One of the issues I always include in rate studies is a comparison of water rates with other basic services. Water always comes in at the bottom. But that works when everyone has access and uses those services. Several years ago a study indicated that cable tv was in 87-91 % of home. At the time I was one of the missing percentage, so I thought it was interesting. However, post the 2008 recession, and in certain communities, this may be a misplace comparison. A recent study by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman notes that the top 0.1% have assets that are worth the same as the bottom 90% of the population! Yes, you read that correctly. Occupy Wall Street had it wrong. It’s not the 1% it is the 0.1%. This is what things were like in the 1920s, just before the Great Depression. The picture improved after the implementation of tax policies (the top tax rate until 1964 was 90% – yes you read that right – 90%). Then the tax rate was slowly reduced to deal with inflation. The picture continued to improve until supply side economics was introduced in the early 1980s when the disparity started to rise again (see their figure below), tripling since the late 1970s (you recall the idea was give wealthy people more money and they would invest it in jobs that would increase employment opportunities and good jobs for all, or something like that). Supply side economics did not/does not work (jobs went overseas), and easy credit borrowing and education costs have contributed to the loss of asset value for the middle class as they strove to meet job skills requirements for better jobs. In addition wages have stagnated or fallen while the 0.1% has seen their incomes rise. The problem has been exacerbated since 2008 as they report no recovery in the wealth of the middle class and the poor. So going back to my first observation – what gets cut from their budget, especially the poor and those of fixed pensions? Food? Medicine? Health care? My buddy Mario (86 year old), still works because he can’t pay his bills on social security. And he does not live extravagantly. So do they forego cable and cell phones? If so the comparison to these costs in rate studies does not comport any longer. It places at risk people more at risk. And since, rural communities have a lower income and education rate than urban areas, how much more at risk are they? This is sure to prove more interesting in the coming years. Hopefully with some tools we are developing, these smaller communities can be helped toward financial and asset sustainability. But it may require some tough decisions today.
In the last blog we talked about a side issue: ecosystems, bison, wolves, coyotes and the Everglades, which seem very distant form our day-to-day water jobs, but really are not. So let’s ask another, even more relevant issue that strikes close to home. Why is it that it is a good idea to store coal ash, mine tailings, untreated mine waste, garbage, and other materials next to rivers? We see this over and over again, so someone must think this is brilliant. It cost Duke Energy $100 million for the 39,000 tons of coal ash and 24 MG of wastewater spilled into the Dan River near Eden NC in 2014. In West Virginia, Patriot Coal spilled 100,000 gallons of coal slurry into Fields Creek in 2014, blackening the creek and impacting thousands of water supply intakes. Fines to come. Being a banner year for spills, again in West Virginia, methylcyclohexamethanol was released from a Freedom Industries facility into the Elk River in 2014, contaminating the water supply for 300,000 residents. Fines to come, lawsuits filed. But that’s not all. In 2008, an ash dike ruptured at an 84-acre solid waste containment area, spilling material into the Emory River in Kingston TN at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant. And in 2015, in the Animas River in western Colorado, water tainted with heavy metal gushed from the abandoned Gold King mining site pond into the nearby Animas River, turning it a yellow for dozens of miles crossing state lines.
Five easy-to-find examples that impacted a lot of people, but it does not address the obvious question – WHY are these sites next to rivers? Why isn’t this material moved to more appropriate locations? It should never be stored on site, next to water that is someone else’s drinking water supply. USEPA and state regulators “regulate” these sites but regulation is a form of tacit approval for them to be located there. Washington politicians are reluctant to take on these interests, to require removal and to pursue the owners of defunct operations (the mine for example), but in failing to turn the regulators loose to address these problems, it puts our customers at risk. It is popular in some sectors to complain about environmental laws (see the Presidential elections and Congress), but clearly they are putting private interests and industry before the public interest. I am thinking we need to let the regulators do their job and require these materials to be removed immediately to safe disposal. That would help all of us.
Most water suppliers realize that the more natural their land is upstream of their water supplies, the less risk there likely is for their customers. Under the source water protection programs that state, local officials and water utilities implement, the concept is to keep people related activities out, and let the natural forests and landscapes remain. For the most part the natural areas support only a limited amount of wildlife (sustainable) and thereby there natural systems are attuned to compensate for the natural pollutant loads, sediment runoff, ash, detrital matter, etc., that might be created through natural processes. For thousands of years these systems operated sustainably. When people decide there needs to be changes, it seems like the unanticipated consequences of these actions create more problems. Now many of these same ecosystems do not work sustainably and water quality has diminished, increasing the need for treatment and the risks of contamination to the public. It would be better, but decidedly less popular on certain fronts, to provide more protection to natural systems that extend into watersheds (which is most of them), not less.
So this leads to a series of questions that go to the greater questions about natural environments:
Is it really necessary to cull the small Yellowstone bison herd by 1000? What do bison have to do with watersheds? Well, the bison create much less damage to grasslands and underlying soil than cattle due to the size of their hooves. An argument is that we need to cull the herd because they transmit disease to cattle, but Brucellosis has never been demonstrated to move from bison to cattle, so disease is not an answer. What is really happening is that there is competition between buffalo and cattle for grazing. Competition with cattle means that the cattle are on public property, not private ranch lands, and the cattle trample the public lands which creates the potential for soil erosion and sediment runoff. So I am thinking water folks should be siding with the bison. Of course without wolves, there is no natural predator for bison, which raises a different sustainability problem, so maybe instead of killing them, we move them to more of their native ranges – maybe some of those Indian reservation might want to restart the herds on their lands? That might be good for everyone, water folks included.
Part 2 – is it necessary to continue to protect wolves or should we continue to hunt them in their native ranges? Keep in mind wolf re-introduction efforts are responsible for most of the wolf populations in the US, specifically in the Yellowstone area. Without wolves, there is no control of large grazing animal populations (see bison above, but also elk and deer), and there is a loss of wetland habitat because the elk eat the small shoots used by beavers to build dams and trap sediment. Eliminating wolves has been proven to create imbalance. Wolves = sediment traps = better water quality downstream. Sounds like a win for everyone. (BTW there is a program in Oregon to protect wolves and help ranchers avoid periodic predation of calves by wolves so they win too).
Part 3 – Is it really necessary to kill off coyotes in droves? The federal government kills thousands of coyotes and hunters and others kill even more. This is a far more interesting question because it leads to one of those unintended consequences. !100+ years ago people decided wolves were bad (we still have this issue ongoing – see above). So we eradicated wolves. No wolves means more rodents, deer, elk, etc. which mean less grass, less aspens and less beavers, which means more runoff which does not help water suppliers. It also means more coyotes, because there is more food for the coyotes. Interesting that coyotes have pretty much covered the entire US, when their ranges were far more limited in the past. Coyotes are attracted to the rodents and rabbits. But the systems are generally not sustainable for coyotes because there is not enough prey and there is no natural control of the coyotes – again, see wolves above. A Recent Predator defense report indicates that culling coyotes actually increases coyote birth rate and pushes them toward developed areas where they find cats and small dogs, unnatural prey. Not the best solution – unintended consequences of hunting them on more distant land pushes them into your neighborhood. Not the consequence intended. So maybe we keep the small dogs and cat inside at daybreak and nightfall when the coyotes are out and let them eat the rats and mice that the cats chase and once consumed they go away. Coyotes need to eat grazers and rodents but you need the right mix or the grazers overgraze, which leads to sediment runoff issues – which is bad for us. That also seems like a win.
Everglades restoration is a big south Florida issue. The recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer is the Everglades. So water there seems like a win for water suppliers? So why aren’t we the biggest Everglades advocates out there? Still searching for that answer, but Everglades restoration is a win for us and a win for a lot of critters. Federal dollars and more federal leadership on restoration is needed. Which leads to ….
Do we need more, not less management of federal lands? Consider that the largest water manager in the west is the federal government, which has built entire irrigation systems to provide water to farmers who grow crops in places that are water deficient. Those farms then attract people to small towns that consume more of the deficient water. Then people lobby to let cattle graze on those public lands (see bison above), timber removal – which increases sediment erosion, or mining (what could possible go wrong there?). So since the federal government manages these lands, wouldn’t better regulations and control to keep the federal properties more protected benefit water users and suppliers? Contrary to the wishes of folks like the guys holed up in a federal monument in Oregon, or the people who have physically attacked federal employees in Utah and Nevada, more regulations and less freedom is probably better in this situation for the public good. If we are going to lease public lands (and most lands leased are leased to private parties for free or almost free), and there should be controls on the activities monitoring for compliance and requirements for damage control caused by those activities. There should be limits on grazing, timber and mining, and monitoring of same. Lots of monitoring. It is one of the things government really should do. And we need it to protect water users downstream. Again a win for water suppliers.
So as we look at this side issue, ecosystems, bison, wolves, coyotes and the Everglades seem very distant from our day-to-day water jobs. But in reality they are not. We should consider the impacts they might have on water supply, keeping in mind natural system decisions are often significantly linked to our outcomes, albeit the linkage is not always obvious.
My cousin once asked me what I thought about deciding on who to vote for for President might be best done when evaluating how well your 401K or investments did. Kind of an amusing thought. In that vein the decisions might be very different than they were. Clearly your 401k did with with Clinton. The economy was flat for George W. Bush, and the end of his term was the Great Recession. Reagan’s first term was flat. We all know about George H.W. Bush. Interesting thoughts. Not so good. So what about the last 8 years? But is raises a more interesting issue. So don’t get me wrong, this blog is not intended to lobby for any candidate (and Obama can’t run), but it is interesting to look at the last 8 years. They have been difficult. The economy responded slowly. Wages did not rebound quickly. But in comparison to 2008 are we better off?
The question has relevance for utilities because if our customers are better off, that gives us more latitude to do the things we need – build reserves (so we have funds for the next recession), repair/replace infrastructure (because unlike fine wine, it is not improving with age), improve technology (the 1990s are long gone), etc., all things that politicians have suppressed to comport with the challenges faced by constituents who have been un- or under-employed since 2008.
Economist Paul Krugman makes an interesting case in a recent op-ed in the New York times: (http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/01/13/yes-he-did/?module=BlogPost-Title&version=Blog%20Main&contentCollection=Opinion&action=Click&pgtype=Blogs®ion=Body). Basically he summarizes the figure below which shows that unemployment is back to pre-2008 levels, and income is back to that point. Some income increase would have been good, but this basically tracks with the Bush and Reagan years for income growth – flat. So the question now is in comparison to 2008 are we worse off that we were? And if not, can we convince leaders to move forward to meet our needs? Can we start funding some of the infrastructure backlog? Can we modernize? Can we create “smarter networks?” Can we adjust incomes to prevent more losses of good employees? Can we improve/update equipment? All issues we should contemplate in the coming budget.
Over the holidays there were a couple articles that came out about groundwater issues in the US, mostly from the declining water level perspective. I also read a paper that suggested that rising sea level had a contribution from groundwater extraction, and of course USGS has maps of areas where the aquifer have collapsed as a result of overpumping. In 2009 USGS published a report that showed a large areas across the country with this issue. The problem is that of the 50,000 community water systems in the US, 500 serve over 50% of the population, and most of them are surface water plants. There are over 40,000 groundwater systems, but most are under 500 customers. Hence, groundwater is under represented at with the larger water associations because the large utilities are primarily surface water, while the small systems are groundwater. AWWA has difficulty reaching the small systems while RWA and NGWA reach out to them specifically. But the small utility seems more oriented to finding and producing water and operating/maintaining/drilling wells than the bigger impact of groundwater use. It is simply a matter of resources. I ran a system like that in North Carolina, and just getting things done is a huge issue. A couple of my medium size utility clients have the same problem.
The bigger picture may contain the largest risk. Changing water supplies is a high cost item. We have seen a couple examples (surface water) as a result of drought. We saw Wichita Falls and Big Springs TX go the potable reuse route due to drought. California is looking at lots of options. Both have had rain lately (Wichita Falls discontinued the potable reuse when the reservoir got to 4% of capacity). Great, but someone is next. Droughts come and go, and the questions is how to deal with them.
Groundwater supposedly is a drought-proof problem, but is it? Groundwater has been a small utility solution, as it has been for agriculture. But aquifer require recharge and water limited areas do not have recharge. The result is a bigger problem – overpumping. Throughout the west/southwest, Plains states, upper Midwest (WI, MN, IA), southeast (SC, NC), we see this issue. Most of these areas have limited surface water so never developed much historically. Rural electrification changes that because it made is easy to put in an electric pump to pull water out of the ground in areas that never had a lot of water on the surface, and hence were not farmed much. Pumps made is easier to farm productively, which led to towns. However, our means to assess recharge are not very good, especially for confined aquifers. The lowering water levels USGS and state agencies see is an indication that recharge is normally over estimated giving a false picture of water availability. If your aquifer declines year after year, it is not drought – it is mining of the aquifer. You are sucking it dry like the eastern Carolinas did. But, like many negative things, there is a lack of willingness to confront the overpumping issue in many areas. There are many states with a lack of regulations on groundwater pumping. And I still think groundwater modeling use is limited to larger utilities, when smaller, rural systems may be most in need of it due to competing interests.
Concurrently, I think there is a tendency to oversell groundwater solutions (ASR, recharge), groundwater quality and the amount of available water (St George, UT). Easy, cheap, limited treatment should not be the only selling point. That leads to some curious decisions like some areas of California north of LA the utilities do not treat hard groundwater – then tell residents they cannot use softeners because of the salt in the wastewater prevents it from being used for reuse. The reason they do not treat – cost, but it makes things difficult for residents. The fact is we do not wish to confront is the realization that for many places, groundwater should probably be the backup plan only, not the primary source.
That leads to the question – what do we do about it when every politician’s goal is for their community to grow? For every farmer to grow more crops? But can they really grow sustainably? DO we not reach a point where there are no more resources to use? Or that the costs are too high? Or that competition become unruly? The growth and groundwater use ship is sailing, but in to many cases they do not see the rocks ahead.
In my last blog I introduced our ethics project we hope to make progress on. But here is one of the interesting questions, especially in Florida. I could not find any actual laws or rules issues here, but it is increasingly common for big engineering contracts to have lawyers, lobbyists, etc. get involved in what is intended to be a qualifications based selection process? There is an interesting issue raised in 287.055 FS (CCNA) where the legal intent is that governmental agencies “shall negotiate a contract with the most qualified firm for professional services at compensation which the agency determines is fair, competitive, and reasonable.” Most states use credentials and qualifications for selection as opposed to cost, because the lowest cost may not get you the best job. You want people doing engineering that have experience with the type of project you are doing. This has come up to me with storage tanks, membrane plans, deep wells, etc. You want someone that has done it before, not someone who is cheaper but hasn’t. There is too much at risk.
In addition the statute is fairly specific about contingent fees (as are most states):
Ch 287.055 (6) PROHIBITION AGAINST CONTINGENT FEES.—
(a) Each contract entered into by the agency for professional services must contain a prohibition against contingent fees as follows: “The architect (or registered surveyor and mapper or professional engineer, as applicable) warrants that he or she has not employed or retained any company or person, other than a bona fide employee working solely for the architect (or registered surveyor and mapper, or professional engineer, as applicable) to solicit or secure this agreement and that he or she has not paid or agreed to pay any person, company, corporation, individual, or firm, other than a bona fide employee working solely for the architect (or registered surveyor and mapper or professional engineer, as applicable) any fee, commission, percentage, gift, or other consideration contingent upon or resulting from the award or making of this agreement.” For the breach or violation of this provision, the agency shall have the right to terminate the agreement without liability and, at its discretion, to deduct from the contract price, or otherwise recover, the full amount of such fee, commission, percentage, gift, or consideration.
So here is the question: As the public becomes more aware of these types of political lobbying activities, does it move the perception of engineers away from a profession and more towards profession toward developers, lawyers and others who are often seen as less ethical than perhaps engineer, doctors, educators, and scientists? And if so, is this good for either the engineering profession or the local governments (and their utilities) involved in the selection process? The comment that “that’s how business get done” is not an acceptable argument when the priority purpose of engineers, and utility operators is the protection of the HEALTH, SAFETY AND WELFARE OF THE PUBLIC. Somehow I think the politicizing of engineering contracts does not help our profession. Looking forward to your thoughts.
I have a friend in south Florida who is a lawyer who is starting the conversation about farmland for sale. Ok, in south Florida is might be about 40 years too late, but he has a great argument to make, even here, now. Developers have paid handsomely for agricultural land near urban areas, especially in areas with nice weather (see Florida). The problem is that many of those lands have been productive and because they are close to urban areas, convenient for the movement or produce to feed those communities or export the food to other areas. It would seem obvious that buying food locally would be preferred to buying food from far away, unless you are an Agribusiness or developer that is. And most family farms have been handed down to generations that, well, just don’t want to work farms, given the amount of money that the land can be sold for. So it is an easy economic argument to make – sell your farm to developers and live happily ever after. Except that means farmland that is no longer producing. And as my friend notes, there is a finite amount of farmland out there and we are decreasing that acreage in the US every year.
Now true, some will argue than development is less water intensive than farms, but much of that argument is due to the traditional practices used for farm watering, as opposed to newer, less wasteful means. So they argue, development is preferable to farming, but that argument may be limited to areas that are a) water poor b) bring water in from elsewhere, c) extensively use groundwater which may not recharge, or d) should probably have neither farming or development. But is Florida, we see fewer oranges, fewer row crops and less ranching than 20 or 40 years ago. All that land is condos and houses, and our food gets trucked or shipped in from many places, a lot of them not Florida and few local. He suggests that might not be a good thing for the long term.
Of course Florida is going to be faced with another of these land dilemmas. When Crist was governor, he negotiated a deal to buy land from US Sugar to help restore water from Lake Okeechobee to the Everglades. Now the powers say they can’t afford to maintain the land, so US Sugar can keep it. Of course US Sugar has plans for 100,000 houses in the Everglades Agricultural Area, or more, once farming stops. I see my friend cringing. That land, while not beneficial as farmland, surely would be less beneficial and farm more vulnerable as development. Maybe we should rethink that land purchase? Worth thinking about anyway.
As storm season arrives, I found an interesting figure which comes from Power magazine and shows all the power stations that are at risk from storms. That’s a lot of power. The question is how do we address this? Water and wastewater utilities are actively looking for means to reduce power costs. Pumping water can account for 80-90 percent of total power consumption, especially with high service pumps.
Water and wastewater power plants tend to have backup power. Or at least we hope they do. In Florida we created FLAWarn after the hurricanes in 2005. The concept was to put utilities together to allow them to share generators and other assets in case of emergency. Many utilities here have generators at pump stations, tanks and on trailers. The goal is to insure service can be provided regardless of the damage. And that did come in handy after Wilma in 2006. FLAWarn serves as a model for other states.
There are also renewable power which some utilities have invested in. Renewable power on plant sites is a means to address the potential grid interruptions. This solution, however, may not be embraced by power utilities due to the potential revenue reduction. As the water facility takes on on-site generation, the utility load profile may shift significantly placing them in under a different rate structure which may greatly reduce the benefit to the utility. One problem.
Also there are some at work to derail green power solutions, trying to reduce the attractiveness and subsidies on renewable power. Interesting that many power providers are not in that group because all power in the US is subsidized – oil, gas and renewables. The oil and gas sector is much larger and while many renewable power solutions are used by large power entities. In some states, the states have taken action to encourage these investments because of the potential benefits to the population. Local entities have gotten involved also. It just makes sense if you are in the right region and the price/risk ratio is right. A number of water and sewer utilities have pursued this option successfully. That will help as well during outages.
Now if we can keep the trees from being planted above the pipelines ….
Over the past couple weeks I have been at two conferences and had two interesting conversations. The first one was in Anaheim at the AWWA Annual Conference and Exposition. The subject was the organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB). The organization has the mission to help get drinkable water to people in undeveloped parts of the world. Nearly two billion people do not have clean drinking water which drastically impacts their health and ability to be productive and earn a living. Many of these people live in Africa and Asia; some in central and South America as well. The mission is a noble one – to help people. But the guy I was talking to raised an interesting question – if we help all these people get water, they will demand more resources and if the resources are already limited, won’t creating more demands for those resources compromise our access and cost to those services? Hence helping them actually creates competition with us for the same resources and that can compromise our goals. Clearly not a fan of EWB, but, an interesting take on the issue..…
The second conversation was a few days later when a group of people were talking politics. The conversation inevitably ended up on political parties and people and service organizations like Engineers Without Borders that are often viewed as being ”liberal” or “progressive” as opposed to “conservative.” The discussion got around to this question – would conservative groups give money to progressive groups like EWB? The answer was a resounding yes, because that would improve conditions which would make people more productive, which means more jobs, and more income to give more people access to buy more things, which creates a demand for more things, which expands the economy. In other words, increase profits for those folks building the “things.” Interesting twist, and you thought is was all about water….