Tag Archives: economy

Most states were doing pretty well before the 2008 recession hit, but that ended in 2009. Most states had to make extremely difficult cuts or raise taxes, which was politically unacceptable. Of course invested pension systems received a lot of attention as their value dropped and long term sufficiency deteriorated, which was fodder for many changes in pensions, albeit not how they were invested. The good news is a lot of them came back in the ensuing 5 years, but 2015 may be different. A number of states have reported low earnings in 2015 and whether this may be the start of another recession. The U.S. economy has averaged a recession every six years since WWII and it has been almost seven years since the last contraction. With China devaluing their currency, this may upset the economic engine. At present there are analysts on Wall Street who suggest that some stocks may be overvalued, just like in 1999. If so, that does not bode well states like Illinois, Kansas, New Jersey, Louisiana, Alaska and Pennsylvania that are dealing with significant imbalances between their expenses and incomes. Alaska has most of its revenue tied to oil, so when oil prices go down (good for most of us), it is a huge problem for Alaska that gives $2200 to every citizen in the state. An economic downturn portends poorly for the no tax, pro-business experiment in Kansas that has been unsuccessful in attracting the large influx of new businesses, or even expansion of current ones. California and next door Missouri, often chided by Kansas lawmakers as how not to do business, outperform Kansas.

Ultimately the issue that lawmakers must face at the state and as a result the local level is that tax rates may not be high enough to generate the funds needed to operate government and protect the states against economic down turns. There is a “sweet spot” where funds are enough, to deal with short and long term needs, but starving government come back to haunt these same policy makers when the economy dips.   It would be a difficult day for a state to declare bankruptcy because lawmakers refuse to raise taxes and fees.

Your grandma always told you to save money for a rainy day.  She wasn’t really talking about rainy days, but days when you had less or no income.  The press talks about the huge percentage of Americans that have little or no savings, and how compared to other countries, we are at a disadvantage during economic times.  A huge problem is that the same argument can be translated to governments, which must provide services, and often more services during economic downturns.  But if they have no savings, how are they to accomplish this?  They do not want to raise taxes and fees in down situations, so won’t the loss of services just make things worse?

A recent PEW reports suggests that states “had about half the reserves necessary to address budget gaps during the first year of the Great Recession.  The 50 states had about $60 billion set aside in the summer of 2008, but in fiscal 2009, budget gaps across the country totaled $117 billion, about twice what states had in reserve. The budget gaps continued to grow in 2010 and many states struggled with shortfalls for years afterward.  Bad news, but the news really does not improve.  They report that 37 states have legal caps that prevent them from saving enough to weather recessions or even enough to substantially offset revenue losses, and most of those are based on some percentage of the prior year’s revenues.  Why?  Short-term views?  Most governments figure on keeping enough cash on hand to pay bills during tax seasons. That accounts for 60-90 days of funds.  Far too little for dealing with economic impacts.  Far too few state governments recognize the importance of saving, figuring that cutting taxes during time of plenty and giving back to taxpayers is a better use of funds.  Then it is someone else’s issue when the next economic hiccup occurs – and it will.  Unless you raise your cap now as Minnesota and Virginia have recently done.

But the issue is not just a state issue.  It is a local and a utility issue as well.  Local governments are closer to the ground, have less leeway in their budgets and often have far too little funding as a result of resistance to raising property taxes, user fees and over-dependence on state shared sales tax, which often drops precipitously during a recession.  Same goes for sin and gas tax dependence.  When people slow smoking, or as oil prices drop, so do revenues.  Ask Alaska, Louisiana, Kansas, Texas, North Dakota and others that are oil rich states about their budget this past year.  The legislatures were begging Grover Norquist to let them out of their no tax increase pledges.  He said no of course, because he doesn’t want government to function properly.  So those legislators were stuck in the either “do the right thing” or “get whacked by Grover in the next election” conundrum.  You know what they did because they want to get re-elected  That doesn’t help the citizens of those states.  Standard & Poor’s revised its outlook on Alaska’s general obligation and appropriation-backed debt from stable to negative. That will cost them in the future. St. Louis, Moody’s downgraded the city’s credit rating one step to A1, citing “the city’s weak socioeconomic profile; reliance on earnings taxes which are due for voter reauthorization in 2016.”  Diversity in industry and taxes is beneficial.  Too often this gets lost in the desire to do more with less, but doing more means you need more funding!  And you need to collect those savings as grandma counselled!

We are all aware of the major drought issues in California this year – it has been building for a couple years.  The situation is difficult and of course the hope is rain, but California was a desert before the big water projects on the 1920s and 30s. Los Angeles gets 12 inches of rain, seasonally, so could never support 20 million people without those projects.  The central valley floor has fallen over 8 feet in places due to groundwater withdrawals. Those will never come back to levels of 100 years ago because the change in land surface has collapsed the aquifer. But the warm weather and groundwater has permitted us to develop the Central Valley to feed the nation and world with produce grown in the desert.  The development in the desert reminds me of a comment I saw in an interview with Floyd Dominy (I think), BOR Commissioner who said his vision was to open the west for more people and farming, and oversaw lots of projects to bring water to where there was none (Arizona, Utah). The problem is that the west never head much agriculture or population because it was hot, dry and unpredictable – hence periodic droughts should be no surprise – the reason they are a surprise is that we have developed the deserts far beyond their capacity through imported water and groundwater.  Neither may be reliable in the long run and disruptions are, well, disruptive.  Archaeologist Bryan Fagan traced the fall of Native American tribes in Arizona to water deficits 1000 years ago.

Yet policymakers have realized that civil engineers have the ability to change the course of nature, at least temporarily, as we have in the west, south, Florida. I often say that the 8th and 9th wonders of the world are getting water to LA over the mountains and draining the southern half the state of Florida. I have lived in S. Florida for 25+ years and am very familiar with our system. The difference though is that we have the surficial Biscayne aquifer and a rainy season that dumps 40 inches of rain on us and LA doesn’t (as a note of caution, for the moment we are 14 inches below normal in South Florida – expect the next drought discussion to ensue down here in the fall). The biggest problems with the Everglades re-plumbing are that 1) no one asked about unintended consequences – the assumption was all swamps are bad, neglecting impacts of the ecosystem, water storage, water purification in the swamp, control of feedwater to Florida Bay fisheries, ….. 2) one of those unintended consequences is that the recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer is the Everglades. So less water out there = less water supply along the coast for 6 million people 3) we lowered the aquifer 4-6 ft along the coastal ridge, meaning we let saltwater migrate inland and contaminate coastal wellfields 4) we still have not figured out how to store any of that clean water – billions o gallons go offshore every day because managing Lake Okeechobee and the upper Everglades was made much more difficult when the Everglades Agricultural Area was established on the south side of Lake Okeechobee, which means lots of nutrients in the upper Everglades, and a lack of place for the lake to overflow, which meant dikes, more canals, etc. to deal with lake levels.

The good news is that people only use 11% of the water in California and Florida, and that Orange County, CA and others have shown a path to some degree of sustainability (minus desal), but the real problem is water for crops and the belief that communities need to grow. When we do water intensive activities like agriculture or housing, in places where it should not be, it should be obvious that we are at risk. Ultimately the big issue it this – no policy makers are willing to say there is “no more water. You cannot grow anymore and we are not going to send all that water to Ag.”  Otherwise, the temporary part of changing nature will come back to haunt us.

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 working on a book on engineering ethics. My wife and I were talking about the ethical obligations of engineers and how that compares to the medical industry (which she is in).  Engineers by canon, creed, code and law, have an obligation to protect the public health, safety and welfare above all else, including their clients and their firms.  It is one of the reasons that engineering services provided to the public require a license and why codes exist to help guide design.  My wife recently raised an interesting question – if licensure means that you must protect the public health, safety and welfare, can you sign and seal a project for which the consequences are not perfectly known?  It harkens back to a lecture I do in my summer environmental science and engineering class – the infamous “What could possibly go wrong?” lecture.  In that lecture we look at logging, mining, oil and gas and agriculture.  I should note that we need each of these industries and will continue to need them for the foreseeable future, so abandoning any of them is not an acceptable answer.  But in each case there are large, historical consequences, as well as current ongoing consequences.  Let’s start with logging which fed the rapid development of many cities by providing accessible building materials.  And actually let’s just start in the upper half of the state of Michigan where loggers cut timber across the state for over 50 years, eliminating white pines form many areas.  The logs were sent down small streams and rivers, many of which had to be altered to take the logs.  Rivers like the AuSable and Manistee changed completely afterward (starting with the loss of sweepers, increased siltation, the loss of the grayling (fish), and the need to introduce trout.  Siltation is a difficult issue for water plants to deal with.  Today the AuSable is a “high quality fishing water” with open fishing season, but limits of zero trout kept in many places or only really large fish (rare in cold water), which means catch and release only, which sounds more like – “not enough fish, so put them back” as opposed to high quality fishing waters.    We needed the logs, but the impacts of logging were never considered and 150 years later, we still suffer the effects.  Few engineers were involved.

Next we look at mining.  Again we needed the gold, silver, lead, iron, etc. from the mines.  The gold rushes started in the 1840s and expanded across the west.  Material was dug out, metals processed and mines abandoned.  The tailings from these mines STILL leach metals into waterways.  The metals content remains toxic to ecology and to us in drinking water, and will continue be so for years.  Metals are often expensive to remove via treatment.  Sometimes the situation is serious enough that the federal government will construct treatment plants to protect downstream waters (drinking waters for people), as they have done in Leadville and Idaho Springs, Colorado.  The tailings issue will be with us for years, which is why the mining industry is subject to regulations today.  Maybe we learned something?  Engineers have become more involved with mining with time, but historically, not so much.

With agriculture (Ag) the big issue is runoff and siltation.  Siltation has increases as more property is farmed.  The runoff also contains pesticides herbicides, and fertilizers, which impact downstream ecological sites, as well as creating difficulty for water treatment.  Ag is largely unregulated with respect to runoff and best management practices are often lacking.  The results include dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific.  Engineers try to deal with water quality issues in rivers and streams, but the lack of ability to effect changes with Ag practices is limiting.  There are situations like Everglades where the engineers did exactly what was asked (drain it), but no one asked the consequences (lack of water supply), or the impact of farming north of the Everglades (nutrients).

The Everglades results, along with the unknowns associated with fracking (primarily surface and transport) brought the question to my wife — should an engineer sign off on a project for which the consequences are uncertain, unstudied or potentially damaging the public health safety and welfare, like fracking wells, or oil/gas pipelines across the arctic (or Keystone)?  Engineers design with the best codes and intentions and clearly the goal is to design to protect the public, but she has a great point – when you know there are uncertainties, and you know there are unknowns that could impact public health, safety and/or welfare, or which could create significant impacts, should we be signing off?  I am not so sure.  What are your thoughts?

photo 4IMG_6527 (2015_03_08 17_53_48 UTC)

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

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