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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


The number of people that recall the Dust Bowl of the 1930s is dwindling and that may portend poorly for society (likewise the loss of Depression memories and two world wars).  The Dust Bowl was aptly names for the regular storms of windblown dust that pummeled farm fields and blew away valuable topsoil needed by farmers.  Why it occurred was more interesting and foretelling.

The amount of farming had exploded in the late 1920s as a result of  record wheat price, motorized tractors and government programs encouraging farmers to plow up the prairie and plant.  The crops replacing the native plants did not have the same root structure and were less drought tolerant as a result.  When wheat prices collapsed, the fields were left fallow exposing the topsoil to the elements.  Since the topsoil was no longer anchored to the soil by plants, the wind and lack of rain caused much of the topsoil to migrate with the wind as dust.  Topsoil was lost, rain ran off, transpiration decreased, and the cycle just go worse.   Up to 75% of he topsoil was lost.

Rains returned in the 1940s but much of the dry farming (no irrigation) practice was immediately converted to wet framing using deep wells to capture water from aquifers.  The result was healthier crops, more consistent yields and protection of the remaining topsoil as a result.  Or is it?

Visit California today.  They are in the midst of severe drought conditions. Farmers have attempted to protect themselves by drilling more wells – deeper wells which diminish water supplies to the shallower neighboring wells.  Water levels decline, land subsides, the aquifer collapses, and there is little recharge.  Some areas of the central valley have sunk over 8 feet in the past 100 years.  But we have up until this point, had healthier crops and more productive yields, which protects the valley until the rains return.  Or does it?

While the lack of rainfall is a natural cycle, there is an argument to be made that man-made impacts have exacerbated the situation.  In the Dust Bowl states, the initial error was plowing up the native grasses without understanding how they had adapted to the mostly dry conditions on the prairie.  Many of the prairie states receive under 20 inches or rain each year, and scarcely any during the summer, which limited evapotranspiration, which limits thunderstorm and regional rainfall activity.  Less ET = drier conditions.  So growing crops is not what one would immediately identify and a “normal” land use for the prairie.  We altered the environment, but the Midwestern farming thought process doesn’t work in the dry prairie.  Irrigation was needed, but the lack of surface water limited irrigation unless wells are used.  Wells were drilled which returned and improved crop yields, but the well use has caused massive decreases in aquifer levels in the prairie states. The amount of water is finite, so as long as withdrawal exceed recharge, and with only 20 inches of rain that mostly runs off the land, there is a point in time when the well runs dry.  As the well runs drier, productivity will fall.  The interim fix is drill deeper, but the bottom of the aquifer is in sight.  Then, fields will be fallow, agriculture will be impacted dramatically, and it is not inconceivable the Dust Bowl type conditions could reoccur. Policies by man exacerbate the problem because the prairie productivity is accelerated will above its natural condition.

Likewise much of the land subsidence problem in California is irrigation driven – water is pulled through wells in an ever increasing competition to maintain one’s crop yield.  Water wars and fights with one’s neighbors over wells drying up is increasing more common as irrigation needs increase and recharge to the aquifer is diminished.  Much of California is even drier than the Dust Bowl states, and more reliant or wells and irrigation.  Less water also means less ET which means less local rainfall.  So while California has done much to protect itself over the years from drought, the current experience says that declining aquifer levels means we have exceeded the productivity of that state as well.  So is the California Dust Bowl coming?

Man is an ingenious creature.  We overcome much that the Earth throws at us.  But at the same time, we rarely consider the consequences of our actions in overcoming the challenges Earth poses.  These two examples show how our efforts to solve one problem, may actually damage the long term sustainability of these areas.  Short term gain, long term problem.


Interesting that while we all love low gas prices and the low cost of energy is fueling an expansion of our economy, including the first gains in middle income salaries since 2008, the states reliant on oil and gas may be facing real problems financially.  A year ago I read an article that noted the reluctance of North Dakota residents and politicians to invest in roads and other infrastructure despite the influx of oil money.  Keep taxes low was the mantra.  SO they did.  A recent Governing magazine article notes that a dollar drop in oil means $7.5 million decrease in revenues for the State of New Mexico.  Since oil has lost about $30 a barrel in the past year – that is $200 million loss.  Louisiana sees a $12 million cost/dollar drop so they have $171 billion less to work with.  Alaska, perhaps the most oil dependent budget (90 percent) has a $3.4 billion shortfall, but $14.7 billion in revenues.  Texas, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Kansas are other states facing losses.  Fast growing states like North Dakota and Wyoming now have hard decisions to make.  Growth in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas may be cut by 2/3 of prior estimates as a result.  A double hit on anticipated revenues.

The comparison is interesting financial straights experienced by the “property value” states like Florida, Nevada and Arizona before and after the economic collapse in 2008.  Florida politicians couldn’t wait to cut taxes and slow spending during boom years, then got caught badly after the 2008 recession when property values dropped in half and state sales tax revenues (tourism) dropped steeply.  They ran out of reserves and refused to raise taxes (after cutting them), so cut things like education and health care to balance the budget.  Not sure how either helped low and middle class Floridians get back on track since Florida has primarily create low wage jobs since that time, not high paying jobs.  We are paying the price still.  I am guessing Nevada and Arizona are similar.

We clearly have not learned the lessons of the many mill towns in the south or the rust belt cities of the Midwest that encountered difficulties when those economies collapsed. Everyone refused to believe the good times would end.  Now Detroit is half of its former self and Akron has the same population as it did on 1910.

The moral of the story is that booms great, but short term.  Diversity in the economy is a key.  Florida will continue to be subject to economic downturns more severe than other states when it relies primarily on tourism and retirees to fuel the economy.  Detroit relied on automobiles, Akron rubber and chemicals, Cleveland steel, etc.  Some day the Silicon Valley will suffer when the next generation of technology occurs that makes the current works obsolete.  It is what happens when you are a “one economy” town.  It is also what happens when you believe the booms are “normal” and fail to financially plan by putting money aside during the boom to soften the subsequent period.

An argument could be made that if the federal government had not enacted tax cuts in 2000 when the budget was finally balanced and surpluses were presumed to loom ahead, we could have banked that money (or bought down our debts), and the amount of borrowing would have been less in 2008.  Buying down debt when times are good is good business.  So is putting money in reserve.  The question is why the politicians do not understand it.  We can run government like a business financially, but takes leadership to do it.  It takes leadership to explain why reserves are good and tax cuts are a future problem.  It takes leadership to make hard decisions like raising taxes, spending more on infrastructure, requiring people to move out of flood plains, not rebuilding in vulnerable areas, and curtaining water use policies when they damage society.  Leadership is making decisions that help the needs of the many, versus the needs of the few.  Oh wait, I see the issue now.  We need Spock to lead us…

 


Once upon a time, people worked until they died.  But the longer people lived, the more infirmities impacted older people, and the concept of stopping work came into play.  So these folks labored all their lives, put some money away in a safe place, like a bank, where someone else would watch over an manage their money until they needed it.  Then one day, they found out that the banks have gambled and lost on real estate, and their money was gone.  There was no government to bail anyone out.  So the people had to try to go back to work, became beggars and destitute or died.  The government thought this was unfair to those older folks who had worked so hard, but through absolutely no fault of their own, had lost everything.  So the government decided that it would “tax” people a portion of their income, and put it into a retirement system.  People could retire at 65, and of course they were only expected to live another r3 or 4 years.  There were 16 people laying in for every person taking out.  And the government told the banks that they could not gamble with people’s hard earned savings, passed legislation and created an insurance pool to backstop losses by criminal or unethical activity.  All was good and the people were happy.

As time went on some things changed.  For one, people lived more than 3 or 4 years.  The population retirees increased, and the ratio dropped to 1:10 and then to 1:6 ration of retirees:workers, but the “tax” did not go up, but investments were made that increased the pool.  It was called good management.  The government also encouraged people to save money by deferring taxes, which they did, and the banks used it to make money.  All good as long as the investors gambled well.  They gambled so well, they were able to talk the government into undoing the anti-gambling rules from the past, so their pool to invest was twice as much.  And the markets grew and the portfolios grew and the people were happy.

And then it came to pass that the banks again gambled on real estates, and created complicated investment tools to hide the risk, but the risk was exposed and half the money was gone overnight.  And the retired were wondering about jobs again.  But there were no jobs.  And the employed now had fewer jobs.  So less people paid into the system.  And the people were sad.  And mad because they thought they were being protected from the gambling of the past.  They did not understand.

And the government could supply no answers because they had changed the rules and they knew the people would be unhappy, so the government felt there was no choice, so they borrowed money, and bailed out the banks.  And some people were happy.  And some people were concerned about all that debt.  And some people wondered why it was that history could repeat itself and put society at risk.  And some people asked why people who did bad things were not punished.

And none of these questions has been answered.  Good thing that these fairy tales don’t depict anything real right?


Some recent reading led me to the following items that seem to crop up when municipalities have fiscal problems that are not otherwise created by the economy or federal or state government decisions:

Assuming high returns of retained earnings (Orange County, CA)

  • Pension systems that are underfunded (Portland OR, and others)
  • Lack of appropriate financial advisors (many)
  • Assuming growth will be exponential
  • Failure to address deterioration of infrastructure (many)
  • Getting involved in complicated credit swaps and revenues tools involving borrowing (Detroit).
  • Declining use by customers that are economically stressed (many)

Food for thought… or caution.


Since 2010, the Federal Reserve Bank indicates that the wealthiest 10 percent of American have seen their income rise by 2%.  The Bottom 20% have seen their income DECLINE by 4 percent and the average for all families DECLINED 5%.  That tells me that the majority in the middle income brackets, decreased at a rate greater than the bottom 20%.  In other words more of us are moving down in economic standing, not up.  To make matters worse, the Federal Reserve Bank indicates that the top 3% actually had their incomes increase by 27.7% since 2010, meaning that the upper middle class people are falling back with the rest of us.  Quite the opposite of what our parents had hope for us.

Wages have not rebounded as many people had to take pay cuts or find new a career at lesser pay, which places all kinds of issues at risk – retirement age, retirement goals, college for the kids, investments, home ownership, etc.  All play a role in the economy of the country.  People spend less on eating out, new clothes and other things – generally more frugal, which means less demand for goods and services, and therefore less employment.  A vicious cycle that doesn’t help the economy.  We have already started to see real estate cool off as wages have not rebounded and people figure it is time to defer or get out.  Places like Miami and Las Vegas may remain warmer than say Cleveland or Detroit, but the Miami market has cooled in the past year.

Real losses in purchasing power goes back to the 1980s form the lower half of earners in the US.  And we argue about the minimum wage – which is the very bottom of the pile.  The failed concept of the Great Society was to try to get enough money in everyone’s pocket that the total purchasing power of the population would increase.  Did not work out that way, but the concept of increasing purchasing power of all has appeal.  Inflation goes up.  Purchasing power goes down.  The economy will stagnate if wages for the bottom 90% do not increase.  That makes official less likely to raise water and sewer rates to pay for those needed infrastructure upgrades.  Which will put more assets at risk of failure and stress operations budgets further.

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