Tag Archives: population

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


As water and sewer utilities, the public health and safety of our customers is our priority – it is both a legal and moral responsibility. The economic stability and growth of our community depends on reliable services or high quality. The priority is not the same with private business. Private businesses have a fiduciary responsibility to their stockholders, so cutting services will always be preferred to cutting profits. Therein lies the difference and yet the approach is different. Many corporations retain reserves for stability and investment and to protect profits. Many governments retain inadequate reserves which compromises their ability to be stable and protect the public health and safety. Unlike corporations, for government and utilities, expenses are more difficult to change without impacting services that someone is using or expects to use or endangering public health. Our recent economic backdrop indicates that we cannot assume income will increase so we need to reconsider options in dealing with income (revenue) fluctuations. If there are no reserves, when times are lean or economic disruptions occur (and they do regularly), finding funds to make up the difference is a problem. The credit market for governments is not nearly as “easy” to access as it is for people in part because the exposure is much greater. If they can borrow, the rates may be high, meaning greater costs to repay. Reserves are one option, but reserves are a one-time expense and cannot be repeated indefinitely. So if your reserves are not very large, the subsequent years require either raising taxes/rates or cutting costs. An example of the problem is illustrated in Figure 1. In this example the revenues took a big hit in 2009 as a result of the downturn in the economy. Note it has yet to fully return to prior levels as in many utilities. This system had accumulated $5.2 million in reserves form 2000-2008, but has a $5.5 million deficit there after. Reserves only go so far. Eventually the revenues will need to be raised, but the rate shock is far less if you have prudently planned with reserves. You don’t get elected raising rates, but you have a moral responsibility to do so to insure system stability and protection of the public health. So home much is enough for healthy reserves? That is a far more difficult question. In the past 1.5 months of operating reserves was a minimum, and 3 or more months was more common. However, the 2008-2011 economic times should change the model significantly. Many local governments and utilities saw significant revenue drops. Property tax decreases of 50% were not uncommon. It might take 5 to 10 years for those property values to rebound so a ten year need might be required. Sales taxes dropped 30 percent, but those typically bounce back more quickly - 3-5 years. Water and sewer utilities saw decreases of 10-30%, or perhaps more in some tourist destinations. Those revenues may take 3-5 years to rebound as well. Moving money from the utility to the general fund, hampers the situation further. Analysis of the situation, while utility (government) specific, indicates that appropriate reserves to help weather the economic downturns could be years as opposed to months. The conclusion is that governments and utilities should follow the model of trying to stabilize their expenses. Collect reserves. Use them in lean times. Develop a tool to determine the appropriate amounts. Educate local decision-makers and the public. Develop a financial plan that accounts for uncertainty and extreme events that might impact their long-term stability. Take advantage of opportunities and most of all be ready for next time. In other words, plan for that rainy day.

A recent article in the South Florida SunSentinel newspaper raised an interesting question.  What they did was line up all the cities in the county and identify the total fees paid to the City by residents.  They took the tax rates, plus water, sewer, storm water, fire, garbage and any other fees.  The article raised an interesting question.  For example, Hollywood, West Park and Lauderdale Lakes had the highest cost per household – in excess of $3500/year.  The other end of the spectrum was Hillsboro Beach, Sea Ranch Lakes and Southwest Ranches, each under $2000/household.  Of note is that Southwest Ranches provides no water or sewer service (all wells and septic tanks on large lots), so a direct comparison is not really appropriate.  Property taxes were low, but fire fees were really high.  Sea Ranch Lakes is a tiny community with no sewer, so again, not really a good comparison.  Hillsboro Beach is among the wealthiest communities, but also tiny. 

 Most communities had total fees between $2100 and 3200/resident.  Why the difference? First, the value of property varies widely.  West Park and Lauderdale lakes have among the lowest values per household, so their taxes must be higher to provide the same level of service.  Hollywood, and Dania Beach (#4 on the list) had higher water, sewer and storm water costs.  While both have recent, ongoing infrastructure programs, both have large transfers from the water and sewer fund to the general fund, and in both cases the water and sewer customer base does not match the property tax base.  In Dania Beach’s case, the service area is half the City, so those residents are supporting the property tax funded services at a higher rate than their neighbors.  Hollywood struggled with major budget issues to used water and sewer funds to balance the budget.

The problem that this article did not address, but should have was that where water, sewer and storm water costs were high, what was driving this? Was in infrastructure investments that others simply have yet to make?  That’s ok and the fact that these utilities invested now may be more timing.  If the result is due to transfers to the general fund, that is an entirely different, and somewhat disconcerting problem.  First since the service areas are not the same. There is a fairness issue.  Some residents pay more for the same services.  It means the water and sewer system is not really an enterprise, with rates based on service costs.  Instead it is being used as a tax source.

The world population is expected to grow to over 9 billion by 2050, an exponential trend that has continued for several hundred years and see no end it site.  Megaregions as people flock to cities and industry will be commonplace.  The question is how will water supplies be impacted, or impact this trend.  Interestingly it varies everywhere.  For example, China and India are not expected to reap major benefits from climate changes, so their economies will grow as will populations.  They continue to construct coal fired power plants, and impact carbon dioxide and pollution levels, which does not help the climate issues.   Recall that Beijing was basically shut down for several days recent due to smog – seems like I recall the first air pollution regulations stemming from Henry the VIII decision to move the coal plants out of London during his reign 500 years ago because of pollution, but perhaps we need to relearn history J.  Of course China and India are expected to be less affected than the more historically developed countries in the northern latitudes that have been moving to renewable and less impactful power solutions with good reason.  Aside from these two economies, the rest of the northern latitudes are likely to see changes in temperature, variation in precipitation patterns and drought frequency changes.  That has major impacts for a billion people who will see water supply shortages occur much more often, and create a whole host of “winners” and “losers” in the water supply category.  Conflicts may result from the need to change increase water supplies as desperation kicks in.  Lawrence Smith, in his book 2050, suggests that while the far northern countries, the US, Russia, the Scandanavian countries, and Canada may see more land for agriculture and more water (at least in some areas), those warmer countries in the sub-Sahara, will become more desperate and dangerous to the world order.  Water will be the new oil, and the tipping point for sustainability, akin to peak oil, needs to be developed.  The cost will be significant, but the failure will be catastrophic to global economies.  This is part of why the global pursuit of renewable power, local solutions and green jobs.  It is why the definition of sustainable water supplies continues to evolve as we understand that the impacts, or the constraints of water supplies is far more reaching than most engineers and planners have traditionally dealt with.  AWWA published a Sustainable Water CD several years ago.  It was a series of papers of different aspects of sustainability as applied to water resources.  The last paper summarized the findings and compared it to the initial paper discussion.  The conclusion was the concept is evolving.  Climate, power, agriculture, natural systems, local economies, local economic contributions to regional and national economies and politics all impact pure science recommendations for water supply allocation.  The question is can we overcome the politics to create a optimized science solution to sustain water supplies and economies.  An old Native American proverb comes to mind:  We do not inherit the Earth from our grandparents, we borrow it from our grandchildren.

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