A utility’s novel attempt to force farmers to curb pollution in rivers failed. Now the utility is on the hook for millions of dollars to protect the region’s drinking water.
— Read on www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-des-moines-water-utility-lawsuit-farmers.html
Voters in red and blue states like them. But historically, transportation “lockboxes” do little to address transportation problems.
— Read on www.governing.com/topics/transportation-infrastructure/gov-connecticut-transportation-lockbox-ballot-states.html
As 2017 gets rolling, we are set to swear in a new President. The politics are already interesting. The question is what will change, when and how. For example there has been an ongoing discussion of infrastructure bills, but aside from WITAF approval, little clear direction has been forthcoming. We only know that private sector participation will be encouraged. Of course virtually all projects constructed in the public sector are constructed by private contractors, so how/if that will change is unclear.
It is also unclear which industries will be affected. There are already comments about not pursuing he renewable energy opportunities – China sees 13 million jobs in the coming 5 years as their economy cranks up to meet the needs. They are contributing $360 billion to enhance this sector. I have previously blogged about potential opportunities in the US to grow renewables. But they are just like recycling in the 1970s. Recycling needed to be subsidized until such time as the facilities and processes were in place to make it competitive. Now for steel and aluminum, it is less costly than virgin iron or bauxite. That has several benefits to the economy and the environment.
I have previously suggested that those who do the research, develop the solutions and control the patents tend to rule the economy. The US did in throughout the 20th century. Energy is the 21st century opportunity and I would hope we don’t cede that elsewhere due to politics. 13 million jobs would really help places in rural America and place like Detroit and Flint which have the workers. It may be that instead of the federal government doing much in this arena, the state and local officials will lead the charge. California has been successful to a degree in this regard. Let’s see if making money will “trump” the politics of oil. That would be good for a lot of local governments that have workers and factories, but not jobs. That would help people like those in Flint. And it would help their utilities. Let’s work on this with our local officials
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.
Figure 1 Summary of Costs over the 3 ft of potential sea level Rise by 2011, under the 3 storm planning concepts.
“Or is running a local government like s business killing it?”
I had an interesting conversation at a conference recently. The people I was talking to were advanced in their careers and the discussion moved toward the outlook on management in public settings. Once upon a time, most public works and utility managers were civil engineers, but often they were criticized because they were focused on the engineering aspects as opposed to the people aspects of the community. Their focus was public health and making sure things operated correctly. Most did whatever was needed to accomplish that.
This led to schools of public administration, which actually started educating some of those same engineers about management of large public organizations, organizational theory, human resource, accounting and planning I did all that myself at UNC-Chapel Hill. The goal was to understand finances, people, community outreach, the need to engage citizens and as well as public service. The outcomes were providing good service. That however tends to cost a little more than operations although there are opportunities to be a bit entrepreneurial.
So back to the people in the conversation. They noted that sometime in the 1980s or early 1990s the MPAs were being replaced by MBAs as politicians were focusing on operating “like a business.” Looking at the MBAs out there, the comment was that business schools do not focus on service, but profits to shareholders, and the training is to cut unproductive pieces that detract from the bottom line. Hence investments do not get made if the payback is not immediate. Service is not a priority unless it helps the bottom line. In a monopoly (like a local government), there are no other option, so service becomes a lessor priority.
So it brought up an interesting, but unanswerable question for now: has the move to more business trained people in government created some of the ills we see? The discussion included the following questions/observations (summarized here):
- Many water and sewer utilities are putting a lot of time and effort into customer service and outreach now after years of criticism for failing to communicate with customers. That appears symptomatic of the monopoly business model.
- Our investments in infrastructure decreased significantly after 1980, and many business people focus on payback – so if the investment does not payback quickly, they do not pursue them. How does that impact infrastructure investments which rarely pay back quickly (Note that I have heard this argument from several utility directors with business backgrounds in very recent years, so the comments are not unfounded). It does beg the questions of whether the business focus compounds our current infrastructure problems.
- Likewise maintenance often gets cut as budgets are matched to revenues as opposed to revenues matched to costs, another business principle. Run to failure is a business model, not a public sector model. Utilities can increase rates and we note that phones, cable television, and computer access have all increased in costs at a far faster rate that water and sewer utilities.
Interestingly though was the one business piece that was missing: Marketing the value of the product (which is different than customer service). Marketing water seems foreign to the business manager in the public sector. The question arising there is whether that is a political pressure as opposed to a forgotten part of the education.
I would love to hear some thoughts…
The average is 4% of visible infrastructure is in poor condition. Actually 4-6% depending on the municipality. And this was visible infrastructure, not buried, but there is not particular reason to believe the below ground infrastructure is somehow far worse off. Or better. That 4-6% is infrastructure that needs to be fixed immediately, which means that as system deteriorate, there is catch –up to do. The good news is many of the visible problems were broken meter boxes, damaged valve boxes, broken curbs and broken cleanouts- minor appearing issues, but ones that likely require more ongoing maintenance that a water main. And the appearance may be somewhat symptomatic – people perceive that the system is rundown, unreliable or poorly maintained when they see these problems. It raises a “Tipping Point” type discussion. “Tipping Points” Is a book written by Malcolm Gladwell that I read last year (great book – my wife found it in a book exchange for free in Estes Park last summer). It was along a similar vein of thought as the Freakanomics books – the consequences of certain situations may be less clear than one thinks. The Tipping point that is most relevant is crime in New York in the early 1990s after Bernard Goetz shot several assailants in the subway. The problem was significant and the subways were thought to be among the higher risk areas. The new police chief and Mayor decided that rather that ignore the petty crimes (like many large cities do), they would pursue those vigorously. So fare hopping on the train and the like were challenged immediately. They decided that no graffiti would be visible on the subways and cleaned cars every night to insure this remained the case. Cars with graffiti were immediately removed from service. New subway cars were ordered. Pride and public confidence improved. Crime dropped. The impact of their efforts was that people recognized that criminal behavior would not be tolerated and fairly quickly criminal activity decreased. It was a big success story, but the underlying reasons were less discussed, but easily transferrable to our infrastructure. If we have broken valve boxes, meters, cleanouts, storm drains etc., the same perceptions of a rundown community rise. Rundown communities lead to a loss of public confidence and trust and pride. And none of those help our mission or our efforts to increase infrastructure spending. 4% might not look like much, but it can drastically change the perception of the community. So let’s start to fix those easy things; and document that we did in our asset management programs.
You asked for more figures – so here you go Very cool stuff. All done by students.
How many utilities have a 3D map of their infrastructure? Not many I bet. But FAU does. Here is a recently completed project we did with students and the Facilities Maintenance staff at FAU (costs involved). They needed better mapping and will tie this to their work order system. It was an excellent opportunity for two groups within one organization that otherwise seem to have little in common wot work toward a great project. We will be inputting this data into an online asset management system this summer along with some data for Dania Beach so they will have a portion of their utility system in 3D also. This is part of a tiny project we did for their downtown area.
GIS is a powerful tool and one utilities should embrace wholeheartedly. There is so much more than mapping to do. Data gathering in critical, but with Leica and Trimble units, a lot of data can be gathered easily. LiDAR can be expensive, but the value is tremendous. You can see that the FAU system is laid on a 3D LiDAR topographic map (6 in vertical accuracy). Asset condition assessments were also done concurrently, which adds a lot of information to the system (all assets were also photographed and linked). Drawing files can be downloaded and extruded from 2D to 3D. Engineers know GIS or can learn it, which makes a fully expanded GIS system for the utility easy to derive if the time is spent. This is a valuable tool when linked to work orders and asset management programs.
So is your utility in 3D?