The Flint saga continues.  The latest is that they continue to use Detroit water, but will convert to the new Lake Huron supply in 2018. The argument now is who’s water plant will be used. The County is building a plant.   John Young notes that the Mayor of Flint wants to use their own plant.  I think we know how that worked out last time. All the non-elected officials overseeing the City say buy from Genessee County.  Should be interesting to see how that plays out.

Meanwhile Midwest regional EPA officials appear are being criticized for failing to deal with the problem in a timely fashion.  EPA delayed their emergency declaration for 7 months, but EPA says the state action prevented EPA from acting.  This is exactly what the states asked for when they persuaded Reagan to delegate authority from EPA to the states.  Then the finger pointing starts when state officials do not react quickly because the state legislature cut their budget and no one is asking about that like they did in Walkerton in 2001.  It could have been predicted especially when too many states have legislatures that want to starve the bureaucracy.  But they forget why the bureaucracy was there to begin with – because something bad happened and government reacted to it by passing laws and creating oversight.  Delete the oversight and bad things happen.  It is human nature.

That will play out, but there still is the problem of the people who made the decisions in the first place.  As the elected officials in the class I taught this summer noted, it was a political decision to save money that created this problem to start with, not an operation issue.  The operational issue came up after the elected officials decided to start up a 50 year old plant that had not been run more than 18 months in 50 years, and after improvements were quickly made to the plant, but never tested.  Not sure how the engineers (sorry) let that happen, but why is it that no elected officials have been scrutinized for their bad decisions?  It makes us all look bad and sends a poor message to the residents of the country, not just Flint.


The reliability of the assets within the area of interest starts with the design process in the asset management plan. Decision-making dictates how the assets will be maintained and effective means to assure the maximum return on investments. Through condition assessment, the probability of failure can be estimated. Assets can also fail due to a growing area that may contribute to exceeding its maximum capacity. Operation and maintenance of the assets are important in reassuring a longer life span as well as getting the most out of the money to be spent. Prioritizing the assets by a defined system will allow for the community to see what areas are most susceptible to vulnerability/failure, which assets need the most attention due to their condition, and where the critical assets are located in relation to major public areas (hospitals, schools, etc.) with a high population.

So what happens when conditions change?  Let’s say sea levels are rising and your land is low.  What would the potential costs be to address this?  Better yet, what happens if it rains? We looked at one south Florida community and the flood stage for each based on 3 storm events: the 1:10 used by FDOT (Assumes 2.75 inches in 24 hours), the Florida Building Code event that includes a 5 in in one hour event (7 in in 24 hrs), and the 3 day 25 year event (9.5-11 inches).

Of no surprise is that the flooding increases as rainfall increases.  Subsequent runs assumed revisions based on sea level rise. The current condition, 1, 2 and 3 ft sea level rise scenarios were run at the 99 percentile groundwater and tidal dates and levels.  Tables 2-5 depict the flood stage results for each scenarios.  The final task was designed to involve the development of scenarios whereby a toolbox options are utilized to address flooding in the community.  Scenarios were to be developed to identify vulnerabilities and cost effectiveness as discussed previously.

The modeling results were then evaluated based of the accompanying infrastructure that is typically associated with same.  A summary of the timelines and expected risk reductions were noted in the tables associated with storm and SLR scenarios.  This task was to create the costs for the recommended improvements and a schedule for upgrading infrastructure will be developed in conjunction with staff.  Two issues arise.  First, the community needs to define which event they are planning to address and the timelines as the costs vary form an initial need of $30 million to over $300 million long-term.  Figure 1 shows how these costs rise with respect to time.  The long-term needs of $5 million per 100 acres matches with a prior effort in Palm Beach County.

SLR costs

Figure 1  Summary of Costs over the 3 ft of potential sea level Rise by 2011, under the 3 storm planning concepts.

Asset management plays a vital role to help minimize unnecessary or misplaced spending while meeting the health and environmental needs of a community. The goal is to provide strategic continuous maintenance to the infrastructure before total failure occurs.  Costs should be well distributed over the life of the asset to help avoid emergency repairs. Emergency repairs can cost up to multiple times the cost of a planned repair. Therefore the ultimate goal of asset management is to provide quality, economical infrastructure by identifying the system’s needs and addressing the needs appropriately.  At some point repairs cost more than replacement, or technology may make repairs obsolete.

An asset management program should be developed accordingly to the client’s goals and objectives. It consists of determining the selected area of study, type of system and the quality of data used for evaluation (see Figure 1).  Before a condition assessment can be determined, an inventory of assets needs to be established. Depending on the accuracy wanted, the data can be gathered in many ways ranging from onsite field investigation which could take a lot of time, to using existing maps, using maps while verifying the structures using aerial photography and video, or field investigations. Not doing destructive testing is important to reduce costs.  The question is how you do it.  One project we did was the downtown area of Dania Beach.  You can see the areas that are a problem.



Figure 1

Asset Dania

FIgure 2

June was a tough month and looking back I realize I really didn’t post.  I was in Chicago, spent 2 weeks with middle schoolers, prepared my promotion package, god the doors completed on the house, etc. and suddenly it was the 4th of July.  Yikes time flies.  But it was interesting.  Here I want to talk a little about Chicago.

I went to Chicago to do a 3 day, 12 hour class with elected officials.  Most are board members for their local utility, but they went from a small South Carolina system to San Antonio and St. Paul.  A huge variety.  And we learned a lot.  Obviously the Flint crisis was on their minds.  But I thought the most interesting thing was that these folks understood what happened.  I asked what they thought the real issue was in Flint and the resounding answer was – politics.  Bad decision-making.  Poor preparation.  Notably, not lead service lines.  These people got it.  They read behind the headlines.  Of course these are the officials that wanted to learn more about their water and sewer systems, as opposed to the many that do not take the time to, but interesting nonetheless.

Another issue was talked about was finances.  I ask them to bring their budget, water use, pipelines, etc.  The goal is to do a quick comparison between systems and then discuss what it means (if anything).  I have started doing the exercise each year and we find the same thing – smaller systems cost more per thousand gallons to run than larger systems, so hence their rates must be higher or they are not doing repairs and replacements on a timely basis. This group got that as well and understood that comparisons of their system to others needed to be carefully vetted.  No two system are alike, but size, treatment, terrain can all affect costs to the customer.

We also talked about leadership.  I am applying for an AWWA project on leadership, but when asked, these folks had some great answers. They see leadership as a personal trait (inspiration, vision) as well as being driven by event (negotiating crisis or change), and having the ability to bring people along through the rough patches.  Leadership is an issue that needs more exploration, but I thought this was a good start to preface the larger survey I hope to do for AWWA’s members.

In the meantime, I learned a lot about the Chicago River bridges, enjoyed the planetarium, a Cubs night game, Millenium Park and a walk along the waterfront.  Very cool.


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…..?


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.

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