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When we ask what the biggest issues facing water and sewer are in the next 20 years, the number one answer is usually getting a handle on failing infrastructure.  Related to infrastructure is sustainability of supplies and revenue needs.  Resolving the infrastructure problem will require money, which means revenues, and overcoming the resistance to fully fund water and sewer system by local officials, the potential for significant costs or shortfalls for small, rural systems and the increasing concern about economically disadvantaged people. 

The US built fantastic infrastructure systems in the mid-20th century that allowed our economy to grow and for us to be productive.  But like all tools and equipment, it degrades, or wears out with time.  Our economy and our way of life requires access to high quality water and waste water. So this will continue to be critical. 

ASCE and USEPA have both noted the deteriorated condition of the water and wastewater systems.  In the US, we used to spend 4% of the gross GNP on infrastructure.  Currently is it 2%.  Based on the needs and spending, there is a clear need to reconstruct system to maintain our way of life.  This decrease in funding comes at a time when ASCE rates water and wastewater system condition as a D+ and estimates over $3 trillion in infrastructure investment will be needed by 2020.  USEPA believes infrastructure funding for water and sewer should be increased by over $500 billion per year versus the proposed federal decrease of similar amounts or more. 

Keep in mind much of what has made the US a major economic force in the middle 20th century is the same infrastructure we are using today. Clearly there is research to indicate there is greater need to invest in infrastructure while the politicians move the other way.  The public, caught in the middle, hears the two sides and prefers less to pay on their bills, so sides with the politicians as opposed to the data.  Make no mistake, our way of life results from extensive, highly efficient and economic infrastructure systems. 

In many ways we are victims of our own success.  The systems have run so well, the public takes them for granted.  It is hard to make the public understand that our cities are sitting on crumbling systems that have suffered from lack of adequate funding to consistently maintain and upgrade.  Public agencies are almost always reactive, as opposed to pro-active, which is why we continuously end up in defensive positions and at the lower end of the spending priorities. So we keep deferring needed maintenance. The life cycle analysis concepts used in business would help. A 20 year old truck, pump, backhoe, etc. just aren’t cost effective to operate and maintain.

Another part this problem is that people have grown used to the fact that water is abundant, cheap, and safe. Open the tap and here it comes; flush the toilet and there it goes, without a thought as to what is involved to produce, treat and distribute potable water as well as to collect, treat, and discharge wastewater.

Water and Sewer utilities are being funded at less than half the level needed to meet the 30 year demands.  Meanwhile relying on the federal government, which is trying to reduce funding for infrastructure for local utilities is not a good plan either. We need education, research and demonstrations to show those that control funding of the needs. The education many be the toughest part because making the those that control funding agree to increase rates carries a potential risk to them personally.  But there are no statues to those that don’t raise rates – only those with vision.  We need to instill vision in our decision-makers.


In the last blog I talked about the challenge to rural utilities, many of which serve relatively few people and have used federal monies to pay for a lot of their infrastructure.  In this blog we will take a look at the trends for community water systems which are defined as systems that serve at least 15 service connections or serve an average of at least 25 people for at least 60 days a year. EPA breaks the size of systems down as follows:

  • Very Small water systems serve 25-500 people
  • Small water systems serve 501-3,300 people
  • Medium water systems serve 3,301-10,000 people
  • Large water systems serve 10,001-100,000 people
  • Very Large water systems serve 100,001+ people

Now let’s take a look at the breakdown (from NRC 1997).  In 1960, there were about 19,000 community water utilities in the US according to a National Research Council report published in 1997.  80% of the US population was served.  in 1963 there were approximately 16,700 water systems serving communities with populations of fewer than 10,000; by 1993 this number had more than tripled—to 54,200 such systems. Approximately 1,000 new small community water systems are formed each year (EPA, 1995). In 2007 there were over 52,000 community water systems according to EPA, and by 2010 the number was 54,000.  85% of the population is served. So the growth is in those small systems with incidental increases in the total number of people served (although the full numbers are more significant). 

 

TABLE 1 – U.S. Community Water Systems: Size Distribution and Population Served

 

Number of Community Systems Serving This Size Community a

Total Number of U.S. Residents Served by Systems This Size b>

Population Served

1963

1993

1963

1993

Under 500

5,433 (28%)

35,598 (62%)

1,725,000 (1%)

5,534,000 (2%)

501-10,000

11,308 (59%)

18,573 (32%)

27,322,000 (18%)

44,579,000 (19%)

More than 10,000

2,495 (13%)

3,390 (6%)

121,555,000 (81%)

192,566,000 (79%)

Total

19,236

57,561

150,602,000

242,679,000

a Percentage indicates the fraction of total U.S. community water supply systems in this category.

b Percentage is relative to the total population served by community water systems, which is less than the size of the U.S. population as a whole.

SOURCES: EPA, 1994; Public Health Service, 1965.

 

Updating these numbers, there are over 54,000 systems in the US, and growth is almost exclusively in the very small sector.  93% are considered to be small or very small systems—serving fewer than 10,000 people. Even though these small systems are numerous, they serve only a small fraction of the population. Very small systems, those that serve 3,300 people or fewer make up 84 percent of systems, yet serve 10 percent of the population.  Most critical is the 30,000 new very small systems that serve only 5 million people (averaging 170 per system).  In contrast, the very large systems currently serve 45% of the population.  Large plus very large make it 80%.  The 800 largest systems (1.6%) serve more than 56 percent of the population. 900 new systems were added, but large systems served an additional 90 million people.

What this information suggests if that the large and very large sector has the ability to raise funds to deal with infrastructure needs (as they have historically), but that there may be a significant issue for smaller, rural system that have grown up with federal funds over the past 50 years.  As these system start to come to the end of their useful life, rural customers are in for a significant rate shock. Pipeline average $100 per foot to install.  In and urban area with say, 60 ft lots, that is $3000/household.  In rural communities, the residents may be far more spread out.  As an example, a system I am familiar with in the Carolinas, a two mile loop served 100 houses.  That is a $1.05 million pipeline for 100 hours or $10,500 per house.  With dwindling federal funds, rural customers, who are already making 20% less than their urban counterparts, and who are used to very low rates, that generally do not account for replacement funding, will find major sticker shock. 

This large number of relatively small utilities may not have the operating expertise, financial and technological capability or economies of scale to provide services or raise capital to upgrade or maintain their infrastructure.  Keep in mind that small systems have less resources and less available expertise.  In contrast the record of large and very large utilities, EPA reports that 3.5 percent of all U.S. community water systems violated Safe Drinking Water Act microbiological standards one or more times between October 1992 and January 1995, and 1.3 percent violated chemical standards, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).. 

EPA and professionals have long argued that centralized infrastructure for water and sewer utilities makes sense form an economy of scale perspective.  Centralized drinking water supply infrastructure in the United States consists dams, wells, treatment plants, reservoirs, tanks, pumps and 2 million miles of pipe and appurtenances.   In total this infrastructure asset value is in the multi-trillion dollar range.  Likewise centralized sanitation infrastructure in the U.S. consists of 1.2 million miles of sewers and 22 million manholes, along with pump stations, treatment plants and disposal solutions in 16,024 systems.  It is difficult to build small reservoirs, dams, and treatment plants as they each cast far more per gallon to construct than larger systems.  Likewise operations, despite the allowance to have less on-site supervision, is far less per thousand gallons for large utilities when compared to small ones.  The following data shows that the economy-of-scale argument is true:

  • For water treatment, water distribution, sewer collection and wastewater treatment, the graphics clearly demonstrated the economy-of-scale of the larger utility operations versus small scale operations (see Figures 2-5). 
  • The administrative costs as a percentage of the.total budget parameter also demonstrated the economy-of-scale argument that larger utilities can perform tasks at a lesser cost per unit than the smaller utilities (see Figure 6).

Having reviewed the operations costs, the next step was to review the existing rates.  Given the economy-of-scale apparent in Figures 2 to 6, it was expected that there would be a tendency for smaller system to have higher rates.  Figures 2-6 demonstrate this phenomena. 

So what to do?  This is the challenge.  Rate hikes are the first issue, a tough sell in areas generally opposed to increases in taxes, rates and charges and who use voting to impose their desires.  Consolidation is anothe5r answer, but this is on contrast to the independent nature of many rural communities.  Onslow County, NC  figured out this was the only way to serve people efficiently 10 years ago, but it is a rougher sell in many, more rural communities.  Infrastructure banks might help, the question is who will create them and will the small system be able to afford to access them.  Commercial financing will be difficult because there is simply not enough income to offset the risk.  The key is to start planning now for the coming issue and realize that water is more valuable than your iPhone, internet, and cable tv.  In most cases we pay more for each of them than water (see Figure 7).  There is something wrong with that…

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Figure 1  Breakdown of Size of Systems

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Fig 2 Cost of Water Treatment

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Fig 3 Cost of Water Distribution

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Fig 4 Cost of Sewer Collection

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Fig 5 Cost of Sewer Treatment

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Fig 6 Cost of Administration as a percent of total budget

 

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FIgure 7 Water vs other utilities

 


Several weeks ago we looked at the phenomenon of population, income, education and unemployment.  The impact to from the combination of these factors in certain communities can be difficult.  Let’s explore a little further as there is more, interesting data every day.  The US Department of Agriculture is releasing its report of rural America.  The findings are interesting and counter-intuitive to the understanding of voters in many of those communities.  Their findings include:

  • The rural areas grew 0.5 % vs 1.6% in urban areas from mid-2011-mid 2012
  • Rural incomes are 17% lower than urban incomes.
  • The highest income rural works (95th percentile) earn 27% less than their urban counterparts
  • 17.7% of rural constituents live in poverty vs 14.5% in urban areas
  • 80% of the high poverty rate counties were rural
  • All the high income counties are urban.

Wow!  So the ghetto has move to the country? According to these statistics there is truth in that statement.  Let’s look a little further using some on-line mapping. 

First let’s look at where these rural counties are.  Figure 1 is a map from www.dailyyonder.com  that shows (in green) the rural counties in the US.  Wikipaedia shows the 100 lowest income counties in Figure 2.  For the most part, these counties are rural, with the exceptions being a few areas in south Texas and in the Albuquerque/Santa Fe area of New Mexico. Raceonline.com shows the populations in poverty by county.  The red areas are the highest poverty rates.  The red areas in Figure 3 expand Figure 2 to include much of the rural deep south, Appalachia, more of Texas and New Mexico and part of the central valley in California.

Figure 4 shows how the number of young people has changed between 2000 and 2009 in rural counties (urban counties are white and not included – red means a decrease).  Figure 5 shows population growth (or not) by county. What you see in these two maps is that the young people are moving to the rocky mountain states and vacating the high poverty counties in Figure 3.  Yong people do not see jobs in the rural area – unemployment is 20% higher in rural America and the jobs that are there pay less.  Figures 6 and 7 show unemployment by County in 2008 after the start of the Great Recession and in 2013.  What these figures show is that with exception of the Plains states and Rockies, is that many of the areas with high poverty also had high unemployment, and that the unemployment has remains stubbornly high in many rural areas in the Deep South, Appalachia and New Mexico, plus high unemployment in parts to  the Great Lakes, but the poverty rates are still lower.  Education may by a factor in why the Plains states and Rocky Mountains have less unemployment – despite being rural their students are far more likely to graduate from high school than those in the deep South, Appalachia where unemployment remains high and incomes low. 

So what does this possibly have to do with utilities?  Utilities need to understand this problem as is demands some real, on-the-ground leadership.  Small and rural utilities are more costly to operate per thousand gallons than larger utilities.  A 1997 study by the author showed that economy-of-scale manifested itself to a great extent with water and wastewater operations.  The differences were not close – it is a lot less costly to operate large utilities vs small ones.  Rural utilities complicate the issue further because not only is the number of customers limited, but the pipe per customer is less so the capital investment per customer is far higher than in urban areas.  The impact is that utilities are under pressure to reduce rates to customers, or create a set of lower cost rates for those in poverty, while at the same time their costs are increasing and infrastructure demands are incrementally higher than their larger neighbors.  The scenario cannot be sustained, especially when large portions of rural infrastructure was installed with FHA grants, meaning the customers never paid for the capital cost in the first place.  There was no or lower debt, than what larger utility customers have.  The rural rates since these investments have been set artificially lower than they should as a result. But with Congress talking about reducing SRF and FHA programs, FHA is unlikely to step in to replace their initial investment, meaning that the billions of rural investment dollars that will be needed in the coming years will need to be locally derived, and rate shock will become a major source of controversy in areas that are largely very conservative politically and tend to vote against projects that will increase costs to them.

The good news is that much of the rural infrastructure may be newer when compared to much of the urban infrastructure.  So there is time to build the argument that local investment is needed.  The community needs to be engaged in this discussion sooner as opposed to when problems occur.  Saving for the infrastructure may be the best course since rural utilities will have limited access to the borrowing market because of their size, but that means raising rates now and keeping those saved funds as opposed to using them to deer rate increases.  If ongoing efforts in the House deplete federal funding further, the pinch will be felt sooner by rural customers who will lose the federal dollars from SRF and FHA programs. 

 

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Figures 1 – Rural Counties

http://www.dailyyonder.com/united-states-rural-urban-and-exurban-counties/2009/03/17/2002

 

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Figure 2.  100 lowest income Counties in the US

 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lowest-income_counties_in_the_United_States

 

 

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Figure 3.  Estimated population in poverty

http://www.raconline.org/racmaps/mapfiles/poverty.jpg

 

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Figure 4.  Where the Young People Are

http://www.raconline.org/maps/topic_details.php?topic=55

 

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Figure 5.  Where people are moving to http://www.raconline.org/maps

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Figure 6  Unemployment 2008

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unemployment

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Figure 7  Unemployment 2013 http://www.huduser.org/portal/pdredge/pdr_edge_featd_article_040

 


As 2014 is only a month away, expect water and sewer infrastructure to become a major issue in Congress.  While Congress has failed to pass budgets on-time for many years, already there are discussions about the fate of federal share of SRF funds.  The President has recommended reduction in SRF funds of $472 million, although there is discussion of an infrastructure fund, while the House has recommended a 70% cut to the SRF program.  Clearly the House sees infrastructure funding as either unimportant (unlikely) or a local issue (more likely).  Past budgets have allocated over $1.4 billion, while the states put up a 20% match to the federal share.  A large cut in federal funds will reverberate through to local utilities, because many small and medium size utilities depend on SRF programs because they lack access to the bond market.  In addition, a delay in the budget passage due to Congressional wrangling affects the timing of SRF funds for states and utilities, potentially delaying infrastructure investments. 

This decrease in funding comes at a time when ASCE rates water and wastewater system condition as a D+ and estimates over $3 trillion in infrastructure investment will be needed by 2020.  USEPA notes that the condition of water and wastewater systems have reached a rehabilitation and replacement stage and that infrastructure funding for water and sewer should be increased by over $500 billion per year versus a decrease of similar amounts or more.  Case Equipment and author Dan McNichol have created a program titled “Dire Straits:  the Drive to Revive America’s Ailing Infrastructure” to educate local officials and the public about the issue with deteriorating infrastructure.  Keep in mind much of what has made the US a major economic force in the middle 20th century is the same infrastructure we are using today. Clearly there is technical momentum to indicate there is greater need to invest in infrastructure while the politicians move the other way.  The public, caught in the middle, hears the two sides and prefers less to pay on their bills, so sides with the politicians as opposed to the data. 

Local utilities need to join the fray as their ability to continue to provide high quality service.  We need to educate our customers on the condition of infrastructure serving them.  For example, the water main in front of my house is a 50 year old asbestos concrete pipe that has broken twice in the past 18 months. The neighborhood has suffered 5 of these breaks in the past 2 months, and the City Commission has delayed replacement of these lines for the last three years fearing reprisals from the public.  Oh and the road in front of my house is caving in next to where the leak was.  But little “marketing” by the City has occurred to show the public the problem.  It is no surprise then that the public does not recognize the concern until service is interrupted.  So far no plans to reinitiate the replacement in front of my house.  The Commission is too worried about rates.

Water and sewer utilities have been run like a business in most local governments for years  They are set up as enterprise funds and people pay for what they use.  Just like the private sector.  Where the process breaks down is when the price is limited while needs and expenses rise.  Utilities are relatively fixed in their operating costs and I have yet to find a utility with a host of excess: workers.  They simply do not operate in this manner.  Utilities need to engage the public in the infrastructure condition discourse, show them the problems, identify the funding needs, and gain public support to operate as any enterprise would – cover your costs and insure you keep the equipment (and pipes) maintained, replacing them when they are worn out.  Public health and our local economies depend on our service. Keep in mind this may become critical quickly given the House commentary.  For years the federal and state governments have suggested future funding may not be forthcoming at some point and that all infrastructure funding should be local.  That will be a major increase in local budgets, so if we are to raise the funds, we need to solicit ratepayer support.  Now!  


Communicating effectively in both written form and public speaking is critical for the success of the utility.  I have been reading several books on leadership and communication remains an ongoing issue throughout.  We see many schools trying to incorporate this into the engineering curriculum, but that leaves far too many outside the training “program.”  The problem is that many people think they communicate well, when in fact they do not.  Nothing is  more of a reality check than college students, too many of which write in “text message form” as opposed to real written words.  Presenting utility concepts and ideas to different audiences is an integral part of the profession and unfortunately the technical nature of many of our issues requires technical people to communicate concepts to non-technical audiences.  This s far more difficult than it appears, which is part of why the message may be lost.  .Knowing this fact, aspiring utility employees must become familiar with using visual aids and computer-based tools to convey the important design details, so that, the client, regulators, politicians, the public and even other engineers can envision what the final product will look like and evaluate their ability to successfully execute the project. 

We tell our students that technical communication for civil engineers is essential to the profession and is a prerequisite for a successful engineering career. It assists in conveying information, serves as a thought process tool, and is arguably just as essential as excellent analytical or computational skills. For some, writing well comes naturally, for others, it can be a struggle. The difference can be experience, confidence, and proper planning. Planning makes writing easier. A good place to start would be to make an outline of topics to adequately cover the necessary content and in the appropriate order that allows the reader to follow along in a logical fashion. Of course too many of them resist outlines and read very little.  

Reading and writing go hand in hand.  If you read a lot, you have a better chance of being a good writer than those o do not.  The saving grace of the vampire books, Hunger Games, Game of thrones and 50 Shades series is that someone is actually reading the books. That is a first step.  Of course the news is another matter.  History, of course no so much.  For utility folks, it is technical materials that must be read, digested and conveyed to the ratepayers.  People are naturally suspicious of those they cannot understand, a huge barrier for the industry to overcome. I remind our students than when the general public is asked what engineers do, more than half answer:  drive trains.  Wow.  the disconnect!

It is important to avoid overly long documents with too much technical detail, jargon or specialized terms, distractions and tangents.The consequences of poor communications clearly justify the amount of time and effort required to write well because, for example, the written word in a document is permanent; therefore, the bad impression left with the reader of sloppy work can be extremely damaging.  We need to engage the public in a positive way.  Communication needs to be a more robust goal for all of us than it currently is to engender that needed support.


School is back in session.  It is a great opportunity to see what kind of great things we can learn this year.  We can learn from the students as much as they learn from us.  Working with college students, in bridging that connection between my real world clients and my students keeps me engaged and allows me to act as a conduit of information between the two sectors.  That conduit potentially includes jobs for students and technology for clients.  It is remarkable how much the skills sets of the students have changes and increased in certain areas in five years, let alone 10.  I remind them that 5 years after they graduate, the skill set of the next group will be far ahead of theirs. Get your license and keep learning and staying up to date with technology.  It is far too easy to get behind and it is surprising how many graduates figure they are done with learning when the graduate.  Far from it.  The advances and changes in the industry move so quickly.  All my students are doing 3 dimensional projects versus cad drawings 5 years ago.  And those cad drawings were so far above the cad drawings of ten years ago.  All three groups are ahead of a lot of engineering firms with respect to technology.  And there accompanying utilities as well.  My students make great interns for GIS – it comes naturally to them.  My older friends?  Well, let’s say there is a bit of a learning curve.  As we try to be more efficient, training and skill development become continuous exercises.  It is obvious when you compare skill sets of recent, current or older graduates.  Of course skill sets may not translate to knowledge, for there is no substitute for field experience, especially in the water and engineering fields.  The reality is often much different than you expect, for a variety of reasons.  How you adapt means experience.  It is why the older crowd and the younger crowd need each other and need those communication avenues.  I find that my teaching keeps you engaged in the changes in technology, viewpoints and the new generation while maintaining the relationships with the real world


A recent Manhatten Institute for Policy Research report titled “America’s Growth Corridor: The Key to National Revisal” noted that the future economy in the US will tend to growth in certain corridors, which echos a prior report that identified “super-regions” where population, manufacturing, education and economic growth were likely to be concentrated. Both reports suggest that the super-regions will prosper, with the rest of the country lagging behind. The seven high growth areas in the Mnahatten Institute report are the Pacific Coast, the Northeast, the Front Range, Great Lakes, the southeast/piedmont, Florida/Gulf Coast, and Texas/southern plains. This new report focuses more on the politics of the region, noting that each region is politically fairly consistent internally, indicating there is more than one way to do business. The current business climate, driven primarily by energy favors the Plains, with the southeast starting to import jobs from Japan and Korean as a result of low wage rates. The report goes on to draw a series of political conclusions about business climates and the politics of why growth is occurring in certain areas. But let’s look at a different view of the report. Each of these regions has had “ it’s day in the sun” so to speak, and some a couple of days, like California. Business cycles are cyclical so shifts in growth corridors is not unexpected. However there are some potential limiting issues that are not addressed in the report that are of significant interest or concern.

First, where is the water? Texas and the Plains have significant water limitations, as does much of the southeast. Trying to build an economy when you lack a major resource becomes difficult. That is why the Northeast, Great Lakes and later the Pacific grew earlier than the south, mountain and Gulf states. The Northeast and Great Lakes had water for industrial use and transport of goods, a real key historically for industry. Those regions also had (and still have) better embedded transportation facilities (rail, roads, airports).

The next question is where is the power coming from? The answer that will be given is that the Plains states and Texas have created 40 % of the jobs in the energy sector in the past 4 years so that is where the energy comes from, but having energy and being able to convert it efficiently to power that is useful to people or industry is a different issue. You need water to cool natural gas plants, unless you want to sacrifice a lot of efficiency. Back to water again. Moving the gas to other parts of the country to convert coal or oil plants to natural gas would work, but getting the electricity back does not come without 6% losses and a real need to make major improvements to the electrical grid. Not a small job.

So while the Manhatten Institute reprort suggest that all seven corridors will grow, but that the southern corridors are growing faster, the sustainability of this growth is at question. I recall a similar prediction when I graduated from college in the early 1980s, when the jobs for engineers were limited to the energy fields in Texas and Louisiana and the prediction was that al the industrial growth would be in the south. And then Silicon Valley happened, and then the housing boom in California, Nevada and Florida happened, and a few things in between. Oh and that energy economy collapsed in the late 1980s …. You get the picture. This is not to say that some marketing the power, water and transportation benefits of the historical industrial areas of the north are not needed – they are, but the fact is that there is significant available water, power, transportation and people capacity that is unused. If I am an industry, I may want to look at the power/water issue a little more closely.


In the past week I have had the opportunity to experience the extremes with water – heavy rains/tropical weather in SE Florida, and dry weather in Denver at America Water Works Association’s Annual Conferences and Exposition. Two months ago with was snowing in Denver and there had been limited rain in SE Florida. Six months ago we were both dry and there was significant concern about drought in both places. How quickly fortunes change and the associated attitudes as well. It is part of a perception problem – looking at the near term – instant gratification, as opposed the long-term consequences. In truth neither set of conditions is historically different or should have created major panic or much shift in attitudes, but it is the potential to predict conditions that require the water manager’s scrutiny. We have all become risk managers.

Managing risk is not in the job description of most water and sewer personnel (risk managers aside, and they are focused on liability risks from incidents caused by or incurred by the utility like accidents, not water supply risks). We spend a lot of effort on the engineering, operation and business side, but less on planning or risk/vulnerability assessments. EPA has required vulnerability assessments in the past, but having seen some of those exercises, most are fairly superficial and many put on a shelf and forgotten. I have had clients ask me if I still had copies because they did not. Clearly we need a renewed commitment to vulnerability assessment.

Vulnerability starts with water supplies. Groundwater is particularly tricky. A new USGS study reports significant decreases in water levels in many aquifers across the US, especially confined aquifers in the west. That situation is not improving, and the situation will not correct itself. Loss of your water supply is a huge vulnerability for a community. Finding a new supply is not nearly as simple as it sounds or as many are led to believe. Confined aquifers do not recharge quickly and therefore have finite amounts of water in them. Remove too much water and all too often land subsidence occurs, which means the aquifer collapses and will never hold the same amount of water. USGS has mapped this and it matches up well with the drawn down aquifers. More data needs to be collected, but Congress is looking to cut USGS funds for such purposes, just when conditions suggest the data is needed most.

Many watershed basins and many aquifers are over allocated and overdrawn, and not just in the west. New England and the Carolinas have examples. Overallocation means competition for water will increase with time and it will be utilities that everyone will look at to solve the problem. Afterall the utilities have money as opposed to agriculture and other users, right? To protect themselves, water utility managers will need to look beyond their “slice of the pie” to start discussions on the holistic benefits to water users throughout the watershed, which will extend to understanding economic and social impacts of water use decisions. It is not just about us, and paradigm shift that is coming and one that we as an industry need to be the leading edge for. Our use impacts others and vice versa. Every basin wants to grow and prosper, but decisions today may reduce our future potential. Klamath River is a great example of misallocated water priorities. The biggest potential economy in the basin is Salmon ($5B/yr), followed by tourism ($750 M and growing), which relies on fishing and hiking. But agriculture ($0.2 B/yr) get the water first. Then power, which warms the water (salmon like cold water). Then a few people (a few 100,000 at the most in the basin). The result, the salmon industry gets reduced to $50 M/yr. Now how could we create more jobs, which would result in more income and a bigger economy? The easy answer is encourage the salmon industry, but that doesn’t sit well with the other, smaller users that will become more vulnerable to losses.

I suggest that to harden our water future in any given basin, we need to start looking a little more holistically at the future. This type of analysis is clearly not in the job description of the utility or its managers, utility managers may have the best access to technical expertise and information. As a result to protect their interests and manage risk, we may need to shift that paradigm and become holistic water managers.


A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that 50 % or people have paid their utility (water, sewer, electric) bills late, but only 24.8% have paid the internet late, 39.5% the cable late and 44% the phone bill. Really? We are willing to pay water, sewer and electric late, but not the internet bill? This should be a wake-up call to water and sewer utility leaders nation-wide that we have a problem. Combined water and sewer bills across the United States average something around $50. True they are often higher in California, SE Florida, and some other areas, but they are also lower in many areas. Most of the time even in those high cost areas, the bill is under $100.

I have done a number of rate studies and I find that the cable bill, and the cell phone bills are almost always higher than the water+sewer bill locally, so why are people willing to pay our bill late, but not the others? Is it the perceived benevolence of local utilities, most of which are public entities? Is it a perception that water should be free so it is not important to pay the bill? Or is it the lack of marketing of an essential product by waterutilities? I have heard all these arguments, but I am thinking the latter may be more important. Most people know they need to pay the bill, and I don’t really know anyone who thinks water should be free in the US. People are used to cheap water, and costs are going up. Complaining to local elected officials often keeps rates artificially low, which means maintenance and replacement programs get deferred. That makes the utility more at risk to failure. EPA, GAO and others report regularly that we have been keeping rates low and deferring capital and maintenance for years to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. So what is wrong?

I suggest that as an industry, we have failed in marketing water. Treatment plants, piping and pump stations are out of the way, pipes are buried. No one sees them and people assume these faciliaites will work, but rarely ask how they work or how long they will work. They do not understand the complexity or the regulatory stringency of operating a utility. They do not understand that the number one priority is public health, and protecting the public health costs money. We have not made people understand this because we do not market our product. I have taught elected official classes where the elected officials tell me public dollars should not be spent on marketing, but they never say why when pressed. Rarely is marketing included in a budget. But if water and sewer is a business, isn’t marketing an important strategy to maintain that business?

Meanwhile we have a host of celebrities marketing cellphones, which are not required to survive. We have a host of glitzy cool advertisements for cable service options, but we don’t need cable to survive. The power companies send out glitzy stuffers in their bills that no one reads, but they do end up in the papers regularly. And power really helps us survive, but we could do without it (although it would be unpleasant). Our forefathers did. But no one ever survived without water. Maybe it is just too obvious. But maybe because it is so obvious, people are less conscious of it. We need to market better. As a private sector marketing manager would say – we have lost our market share!! We need to get it back.


If you live on an island, and your groundwater table is tidal, what should your datum be for storm water planning purposes?  Average tide?  High tide?  Seasonal high tide?  If you are the local official with this problem, what do you do, realizing that the difference from mean tide and seasonal high tide (when most flooding occurs) is 1.5 feet?  Realizing that property and infrastructure is at much higher risk for periodic inundation, does the failure to address the problem indicate a lack of willingness, understanding, hope or leadership?  We see all four responses among local officials, but the “head in the sand” mode is the most curious.  It’s tough challenges that often define leaders.  With sea level rise, there is time to plan, construct infrastructure in stages, arrange funding, and lengthen the life of infrastructure and property.  Meanwhile, those insurers, banks and the public we talked about in a prior blog wait and watch.

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