of interest in long-term?  Or the idea that “we have always found a way”. Or is it just buried heads in the sand, leaving the next generation to deal with the problem?  A big issue, yet we do not talk enough about it.  Maybe this is not a surprise since we have not gotten very far with the discussion of limited oil, precious metals, phosphorous or other materials, and unlike them, water appears to be renewable globally.  But water is location specific.  If you have it, great.  If you lose it, a problem.  There are several recent journal articles that make the argument that much of the strife in the Middle East and Africa is water depletion related: water depletion kills local economies.  So we need to ask –what happens if we ignore the looming crisis?  Do we create more “Bundy-type” actions in the rural, dry west because they already lack water?  I suggest it is a cause for concern.

For those wondering what the big report was going yo say, interesting reading, and a lot like Walkerton – plenty of blame to go around.

Click to access FWATF_FINAL_REPORT_21March2016_517805_7.pdf

And some related articles:

How to Predict the next Flint?

IMG_4803In the last blog we talked about Flint’s water quality problem being brought on by a political/financial decision, not a public health decision.  Well, the news get worse.  Flint’s deteriorated water system is a money thing as well – the community has a lot of poverty and high water bills, so they can’t pay for improvements.  They are not alone.  Utilities all over the country have increasing incidents of breaks, and age related problems. So the real question then is who are the at risk utilities?  Who is the next Flint?  It would be an interesting exercise to see if a means could be developed to identify those utilities at risk for future crises, so we can monitor them in more detail as a means to avoid such crises.

So what would be the measures that might identify the future “Flint?”  These could be things like age of the system, materials used, economic activity trends, income, poverty rate, unemployment rate, utility size, reserves, utility rates, history of rate increases, etc.?  Could these be developed into a means to evaluate risk?  If so, who would use it and how would we address the high risk cases?  I suggest that lenders have means to evaluate this using many of these same measures, but from a risk of events, this method has not been applied.  So I think this would be a useful research project.  So if anyone has some ideas, time or ideas for funding, let me know.  Let’s get rolling!

My cousin  once asked me what I thought about deciding on who to vote for for President might be best done when evaluating how well your 401K or investments did.  Kind of an amusing thought.  In that vein the decisions might be very different than they were.  Clearly your 401k did with with Clinton.  The economy was flat for George W. Bush, and the end of his term was the Great Recession.  Reagan’s first term was flat.  We all know about George H.W. Bush.  Interesting thoughts.  Not so good.  So what about the last 8 years?   But is raises a more interesting issue.  So don’t get me wrong, this blog is not intended to lobby for any candidate (and Obama can’t run), but it is interesting to look at the last 8 years.  They have been difficult.   The economy responded slowly.  Wages did not rebound quickly.  But in comparison to 2008 are we better off?

The question has relevance for utilities because if our customers are better off, that gives us more latitude to do the things we need – build reserves (so we have funds for the next recession), repair/replace infrastructure (because unlike fine wine, it is not improving with age), improve technology (the 1990s are long gone), etc., all things that politicians have suppressed to comport with the challenges faced by constituents who have been un- or under-employed since 2008.

Economist Paul Krugman makes an interesting case in a recent op-ed in the New York times:  (  Basically he summarizes the figure below which shows that unemployment is back to pre-2008 levels, and income is back to that point.  Some income increase would have been good, but this basically tracks with the Bush and Reagan years for income growth – flat.  So the question now is in comparison to 2008 are we worse off that we were?  And if not, can we convince leaders to move forward to meet our needs?  Can we start funding some of the infrastructure backlog?  Can we modernize?  Can we create “smarter networks?”  Can we adjust incomes to prevent more losses of good employees?  Can we improve/update equipment?  All issues we should contemplate in the coming budget.

Krugman Income percent


A project I am currently involved with looks at the impacts of climate change on public health in southeast Florida.  The initial grant focused on looking at socially vulnerable populations and the impact on chronic diseases these groups from climate change.  The question was whether climate change, which in southeast Florida is basically sea level rise, would have an impact on health issues.  On the face of it, the correlation between chronic health conditions and climate seems tenuous although the statistics support the link between chronic health impacts and socially vulnerable populations.  But what is interesting is that in general, the climate vulnerable topography and the socially vulnerable people do not correlate.  This may be a southeast Florida issue, but it is the less socially vulnerable who live in the climate vulnerable topography.

Those familiar with the history of southeast Florida know that makes sense because of the beaches.  The beaches are topographically vulnerable but eh wealthy want to live there anyway. But the problem is more pervasive.  The data actually can be mined further to reveal that the older homes (1940s-1960s), generally smaller and of lower value, were traditionally built on the high ground.  Turns out our ancestors were a little smarter than we thought – they actually thought this out.  Aside from Henry Flagler building the railroad on the high ground, most of the cities were located similarly – on the coastal ridge.  Drainage of the Everglades permitted the western migration of residences – newer and larger, but at lower elevation and mostly reliant on drainage across the ridge to the ocean via canals.  But as sea level rises, the water moves more slowly.

The question that must be asked then is what happens as this housing stock ages?  We already see some newer communities, primarily built for retirees, moving to relieve themselves of the 55+ designations to allow the housing stock to be sold – the children of the retirees don’t want the property and desire to sell it – often quickly.  To increase speed of sales (and ultimately retaining some value), eliminating the 55+ opens younger families to move in.  However the lower value of the properties makes them conducive to migration of people who are social vulnerability, so migration may be toward social vulnerable people moving to topographically challenged property.  That portends poorly for the link between climate and health in the future.

Two issues arise from the research.  First future health vulnerability from climate may be more related to vectors and waterborne disease than chronic health effects.  That expands the health vulnerability to all populations.  The second issue is that storm water, sewer roadway and water infrastructure may relieve some pressure on these topographically vulnerable properties, but the people who are moving to then will have significantly less ability to pay for those improvements, creating a political conundrum that will that a significant amount  of leadership to overcome.  That means that resiliency must be built into infrastructure and redevelopment projects now, to address future conditions.  Building in resiliency is not currently being considered by local planners and engineers because the situation is not well understood and a 50 year planning horizon is not the norm.  Also, it would likely create a firestorm of fuss from developers who would pay the costs, which discourages good planning.

Finally, if things accelerate, wealthier parties may begin to see a retreat from vulnerable eastern beaches to higher ground as being a reasonable concept.  However the high ground is currently occupied by socially vulnerable people, creating a potential area of conflict over the fate of displaced residents who’s social status may force them toward the vacant, topographically vulnerable properties.  This is a future problem for planners, developers and officials approving new development with an eye to displacement a concept not in the current thought process.  Thinking about vulnerability means a lot of infrastructure must not only be constructed, but maintained meaning local public works and utility budgets will need to increase in kind.  That means higher rates and charges to populations that may have limits to their ability to pay   Stay tuned…..

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