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If you are a wastewater utility, and you create a high quality effluent product that can be used for industrial purposes, irrigation or aquifer recharge, who “owns” the water?  If the utility is sending to a golf course pond for discharge, the answer seems obvious – the golf course owns it.  Not so fast.

Now let’s day you are recharging and aquifer.  You pump it into the ground with the intention of recharging the aquifer to benefit your wellfield.   Or you pump it into an aquifer storage and recovery system with the intent of recovering it when you need it.  Quick impression is that you should own it, but what about the people that sink walls along the way?  Or have existing wells in the vicinity that can tap your injected water?  Can you keep people from pumping it out?  Not as clear.

What about discharge to a stream with the idea of capturing it downstream in an intake system for your water system?  Much less clear.  The ecosystem, farmers, irrigation users, etc. along the stream could use the increased flows.  Can you keep them out?  Very unclear.

Now assume you are a water rights state and there are people who have rights to the aquifer or stream that are more senior to yours.  Can you clip their claim to the water by claiming the water is yours?  Really not clear and the subject of ongoing regulatory discussion and legal proceedings.

There are no clear answers to these questions but they have major long-term impacts of water resource planning in much of the US.  The problem is the rules assume facts not in evidence at the time of the permit (or claim).  Conditions can change – permits and rules may not (or have not).  Maybe the water regulations and that the changed condition should perhaps obviate the prior claim?  A very tough legal issue and one bound to make a bunch of people unhappy.  The concept of reclaiming water from waste was not a consideration in the past, so clearly the rules that cover reclaimed water need to be revised.  I can’t wait to see the results.


2014 is almost over.  Hard to believe.  I have been attending or annual Florida Section AWWA conference, meeting up with old friends, making new ones and learning new things.  Conferences and connections allow us to do our jobs more efficiently because as we learn how to solve problems or where we can find a means to solve whatever problem we encounter.  It is a valuable experience that I encourage everyone to get involved with, especially young people who need to make connections to improve their careers.  The technical sessions seemed to be well received and popular.  That means that there are issues that people want to hear about.  Things we focused on were alternative water supplies, water distribution piping issues, disinfection byproducts, ASR and reuse projects.

The reuse projects focused on Florida efforts to deal with 40 years of reuse practice and a movement toward indirect potable reuse. This is the concept where we treat wastewater to a standard whereby it can be put into a waterway upstream of a water supply intake or into the aquifer upstream of wells.  The discussion was extended to a number of discussions about water shortages and solutions for water limited areas.  Florida averages 50-60 inches of rain per year as opposed to the 6-10 inches in areas of the southwest or even 15-20 inches in the Rockies which makes the concept of water limitations seem a bit ludicrous for many, but we rely on groundwater that is recharged by this rainfall for most of our supplies, a lack of topography for storage and definitive wet and dry seasons that do not coincide with use.

The situation is distinctly different in much of the US that relies on surface waters or is just plain water limited.  We have a severe multi-year drought going on in California and huge amounts of groundwater being used for irrigation in many rain-challenged areas.  That is what all those crop-circles are as you fly over the Plains states and the wet.  Where you see crop circles, think unsustainable water supplies.  They are unsustainable because there is no surface water and the recharge for these aquifers is very limited.  Most leakance factors in aquifers is over estimated and hence water levels decline year after year.   Water limited places need answers because agriculture often out-competes water utilities, so in the worst of those areas, there are discussions about direct potable reuse (which occurs in Texas).

Direct and indirect potable reuse are offered as answers which is why this topic was popular at our conference.  A recent 60 Minutes presentation included a tour and discussion of the Orange County Groundwater Replenishment program, where wastewater is treated and injected into the ground for recovery by wells nearer to the coast.  They discussed the process (reverse osmosis, ultraviolet light and peroxide) and they took a drink.  “Tastes like water” was Leslie Stahl’s comment – not sure what she expected it to taste like, but it provides a glimpse into the challenge faced by water utilities in expanding water supplies.   Orange County has been injecting water for many years into this indirect potable reuse project.  The West Coast Basin Barrier Project and several others in California have similar projects.  South Florida has tested this concept 5 times, including one by my university, but no projects have yet been installed.

But until recently, there were no direct potable reuse projects where wastewater is directly connected to the water plant.  But now we have two – both in Texas with a number of potential new projects in the pipeline.  Drought, growth, water competition have all aligned to verify that there many are areas that really do not have water, and what water they do have is over allocated.  A 50 year plan to manage an aquifer (i.e.. to drain it) is not a sustainable plan because there may not be other options.  But Texas is not alone.  Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, The Dakotas, Kansas Oklahoma and I am sure others have verified water limitations and realize that sustainable economic activity is intrinsically linked to sustainable water supplies.  Conservation only goes so far and in many of these places, conservation may be hitting its limits.  Where your rainfall is limited and/or your aquifer is deep, replenishable resource is not always in the quantities necessary for economic sustainability.  Water supplies and economic activity are clearly linked.

So the unimaginable, has become the imaginable, and we now have direct potable reuse of wastewater.  Fortunately we have the technology – it is not cheap, but we have demonstrated that the reverse osmosis/ultraviolet light/advanced oxidation (RO/UV/AOP) process will resolve the critical contaminant issues (for more information we have a paper we published on this). From an operational perspective, RO membranes, UV and chemical feeds for AOP are easy to operate, but there are questions about how we insure that the quality is maintained.  The technical issues for treatment are well established.  Monitoring is a bit more challenging – the question is what to monitor and how often, but even this can be overcome with redundancy and overdosing UV.

But drinking poop-water? The sell to the public is much more difficult.  It is far easier to sell communities without water on the idea, but the reality we need to plan ahead.  There are no rules.  There are no monitoring requirements, but we MUST insure the public that the DPR water they are drinking is safe.  WE are gaining data in Texas.  California and Texas are talking about regulations.  The University of Miami has been working of a project where they have created a portion of a dorm that makes its own water from wastewater.  Results to come, but the endeavor shows promise.


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.


 

The National League of Cities reports that nearly ¾ of municipalities are better off in2013 than they were in 2012.  In Broward County, over half the cities actually have more revenue in 2013 than they did in 2006.  Property values are up in 72% of Counties, and real estate activity was high in 2012 and 2013, although it has slowed in 2014.   Nearly 60% of the municipalities were not projected deferral of capital improvements, although 1/3 expect to reduce maintenance and 40% to defer capital.  The biggest challenge cities identified was street condition (23%, followed by sewer, stormwater and water although these were all under 16% which is a bit disappointing given the condition of much of this infrastructure).  Money remained their biggest challenge.  Total local government budgets are $3 trillion, and the bond market Is a robust $3.7 trillion.  New construction for local water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure is expected to reach $750 billion in 2014, with 3.2 and 4.8 billion respectively for water and sanitary sewer.

Pensions are the biggest liability and one that is critical for many local entities with their own pension plans (like Detroit).  Many others have or will migrate to a state plan, or were already part of a state plan.  Having a large pool off employees decreases risk to the pension plan and increased revenues (and future outlays).  Pension plans or Ponzi schemes?  Now that is the question….


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

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


Public water and sewer systems have the responsibility to protect the health, safety and welfare of the public they serve, just as engineers do.  This is includes not just complying with regulatory mandates (they are minimum standards), but enacting such precautions as are needed to address things not included in the regs.  Unfortunately we continue to pay too much attention on regulatory compliance and evaluate the condition of the system using unaccounted for water losses or leaks fixed in the system as a measure of condition.  That may be an incorrect assumption.  The problem is that unless we understand how the system operates, including how it deteriorates with time, the data from the past may well be at odds with the reality of the future.  For example, that leak in your roof can be a simple irritation for a long time if you ignore it.  But ignoring it creates considerable potential for damage, including roof failure if too much of the structure underneath is damaged.  With a water system, pipes will provide good service for many years will minimal indication of deterioration.  Then things will happen, but there is little data to indicate a pattern.  But like your roof leak, the damage has been done and the leaks are an indication of the potential for failure.  Bacteria, color, pressure problems and flow volumes are all indicators of potential problems, but long-term tracking is needed to determine develop statistical tools that can help with identifying end of life events.  Basic tools like graphs will not help here.

Construction to repair and replace local water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure is expected to reach $3.2 and $4.8 billion respectively for water and sanitary sewer. The federal SRF programs are only $1.7 Billion in SRF loans, 24% below 2012 and well below the levels identified by the federal government to sustain infrastructure condition.  The only reason for the decrease seems to be a demand by Congress to reduce budgets, especially EPA’s budget where this money resides.  But the 2008 recession and its lingering effects to date have deferred a significant amount of infrastructure investments, and the forecast does not rectify the past deficits, and likely does not address the current needs either.  Few water and sewer systems are flush with funds to update infrastructure and borrowing has become a difficult sell for many public officials.  Lake Worth, FL just had a $60 million bond issue for infrastructure redevelopment defeated by voters two weeks ago.  The officials know they need this infrastructure, but the public is unconvinced because few serious problems have occurred.  We have to get the public past this view so we can improve reliability and public safety.  Those are the arguments we need to demonstrate.  The question is how.

 


In this blog we are going to talk about trends in the power industry and how they may affect utilities.  One of the ongoing themes of this blog is that to be leaders in the field, we need to be cognizant of what others are doing and how those actions might affect utility operations.  Power is a big cost for utilities – often 10-15% of the total operations costs where a lot of pumping is involved. In most communities, the utility system is among the largest consumers of power, which is why many utilities have load control agreements in place – power companies can off-load power demands by having the utilities go to onsite generators.  Our community’s building account for 70% or more of local energy use.

The need for power is expanding, albeit at a lower rate that population growth in many communities.  This is because new building construction measures tend to insulate better and install more energy efficient equipment.  Power companies often will subsidize these improvements to reduce the need for more expensive plant expansions.  Where expansions are needed, purchase/transfer agreements or renewables are often a convenient answer.

But long-term we are seeing that the power industry is changing in other ways too.  Already we see a migration away from coal for power generation.  This was occurring before the new regulations were in place for carbon dioxide.  Certain utility companies like NextEra, the largest wind and solar power generator in the US, and the parent of Florida Power and Light, have reduced greenhouse gas emissions from their plants by converting to other sources like combined heat and power (CHP), and increasing efficiency.  The typical oil or coal power plant is 30-35% efficient, while the newer gas turbine systems are up to 45% efficient.  That makes a big difference in costs as well as emissions when gas emissions are half the coal and oil emissions.  NextEra is well placed for carbon trading, a concept some fight, but the US had been emission trading since the early 1990s, so carbon trading markets are already in place.  The only thing needed is the regulations to put them into play.  Buy that NextEra stock now and hope for carbon trading!

But NextEra is not the only likely winner under this carbon trading scenario.  ExxonMobile is big into gas, Exelon is big in the nuclear power industry, Siemens and General Electric, which make wind and gas turbines, are also likely to see growth.  All have poised themselves years ago as the impact of carbon dioxide becomes more apparent.  Most of the industry executives acknowledge climate issues and recognize that people will expect the industry to do its part (the Koch brothers aside).  Many power generators like ConEd and FPL are making changes as well, in advance of the regulatory requirements to do so.  They see it as good business.  They also see it as a means to make more power at a given facility (by increasing efficiency) while reducing water use.  Water use can be a limiting factor, so we will discuss that in a couple days…

 

 


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


A week ago the new National Climate Assessment came out.  It basically says things we already expected – temperatures are warmer, there will be more droughts, less rainfall, less available water, more intense storms and sea level rise.  What the study did in its 800+ pages was outline examples of climate change phenomena that are already occurring including flooded streets in coastal areas, severe weather (Colorado, New Jersey), and changes in the arctic air currents that may be affecting northeastern and Midwestern winter storm frequency.  All things that those who have been around for a while and have been even minimally observant have already noticed for themselves.  What was also not surprising was the vitriol on the internet about how this assessment was a “fascist plot” perpetrated by a variety of people to impose some yet undetermined regulations on “patriotic Americans.”  And then Senator Marco Rubio comes out this week and says he does not believe it is possible for people to cause climate change.  No facts, just belief.  In Florida.  In Miami.  Wow…

Those who live in coastal areas, earn their living in agriculture, manage water utilities relying on water supplies, and drought planners know the truth.  Denying that the climate is changing simply ignores reality and delays the ability to respond to its impacts.  I realize that those impacts might be 20 or 40 or more years out, but planning is needed because we expect our infrastructure, factories, hoses and economies to last longer than that.  Science says change is occurring.  We can argue why and how fast, but the reality is that there is change and there are many people that will confront he need to adapt to the situation sooner than later (like us the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area!).  So why deny climate change?

As we noted in a prior blog, there are several reasons, but many involved business issues.  So follow the money. Let’s start with the Koch brothers.  The Koch brothers manage Koch Industries, the second largest privately owned company in the United States revenues exceeding $100 billion/year.  Many Americans have no idea who they are but they are billionaires who have made their living in the oil business – their father Fred C. Koch developed a new the method for the refining of heavy oil into gasoline.  They rely on oil to maintain their wealth and are politically active with conservative organizations including the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, all organizations the dismiss any impact of man on climate change.  Why?  Well one of the tenets of dealing with climate change is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions which means less reliance on fossil fuels – oil.  Whoops – that would be a problem for the Koch brothers because if they say “sure climate change is a problem,” well then that would mean that their entire business model and their wealth is a contributor to climate change, which means they are the “bad guys.”  Can’t have that.  So following the money tells you that we can’t make our money with oil and support climate change.

Let’s look at the other side.  Those acknowledging climate change are fully supportive of renewables, which in theory will help climate change by reducing carbon dioxide.  But the concept of renewables though is fraught with the problem that few of these technologies are ripe for wide-scale implementation.  For example natural gas vehicles or natural gas/hybrids are doable, but where do you buy the natural gas for the vehicle?  The technology and distribution networks is 10 or more years out at best and of course if you are in the oil business, why would you be interested in installing the natural gas fuel pumps?  So technology and need do not match when you follow the money.

How about the Keystone pipeline that would bring oil and gas from these remote areas to refineries in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico states.  You can guess the Koch brothers are in favor of the pipeline as they will benefit.  So are most oil and gas entities.  There are many environmentalists and other opposed to the pipeline because of impacts on water supplies (and other issues).  But the railroads are making money by hailing oil and gas from Canada and the Dakotas.  Guess which side the railroads are on?  The pipeline would take business away from the railroads.  Follow the money. 

Let’s look at our industry.  In the utility business, there is a lot of money with the telephone, power, cable and other utilities.  These private entities, although regulated, make huge sums of money for their investors.  You can follow that money. 

So who supports water and sewer utilities?  We do!  We supply over 85% of Americans.  But why do we have so much trouble getting funding when 85% of people would benefit.  One would think that given how many people we support, we have the money, but we are primarily not-for-profit entities, so we don’t make money for anyone.  You can’t follow that money because there is no money.  That tells us more about the difficulties we have in securing funding that anything.    

Fixing it is a little bigger challenge because our representatives and constituents do not understand the financial investment they have in our industry.  Their public health and economies are linked to water and sewer.  Our services make these other enterprises doable but there is no direct monetary connection to facilitate lobbying on our behalf.  I am not sure how to fix this, but we need a better marketing strategy for our services.  That’s one thing we know.

 

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