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WTPspiractorI have a question – what was the impact of the 2008 economic crisis on water and sewer infrastructure funding?  I have a hypothesis – the amount of monies transferred to non-water and sewer operations increased.  Is the hypothesis true?

The next question to answer is that if transfer monies increased, did they decrease once property values started to come back?  My hypothesis is no.

Finally what impact does this have on water and sewer infrastructure going forward?  I suspect that the answer is that we underfund infrastructure or justify the lack of funding through actuarial means (I actually had a utility director tell me that his pipes were designed to last 250 years.  Seriously.  Of course that is nonsense, but it is a means to keep your need for replacement funding down).

I have a student and we are working on these issues now.  We are going to gather data from several hundred utilities over the next six months, crunch 11 years of data and let’s find out.  If you or your clients are interested in adding your data to the mix, please send it to me.  I need 2005 -2015 expenditure info.  Also some operational data like ADF, MDF, miles of pipe, customers, treatment type and CCR. We will be publishing the results.   Should be interesting……


photo 2A week or so ago, on a Sunday afternoon, I flew across Middle America to Colorado for a meeting and was again struck by the crop circles that dominate the landscape west of the Mississippi River.  They are everywhere and are a clear sign of unsustainable groundwater use.  I recently participated in a fly in event for National Groundwater Association in Washington DC, where several speakers, including myself, talked about dwindling groundwater levels and the impact of agriculture, power and economies.  The impact is significant. Dr. Leonard Konikow, a recently retired USGS scientist, noted that he thinks a portion of sea level rise is caused by groundwater running off agriculture and from utilities and making its way to the ocean. He indicated that 5% of SLR each year was caused by groundwater runoff, and has upped his estimates in the past 10 years to 13%.  This is because it is far easier for water to runoff the land than seep into rocks, especially deep formations that may take many years to reach the aquifer.  And since ET can reach 4 ft below the surface, many of the western, dry, hot areas lose most of this water during the summer months.  Hence the impact to agriculture, and the accompanying local communities and their economies will be significant.

It should be noted that the US is a major exported of food to much of the world, including China, so the impact on our long-term economic trade may be significant.  Fortunately the power industry has historically preferred surface waters, but must as power demands increase, they have begun to explore groundwater in rural areas without access to surface waters.  Keep in mind that air-cooled power plants are 25% or more less efficient than water cooled systems and many of these communities lack sufficient reusable water supplied to substitute for cooling.  Hence the projection is a long term negative impact on all of us.

So the question is why isn’t the federal government talking more about this problem?  Is it fear of riling up local political officials that see growth at all costs as necessary?  It is private rights arguments that may spawn lawsuits?  Is it a lack of interest in long-term?  Or the idea that “we have always found a way”. Or is it just buried heads in the sand, leaving the next generation to deal with the problem?  A big issue, yet we do not talk enough about it.  Maybe this is not a surprise since we have not gotten very far with the discussion of limited oil, precious metals, phosphorous or other materials, and unlike them, water appears to be renewable globally.  But water is location specific.  If you have it, great.  If you lose it, a problem.  There are several recent journal articles that make the argument that much of the strife in the Middle East and Africa is water depletion related: water depletion kills local economies.  So we need to ask –what happens if we ignore the looming crisis?  Do we create more “Bundy-type” actions in the rural, dry west because they already lack water?  I suggest it is a cause for concern.


For those wondering what the big report was going yo say, interesting reading, and a lot like Walkerton – plenty of blame to go around.

Click to access FWATF_FINAL_REPORT_21March2016_517805_7.pdf

And some related articles:

http://www.fox2detroit.com/news/flint-water-crisis/112311306-story


How to Predict the next Flint?

IMG_4803In the last blog we talked about Flint’s water quality problem being brought on by a political/financial decision, not a public health decision.  Well, the news get worse.  Flint’s deteriorated water system is a money thing as well – the community has a lot of poverty and high water bills, so they can’t pay for improvements.  They are not alone.  Utilities all over the country have increasing incidents of breaks, and age related problems. So the real question then is who are the at risk utilities?  Who is the next Flint?  It would be an interesting exercise to see if a means could be developed to identify those utilities at risk for future crises, so we can monitor them in more detail as a means to avoid such crises.

So what would be the measures that might identify the future “Flint?”  These could be things like age of the system, materials used, economic activity trends, income, poverty rate, unemployment rate, utility size, reserves, utility rates, history of rate increases, etc.?  Could these be developed into a means to evaluate risk?  If so, who would use it and how would we address the high risk cases?  I suggest that lenders have means to evaluate this using many of these same measures, but from a risk of events, this method has not been applied.  So I think this would be a useful research project.  So if anyone has some ideas, time or ideas for funding, let me know.  Let’s get rolling!


I was at a recent AWWA technical and Education Council meeting in Denver. One of the major discussions was the issues with lead service lines as highlighted by the current problem in Flint, and how many utilities are now fielding questions about and dealing with lead in their services lines, research that will come for lead, and regulatory requirements for upgrades. One issue that remains unanswered is what happens on the customer’s side of the meter, which may also be lead piping. So removing the utility’s lead service would not solve the lead issue completely, but it will help. But why has lead not been an issue in 25 years? Did it suddenly arise?
While the lead has arisen again as a public health topic, the lead and copper rule has been in effect for nearly 30 years and much of the lead and copper testing was conducted in the early 1990s. Most utilities made water treatment upgrades based the findings from the testing, and utilities have been required to continue to monitor their system ever since. Normally lead levels, even when present, were not a health issue because the zinc orthophosphates and other treatment methods kept the pipe
encapsulated. Others like Cincinnati, Lansing, Madison, Boston and others had ongoing programs to replace lead pipes. 30 years ago in North Carolina we changed out lead goosenecks and galvanized lines rather than replace them – it was just easier.
Most of the folks in the room agreed most utilities have or have such programs and that the number of lead service lines and lead goosenecks on the utility side is
limited. So I suggested that maybe the lesson we should learn from Flint is not about lead service lines, but instead the risks we incur with decision-makers who only look at money when making decisions. Flint’s decision to change water sources was driven by money, not public health.
In fact the report just published indicates that public health was not a real consideration at all. But decisions based on money impacted not only Flint, but Alamosa, CO in 2008, where disinfection was not practiced, and Walkerton,
ONT in 2001 where a Flint like set of decisions cascaded into contamination that killed people. There are utiity systems who contract operations and their contract operator makes decisions based on money, and now there is a distribution system problem. This is a repetitive pattern that has less to do with personnel operating these systems, than decision-makers, who tend to look more at the business case or money as opposed to public health. The lesson we need to learn is that money cannot be the
deciding factor when operating public water and sewer system. And to reduce the chance it happens in the future, perhaps there should be penalties if it does.

In the last blog I showed what reclaimed wastewater could do for an ecosystem.  Very cool.  But what about for drinking water.  I actually was involved in an indirect potable reuse project several years ago.  The concept was to take wastewater, filter it with sand filters, filter it with microfiltration, reverse osmosis and then hydrogen peroxide and ultraviolet light.  This is what they do in Orange County California when they recharge groundwater, and have been for over 30 years.  Epidemiological studies in the 1990s indicated no increased incidence of disease when that water was withdrawn from the aquifer, and then treated in a drinking water plant before distribution.  So our project was similar – recharge to the Biscayne aquifer in south Florida.   It worked for us.  Total phosphorous was below 10 ppb, TDS was less than 3 mg/L (<1 after RO), and we were able to show 3 log removal of endocrine disruption compounds an d pharmaceuticals.  It worked well.  This is a concept in practice in California.  And will be at some point in south Florida since only the Biscayne aquifer provides sustainable water supplies.  Here is what our system looked like.

IMG_3100

sand filters

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microfiltration

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Reverse osmosis

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ultraviolet/peroxide

This is also the same basic concept Big Springs Texas uses for their direct potable program, demonstrating that the technology is present to treat the water.  A means for continuous monitoring is lacking, but Orange County demonstrates that for indirect potable reuse projects, a well operated plant will not risk the public health.  This is how we do it safely.

 


IMG_7385One 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.

Income percent

 


 

before+and+after+animas

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.


photo 2Over 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.

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