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Have we passed peak diamonds? Just as a prior blog outlined the concept of peak oil, gas, metals etc, the recent news not suggests that diamond miners are decreasing their exploration investments because the number of new finds is decreasing each year, and those found are far more expensive to extract than the current values.  Sounds like oil?  We find less each year, it is more expensive and current oilfield yields are on the decrease.  Phosphorous is similarly situated which is why there is much research taking place to find means to recover phosphorous from ag lands and wastewater effluent – recover phosphorous meant to be resold to ag interests as fertilizer as the price of phosphorous continues to increase as a result so increasing demand and decreasing supplies.

We are also being told that while peak diamonds have passed perhaps chocolate will become scarcer and the demand for chocolate is outstripping the supply, and the available land for cropping is being out competed by more lucrative crops in South America.  At some point the available land for many crops will be exhausted.  It is then that we reach peak agriculture?


There is a recent iPos MORI study that evaluated the perception and reality of issues in 14 western, industrialized countries to determine how well the perception of the populace matched reality.  The US was one of those surveyed.  No surprise, most Americans’ perception is very different than reality because the news and politics get in the way of the facts.  The study found for example that Americans perceived that teenage birth rates were 24 % of girls vs the real number of 3%, that 32% of the population is immigrants vs 13% actual, and that the majority of people perceiving welfare were black vs. the reality of 39% (38% are white and 15% Hispanic).  The states with the largest number of welfare recipients are in the northeast, which are also the states that received the smallest amount of federal funding per capita.  Talk about misperceptions.

While other countries have similar misperceptions, perpetuating misconceptions is part of the extreme discourse in Congress and among different constituencies. When we perceive the issues incorrectly and our elected officials do nothing to improve that perception?  What does that say about them?  No wonder we cannot get infrastructure to the top of our funding needs?  They perceive if you get water, can drive on it or flush it away, things must be fine?


Earlier this year the Journal for AWWA had several articles about water use and infrastructure needs.  One of the major concerns that has arisen in older communities, especially in the Rust Belt and the West is that demands per person have decreased.  There are a number of reasons for this –the 1992 Energy Policy Act changes to plumbing codes that implemented low flush fixtures, the realization in the west that water supplies are finite and conservation is cheaper than new supplies, a decline in population, deindustrialization, and climate induced needs.  But all add up to the result that total water use has not really changed over the past 30 years and in many locales, water sales may have decreased.  Water utilities rely on water sales for revenues so any decrease in sales must be met with an increase in cost.  Price elasticity suggests the increase will be met with another decrease in sales, etc.  It is a difficult circle to deal with.  So less water, whether through deliberate water conservation or other means, creates a water revenue dilemma for utilities.  A concern about conserving to much and eliminating slack in the system also results.

Less water means less money for infrastructure.  Communities do not see a need for new infrastructure because there are fewer new people to serve.  Replacing old infrastructure has always been a more difficult sell because “I already have service, why should I be paying for more service” is a common cry, unless you are in my neighborhood where the water pipes keep breaking and we are begging the City to install new lines (they are on my street J)  Educating customers about the water (and sewer) system are needed to help resident understand the impacts, and risk they face as infrastructure ages.  They also want to understand that the solutions are “permanent” meaning that in 5 or 10 years we won’t be back to do more work.  Elected officials and projected elected officials (the tough one) should be engaged in this discussion because they should all be on the same page in selling the ideas to the public.  And the needs are big.  We are looking at $1 trillion just for water line replacement by 2050 and that is probably a low number(2010 dollars).  The biggest needs are in the south where infrastructure will start hitting its expected life.  The south want west will also be looking for about $700 billion in growth needs as well.  All this will cause a need for higher rates, especially with ¼ less low interest SRF funds avaialalbe this year from Congress.


The first month of the fall semester has slammed me, which accounts for a little less blog activity on my part.  But as fall rolls in many local governments are dealing with final budgets, new projects and dealing with taxes and fees.  Students are back to school and industries are looking to the end of the year and 2015.  How fast time flies.  Our students that graduated last spring all have jobs and half of our seniors that will graduate in December do as well.  With engineers or contractors.

The good news is that the economy continues to tick up, construction and construction jobs are back to 2005 levels (which if you recall was a lot), and the stock markets are making money for somebody because they are up as well.  Alan Greenspan can complain that housing maybe lagging, but that is more a lack of people having funds or being able to move.  Meanwhile construction of projects that were deferred might be addressed?  Time will tell but it raises an interesting question –  can we plan on growth forever?  We assume a continuous growth rate (like 1 or 2% per year), but is that reasonable since it means more people come to an area each year than they did the year before?  Works for bacteria, maybe not so much for people.  Ask Detroit.  Or Cleveland.  And does this type of growth create unintended consequences for us?  I think this is a  good question for a future blog and of course a question that economists and politicians do not want to answer.  It would be highly disruptive to our plans.   So since it is election season again, we all need to be prepared for the inundation of campaign sales pitches that try to convince us to vote for someone, or more likely to vote against someone.  That’s probably not the way it was intended to go, but it’s what politics has degenerated to in so many places.  Ideology and adherence to it under any circumstances often prevents us from looking objectively at issues and reaching real solutions, some of which may have winners and losers, but may be necessary to improve long-range forecasts.  Listen to the political patter and decide where the plan is.

For example, ignoring the evidence that the climate is changing, places constituents in perilous positions…..in the future.  Not now and few climate impacts need drastic immediate action.  But longer term, storm sewer will be inadequate, there will be less water stored in glaciers, less rainfall in places (like the southwestern US), more frequent flooding in coastal areas, etc.  The problem may be 50 years from now, but wholesale infrastructure programs take that long.  It took the US 50 years to build the interstate system.  Nearly 40 years to dig canals in south Florida, 20 year to acquire property for a reservoir in North Carolina, etc.  Things take time and meanwhile if we need to alter current practice, such as elevating roadways and building to avoid flooding, the time to start is now, not in 50 years when solving that problem is overwhelming.  Find those water sources now, so development and competitors can be controlled.  Finding water that may take 20 years to secure and construct is an unmanageable issue the year before you need it.  You need a plan.  Where do you hear that planning?

What about that failing infrastructure?  We tend to ignore it until it fails.  But if it fails, that can be catastrophic.  Engineers and operations personnel know deterioration occurs, and know that it will take time to plan, design and refurbish of replace infrastructure.  But projects continue to get deferred for lack of funds.  Aggressively planning repair and replacement may actually save money in the long-run, but our planning tends only to be short-term.  So how do we change that?  Perhaps the state agencies that require local planning to be submitted and approved will push for better evaluation of infrastructure.  GASB 34 clearly did not go far enough.  Too many communities do not track their work and even fewer document the conditions when they make repairs.  Too little data is collected on what fails, when and why.  WE can collect huge amounts of data with work orders that track work.  Perhaps a regulatory frontier.  Or maybe, just maybe, some enlightened managers will decide tracking information is actually fairly easy.  The question is the platform.  Stay tuned… we are working on that…


As those of you who follow this blog know, we periodically touch on climate issues.  Sea level rise is a particularly acute issue here at ground zero – southeast Florida.  But as I have said for some time, this is not an immediate crisis, but a slow steady creep that gives us time to adapt to the changes related to sea level rise.  I am optimistic that while we will spend a lot more money to engineer water management so we will need more engineers, there are solutions that will allow us to thrive here for a long time – probably a lot longer than we have been here, which is just over 100 years.

Our bigger, current challenge is the temporal but catastrophic impact of tropical storm activity that can create immediate consequences that last for years, much as Hurricane Andrew did in 1992 and Hurricane Wilma almost ten years ago.  Of course there have been others, like Donna in 1960 which were worse.  I mention this because the peak of hurricane season in Sept 10 – only two weeks away.  We have been lucky for years now, and of course we are all hoping it remains that way.

But I found another interesting article this weekend hat talked about the states with the most weather losses since 2006 (and in a subsequent blog I will look back further for comparison). is New Jersey.  OK, no huge surprise given the recent experience of Sandy.  But who is number 2?  Or for that matter 2-10?  Would you believe that Florida is not on the list at all.  Neither is California despite the fires.  Or North Carolina another hurricane prone state.

No, according to the Tribune, the states  (in order:after  New Jersey) are: Texas, Tennessee, Missouri, Alabama, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Louisiana, Colorado and Arizona.  The most common causes: thunderstorms, heavy rain, flash flood and tornados.  And the impacts range from $24 billion in New Jersey to $3.5 billion in Arizona.  An interesting factoid as we approach the peak of hurricane season.  May Florida stay off the list.


In the last blog we discussed 10 planning steps for sea level rises.  When planning 50-100 years other factors can come into play as well.  As a result, to allow flexibility in the analysis due to the range of increases within the different time periods, an approach that uses incremental increases of 1, 2, and 3 feet of SLR is suggested.  Hence infrastructure is built to meet milestones, not arbitrary dates lessening the potential for stranded assets.. The increments can work as threshold values in planning considerations in terms of allowing planners the ability to know ahead of time where the next set of vulnerable areas will be to allow a for proactive response approach that can be matched to the observed future sea levels.

But prior to developing infrastructure plans, the local community needs to define an acceptable level of service (LOS) for the community. A level service would indicate how often it is acceptable for flooding to occur in a community on an annual basis.  1% is 4 days per years and for a place like Miami Beach, this is nearly 2 ft NAVD88, well above the mean high tide.  The failure to establish an acceptable LOS is often the cause of failure or loss of confidence in a plan at a later point in time.  The effects of SLR of the level of service should be used to update the mapping to demonstrate how the level of service changes, so that a long-term LOS can be defined and used for near-term planning.

With the LOS known, the vulnerability assessment is developed using a GIS based map of topography and the groundwater levels associated with wet and dry season water levels.  LiDAR is a useful tool that may be available at very high resolution in coastal areas.  Topographic maps must be “ground-truthed” by tying it to local benchmarks and transportation plans.  USGS groundwater and NOAA tidal data from local monitoring stations to correlate with the groundwater information. Based on the results of these efforts, the GIS-based mapping will provide areas of likely flooding.

GIS map should be updated with layers of information for water mains, sewer mains, canals, catch basins, weirs and stormwater facilities.  Updating with critical infrastructure will provide a view of vulnerability of critical infrastructure that will be funded by the public sector. Ultimately policy makers will need more information to prioritize the needed improvements.  For example, a major goal may be to reduce Economic Vulnerability.  This means identifying where economic activity occurs and potential jobs.  At-risk populations, valuable property (tax base) and emergency response may be drivers, which means data from other sources should be added.

The next step is to analyze vulnerability spatially, by overlaying development priorities with expected climate change on GIS maps to identify hotspots where adaptation activities should be focused. This effort includes identification of the critical data gaps which, when filled, will enable more precise identification of at risk infrastructure and predictions of impacts on physical infrastructure and on communities. The final deliverable will include descriptions of the recommended concepts including schematics, cost estimates, and implementation plan.

So why go through all this.  Let’s go back to the beginning.  It has to do with community confidence in its leaders.  Resident look at whether their property will be protected.  Businesses look at long-term viability when making decisions about relocating enterprises.  The insurance industry, which has traditionally been focused on a one year vision of risk, is beginning to discuss long-term risks and not insuring property rebuild is risk-prone areas.  That will affect how bankers look at lending practices, which likely will decrease property values.  Hence it is in the community’s interests to develop a planning framework to adapt to sea level rise and protect vulnerable infrastructure through a long-term plan.  Plan or….


The rainy season has sort-of started in south Florida and with it comes flooding and discussions of the falls end of season and concurrent high, high tides for the year, flooding and the impact of sea level rise on low-lying areas.  Much focus has been spent on the causes of sea level rise and the potential flooding caused by same.  However the flooding can be used as a surrogate to impacts to the social and economic base of the community.  By performing vulnerability assessments, coastal areas can begin planning for the impacts of climate change in order to safeguard their community’s social, cultural, environmental and economic resources. Policies need to focus on both mitigation and adaptation strategies, essentially, the causes and effects of climate change. Policy formulation should be based on sound science, realizing that policy decisions will be made and administered at the local level to better engage the community and formulate local decisions.

Making long-term decisions will be important.  Businesses look at long-term viability when making decisions about relocating enterprises.  The insurance industry, which has traditionally been focused on a one year vision of risk, is beginning to discuss long-term risks and not insuring property rebuild is risk-prone areas.  That will affect how bankers look at lending practices, which likely will decrease property values.  Hence it is in the community’s interests to develop a planning framework to adapt to sea level rise and protect vulnerable infrastructure through a long-term plan.

While uncertainties in the scale, timing and location of climate change impacts can make decision-making difficult, response strategies can be effective if planning is initiated early on. Because vulnerability can never be estimated with great accuracy due to uncertainty in the rate of warming, deglaciation and other factors, the conventional anticipation approach should be replaced or supplemented with one that recognizes the importance of building resiliency.  The objectives of the research were to develop a method for planning for sea level rise, and providing a means to prioritize improvements at the appropriate time.  In addition the goals were to provide guidance in developing a means to prioritize infrastructure to maximize benefit to the community by prioritizing economic and social impacts.

Adaptation planning must merge scientific understanding with political and intuitional capacity on an appropriate scale and horizon.  According to Mukheibir and Ziervogel (2007), there are 10 steps to consider when creating an adaptation strategy on the municipal level.  To summarize, these are as follows:

  1. Assess current climate trends and future projections for the region (defining the science).
  2. Undertake a preliminary vulnerability assessment of the community and communicate results through vulnerability maps (using GIS and other tools).
  3. Analyze vulnerability spatially, by overlaying development priorities with expected climate change on GIS maps to identify hotspots where adaptation activities should be focused.
  4. Survey current strategic plans and development priorities to reduce redundancy and understand institutional capacity.
  5. Develop an adaptation strategy that focuses on highly vulnerable areas. Make sure the strategy offers a range of adaptation actions that are appropriate to the local context.
  6. Prioritize adaptation actions using tools such as multi-criteria analysis (MCA), cost-benefit analysis (CBA) and/or social accounting matrices (SAM).
  7. Develop a document which covers the scope, design and budget of such actions (what they call a Municipal Adaptation Plan (MAP)).
  8. Engage stakeholders and decision-makers to build political support. Implement the interventions prioritized in the MAP.
  9. Monitor and evaluate the interventions on an ongoing basis.
  10. Regularly review and modify the plans at predefined intervals.

 

The strengths of this framework are the initial focus on location-specific science, the use of both economic and social evaluation criteria, and the notion that the plan is not a fixed document, but rather a process that evolves in harmony with a changing environment.  The final two steps occur at regular intervals by the community with associated adjustments made.  The next question is how to develop the data and priorities.


Last week I went to Boston for the American Water Works Association Annual Conference and Exposition.  It is a gathering of thousands of water industry professionals – from operators to university professors to engineers to manufacturers.  It is a good group of people and most know a number of people each year.  The industry is smaller than one things despite there being over 50,000 community water systems in the United States.  All are there to network, which allows them to discuss their issue, learn new ways to approach things, create new contacts and see new equipment and techniques.  Over 11,000 registered.  Good job to AWWA staff and the folks in New England that local hosts.

At the conference, one of many tasks, beyond meetings and education, was to do a class for public officials on what water and sewer utilities are, how they operate, how to deal with revenues and expenses and regulations.  The idea is to help local officials understand the complex utility issues which are often second fiddle to more “surficial” activities like parks, and economic development.   The officials get a certificate from AWWA for 12 hours of class time, but the fact that these folks come, spend the time, get involved and can then experience the rest of the program is to be commended.  I have been doing these public officials classes since my book came out in 2009.  The first two days are always based on the book, but the third day can vary depending on issues in the news and preferences form the public officials group within AWWA.  This year the focus was operations and revenues. The responses were positive, and the interaction was very good.  And I had a blast as well.

It had been 40 years since AWWA was in Boston for ACE.  I have been twice previously – once when I was 7 and we went to the aquarium and once to catch a baseball game at Fenway, while on a 5 game, 4 city, 3 day baseball trip.  Boston led off.  This time, I was able to spend a day looking at the City.  Thanks to my friend Chi Ho Sham who acted as chauffer and tour guide – I expect to repay the gesture whenever he can spend a couple days in S. Florida.  Boston as many of you know is the cradle of the American revolution, and visits to the old North Church, Paul Revere’s house, the USS Constitution, several cemeteries and Faneuil Hall.  Fascinating.  Another trip to come as there is much more to experience than a day.

The moral to the story is that conferences allow us to accomplish many things.  We meet new people, hear new things, and if we spend a little time, we can experience how others live or have lived.  The history is valuable to us personally.


So I am reading an article in OneEarth, which is a publication of one of the environmental groups.  The pretext is the issues with the movement of hog farm operations into Iowa and the problems it is causing.  They note that the state has cut the regulatory enforcement budget and the number of inspectors while more incidents of contaminated water are found.  The contamination threatens the raw water supply of  downstream water utilities which must do more treatment and monitoring.  Sorry, I had to giggle because I have heard this story before. 

Going back about decade many will recall the “pfiesteria hysteria” as it was called in North Carolina.  The issue was that the Department of Environmental Management had found fish kills where the fish had these weird sores on their bodies, and then a number of people were diagnosed as being infected with the same condition, some of whom died.  The cause was this pfiesteria, which is a flesh-eating organism that enters the nervous system.  Crazy is one of the side effects but it mostly leads to death.  DEM determined that the organism thrived in waters with significant loading from nutrients that they could trace to…..  wait for it…. hog farms!! 

That was not the first time hog farms were implicated in water quality issues, but due to the significant, political influence of the industry, the transgressions were largely ignored due to a lack of enforcement personnel.  Actually when I was in North Carolina we had a hog farm upstream of our wastewater plant.  Periodically the DEM would test the waters downstream of our plant and find bacteria counts to high and they would want to tag us for the violation.  But we never had any indication of violations at our plant (which we tested daily and reported).  You can’t “make” nutrients appear out of thin air – they come from somewhere.  We told DEM that it was a hog farm that periodically dumped the manure pit n the river when it got full.  No treatment was going on.  Then hog farms exploded in North Carolina which led the pfiesteria event.  Finally the State decided enough was enough and imposed a lot of regulations on hog farms which magically …. moved to Iowa where there are no regulations in place.  I guess there is nothing like a good crisis that kills a few people to get past the political influence of the lobbyists (unless you are the NRA).

But here’s the problem for Iowa, which is what North Carolina found.  The regulations actually are in place.  The Clean Water Act prohibits the contribution of pollutants that will impair the quality of water bodies.  Clearly hog farm effluent clearly falls into this category, but the historical focus of the Clean water Act has been on wastewater treatment plants, and lately stormwater, but not agriculture, which is largely exempted in many, rural states.  Yet agriculture is and has always been a major contributor to water quality degradation in watershed for two reasons.  First they disturb the earth by plowing and planting, so rainfall leads to runoff of material (silt) into streams.  With that runoff is herbicides, pesticides, fertilizer (nutrients), and of course in animal husbandry or CAFO operations, bacteria and other pathogens.  Do not forget that the two most significant examples of water quality impacts on water utilities, Milwaukee and Walkerton, were both agricultural runoff problems.

Agricultural runoff impacts the downstream users which are typically developed areas which use the streams for water supply.  So agricultural practices move land based contaminants to the utility intake, which means more treatment cost to customers.  Sometimes these contaminants are a significant health risk.  It took a significant incident for North Carolina to act. The question is what will it take for Iowa to act, and once they do where do the hog farms go next? 

What needs to happen is that the hog farms develop the treatment systems needed to clean up their act.  It would be great for them to pay the cost but history says they won’t.  So maybe the political leadership needs to participate in that solution to maintain the employment base, and maybe utilities and other source water protection agencies, and there are many of them like the US Water Endowment, can help as well.  Politicians want jobs, while ratepayers do not want to pay all the costs.  A collaborative solution seems reasonable, so we will see what Iowa comes up with.  


As you are aware, I have several hobbies and interest, and economics is one of them.  Economics has theorists from many different viewpoints, and the commonality among them is that there is no “school of thought” that explains everything.  So new schools get developed to explain the current events, or old ones that were discredits are resuscitated, but unfortunately we too often neglect the past, or at least the examples of the past.  Too often the obvious gets ignored.  For example, we cave money because we know there will be ups and downs.  Individual do it, so why don’t governments?  We know that we will pay for a product we need.  Demand drives the price.  If more people want it, the price goes up.  Been that way for…. ever maybe?  So in my recent reading I came across several musing that keep getting talked about by political pundits, but may be they are not what they appear to be.  So let’s take a look at a couple of these that might just affect us….

 

Is supply side economics is a myth developed by corporate economists to argue for lower taxes.  The concept is to give tax breaks to encourage manufacturers and businesses to produce more product which will reduce costs.  You know this is patently false.  Try selling your reclaimed water at a discount (or give it away) when it is raining.  Demand drives the economy, not supply.  Every economics student learns this in economics 101.  The supply side economics school developed as a means to explain stagflation in the 1970s. The idea what to give tax cuts to those who invested, so they would invest more to make new products, which would trickle down to the rest of us.  Still doesn’t work.  Why?  What they ignored was that the US industrial sector had saturated the US economy with goods and could not grow without new sectors to sell to.  Hence the push on Nixon to open up China to foreign trade and investment.  But opening foreign markets was great, except they could not afford our products.  So we had to make the products there, increase local wages so they could buy the products, and still shipped products back at a cheaper cost that to build them in America.  The idea is not new – recall Henry Ford set up the assembly line to cuts costs to allow him to increase wages so his workers could buy his cars.  The obvious question is when we saturate China, then what?  Africa?  Then what?  The economy cannot grow faster than the increase in population.  So why does supply side economics keep getting traction?  Did we mention those tax cuts….

 

To the big fashion in Germany and the EU is austerity.  Austerity is an economic idea that never seems to die despite very limited success and many, many failures.  It sounds great – cut costs and balance the budget while cutting revenues (income).  Ok, so let’s see how that works in your household – you quit your middle class job and take a minimum wage job.  You cut your expenses.  Except you can’t sell your house without a loss (and you do not have the cash to make up the difference) and you need your car to get to your new job.  But austerity says that if you eat rice, beans, cereal and Ramen noodles, you will soon be far better off than you are now.  No one will suffer.   Do you believe it?  Do you wonder why the Greeks and Irish are not doing so well today and why people are restless?  They used to devalue their currency, but the Euro prevents this.  They do not have away out.  Meanwhile Iceland devalued currency, let the banks fail, took over the bank assets, and are doing much better.  Austerity was not the option…. Just saying…  And who suffers the most?  Not the high income folks.

 

Tax cuts stimulate the economy.  Sounds great.  But, from 1944 to 1963, the income tax rate on the highest earning bracket in 1960 was 90% over $200,000.  Yes 90%!   The economy was great.  The middle class was born.  House ownerships jumped.  Education was up.  The economy in the 1970s stagnated after we cut tax rates.  We cut the income tax rate in the 1980s, but raised other taxes, and things improved, but then declined.  The economy improved after the Bush tax hike in 1991. It did not improve after the Bush tax cuts in 2001.  Interesting in their book Presimetrics, Mike Kimel and Mike Kanell noted that higher taxes seem to correlate with a better economy.  Is it because investors can’t sell stock so easily when they made a profit so corporations can count of investments longer?  Or is it that the increase in revenues allows the federal government to invest in more research and development that further stimulates the economy?  Did we mention the tax cuts favor the wealthy?

 

The moral of the story is that utility managers cannot ignore the economic realities around them.  We cannot be trapped by the musings of people who have hidden agendas, which means that our understanding of the way things are must extend beyond the utility itself.  The economy, economics, monetary policy, tax policy, demographics and change are areas that utility managers need to be current on.  Engineers and managers often understand these issues easily (most are mathematical) but we tend to focus only in out areas.  We need to become educated.  Recall the earlier blog where I noted the city manager who realized later that the reason elected officials tended to bad alternatives was they were being lobbied to approve the poorer options because their clients could make money from it.  You know many ideas that will be lobbied to elected officials and business people in the future.  You need to become educated on these ideas and how they affect your utility.  You know that rates that are too low will not increase revenues.  You know you need to expand sales when possible, perhaps serving new areas, and making the investments for same.  You know that not spending money will only increase the risk of failure in the system.  You know that not increasing pay will disenfranchise employees.  Prepare for these assaults so you can lead your utility down the proper path. 

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