Tag Archives: water leadership

We have all seen the stories about land in the Everglades agricultural Area thissummer.  I was asked to give a presentation at a national conference in Orlando recently about water management in Florida.  It was a fun paper and most of the people there were not from Florida, so it was useful for them to understand the land of water.  Florida has always been a land shaped by water.  Initially it was too much, which frustrated federal soldiers trying to hunt down Native Americans in the 1830s.  In 1881, real estate developer Hamilton Disston first tried to drain the swamps with canals.  He was not successful, but Henry Flagler came through a decade later and constructed the east coast railroad in the 1890s.  It is still there, 2 miles off the coast, on the high ground.  However water limited development so in 1904, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward campaigned to drain the everglades.   Broward’s efforts initiated the first land boom in Florida, although it was interrupted in the 1920s by hurricanes (1926 and 1928) that sloshed water out of Lake Okeechobee killing people and severely damaging property in Miami and around Lake Okeechobee.  A dike was built (the Hover dike – it is still there). However, an extended drought occurred in the 1930s.  With the dike preventing water from leaving Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades became parched. Peat turned to dust, and saltwater entered Miami’s wells. When the city brought in an expert to investigate, he found that the water in the Everglades was the recharge area for the Biscayne aquifer, the City’s water supply.  Hence water from the lake needed to move south.

Resiliency has always been one of Florida’s best attributes.  So while the hurricanes created a lot of damage, it was only a decade or two later before the boom returned.  But in the late 1940s, additional hurricanes hit Florida, causing damage and flooding from Lake Okeechobee prompting Congress to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to build 1800 miles of canals, dozens of pump stations and other structures to drain the area south of Lake Okeechobee.  It is truly one of the great wonders of the world – they drained half a state by lowering the groundwater table by gravity canals. To improve resiliency, between 1952 and 1954, the Corps,  in cooperation with the state of Florida, built a levee 100 miles long between the eastern Everglades and the developing coastal area of southeast Florida to prevent the swamp from impacting the area primed for development.

As a part of the canal construction after 1940, 470,000 acres of the Everglades was set aside for farming on the south side of Lake Okeechobee and designated as the Everglades Agricultural Area (EAA).  However water is inconsistent, so there are ongoing flood/drought cycles in agriculture.   Irrigation in the EAA is fed by a series of canals that are connected to larger ones through which water is pumped in or out depending on the needs of the sugar cane and vegetables, the predominant crops.  Hence water is pumped out of the EAA, laden with nutrients.  Backpumping to Lake Okeechobee and pumping the water conservation areas was a practice used to address the flooding problem.

There was an initial benefit to Lake Okeechobee receiving nutrients.  Older folks will recall that in the 1980s , the lake was the prime place for catching lunker bass.  That was because the lake was traditionally nutrient poor.  That changed with the backpumping which stimulated the biosystem productivity.  More production led to more biota and more large fish.  This works as long as the system is in balance e- i.e. the nutrients need to be growth limiting at the lower end of the food chain.  Otherwise the runaway nutrients overwhelm the natural production and eutrophication results.  Lake Okeechobee is a runaway system – the algae now overwhelm the rest of the biota.  Lunker bass have been gone for 20 years.

The backpumped water is usually low in oxygen and high in phosphorus and nitrogen, which triggers algal progressions, leading to toxic blue-green algae blooms and threaten lake drinking water supplies.  Think Toledo. Prolonged back pumping can lead to dead zones in the lake, which currently exist.  The nutrient cycle and algal growth is predictable.

The Hoover Dike is nearly 100 years old and while it sit on top of the land (19 ft according to the Army Corps of Engineers), there is concern about it being breached by sloshing or washouts.  Undermining appears in places where the water moves out of the lake flooding nearby property.  So the Corps tries to keep the water level below 15.5 ft.  During the rainy season, or a rainy winter as in 2016, that can become difficult. If the lake is full, that nutrient laden water needs to go somewhere.  The only options are the Caloosahatchee, St. Lucie River or the everglades.  The Everglades is not the answer for untreated water – the upper Everglades has thousands of acres of cattails to testify to the problem with discharges to the Everglades.  So the water gets discharged east and west via the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie River.

The nutrient and algae laden water manifests as a green slime that washed onto Florida beaches in the Treasure coast and southwest Florida this summer, algae is actually a regular visitor to the coasts.  Unfortunately memories often fail in temporal situations.  The summer 2016 occurrence is reportedly the eighth since 2004, and the most severe since 2013.  The green slime looks bad, can smell bad, kills fish and the 2016 bloom was so large it spread through estuaries on both coasts killing at least one manatee.  One can see if from the air – try this link:



The reliability of the assets within the area of interest starts with the design process in the asset management plan. Decision-making dictates how the assets will be maintained and effective means to assure the maximum return on investments. Through condition assessment, the probability of failure can be estimated. Assets can also fail due to a growing area that may contribute to exceeding its maximum capacity. Operation and maintenance of the assets are important in reassuring a longer life span as well as getting the most out of the money to be spent. Prioritizing the assets by a defined system will allow for the community to see what areas are most susceptible to vulnerability/failure, which assets need the most attention due to their condition, and where the critical assets are located in relation to major public areas (hospitals, schools, etc.) with a high population.

So what happens when conditions change?  Let’s say sea levels are rising and your land is low.  What would the potential costs be to address this?  Better yet, what happens if it rains? We looked at one south Florida community and the flood stage for each based on 3 storm events: the 1:10 used by FDOT (Assumes 2.75 inches in 24 hours), the Florida Building Code event that includes a 5 in in one hour event (7 in in 24 hrs), and the 3 day 25 year event (9.5-11 inches).

Of no surprise is that the flooding increases as rainfall increases.  Subsequent runs assumed revisions based on sea level rise. The current condition, 1, 2 and 3 ft sea level rise scenarios were run at the 99 percentile groundwater and tidal dates and levels.  Tables 2-5 depict the flood stage results for each scenarios.  The final task was designed to involve the development of scenarios whereby a toolbox options are utilized to address flooding in the community.  Scenarios were to be developed to identify vulnerabilities and cost effectiveness as discussed previously.

The modeling results were then evaluated based of the accompanying infrastructure that is typically associated with same.  A summary of the timelines and expected risk reductions were noted in the tables associated with storm and SLR scenarios.  This task was to create the costs for the recommended improvements and a schedule for upgrading infrastructure will be developed in conjunction with staff.  Two issues arise.  First, the community needs to define which event they are planning to address and the timelines as the costs vary form an initial need of $30 million to over $300 million long-term.  Figure 1 shows how these costs rise with respect to time.  The long-term needs of $5 million per 100 acres matches with a prior effort in Palm Beach County.

SLR costs

Figure 1  Summary of Costs over the 3 ft of potential sea level Rise by 2011, under the 3 storm planning concepts.

The average is 4% of visible infrastructure is in poor condition.  Actually 4-6% depending on the municipality.  And this was visible infrastructure, not buried, but there is not particular reason to believe the below ground infrastructure is somehow far worse off.  Or better.   That 4-6% is infrastructure that needs to be fixed immediately, which means that as system  deteriorate, there is catch –up to do.  The good news is many of the visible problems were broken meter boxes, damaged valve boxes, broken curbs and broken cleanouts- minor appearing issues, but ones that likely require more ongoing maintenance that a water main.  And the appearance may be somewhat symptomatic – people perceive that the system is rundown, unreliable or poorly maintained when they see these problems.  It raises a “Tipping Point” type discussion.  “Tipping Points” Is a book written by Malcolm Gladwell that I read last year (great book – my wife found it in a book exchange for free in Estes Park last summer).  It was along a similar vein of thought as the Freakanomics books – the consequences of certain situations may be less clear than one thinks.  The Tipping point that is most relevant is crime in New York in the early 1990s after Bernard Goetz shot several assailants in the subway.  The problem was significant and the subways were thought to be among the higher risk areas.  The new police chief and Mayor decided that rather that ignore the petty crimes (like many large cities do), they would pursue those vigorously.  So fare hopping on the train and the like were challenged immediately.  They decided that no graffiti would be visible on the subways and cleaned cars every night to insure this remained the case.  Cars with graffiti were immediately removed from service.  New subway cars were ordered.  Pride and public confidence improved.  Crime dropped.  The impact of their efforts was that people recognized that criminal behavior would not be tolerated and fairly quickly criminal activity decreased.  It was a big success story, but the underlying reasons were less discussed, but easily transferrable to our infrastructure.  If we have broken valve boxes, meters, cleanouts, storm drains etc., the same perceptions of a rundown community rise.  Rundown communities lead to a loss of public confidence and trust and pride.   And none of those help our mission or our efforts to increase infrastructure spending.  4% might not look like much, but it can drastically change the perception of the community.  So let’s start to fix those easy things; and document that we did in our asset management programs.


An asset management program should be developed accordingly to the client’s goals and objectives. It consists of determining the selected area of study, type of system and the quality of data used for evaluation. Before a condition assessment can be determined, an inventory of assets needs to be established – maps, etc. are helpful.  So now you have a map of your water and sewer system and you want to develop a useful system for asset management.  Depending on the accuracy wanted, the data can be gathered in many ways ranging from onsite field investigation which could take a lot of time, to using existing maps, using maps while verifying the structures using aerial photography and video, or field investigations. But most local governments still lack data.  You cannot dig up pipe, or do a lot of destructive testing on buried infrastructure.  So what to do?

The reality is that you have a lot more data than one thinks.  For one thing, most utilities have a pretty good idea about the pipe materials.  Worker memory can be very useful, even if not completely accurate.  In most cases the depth of pipe is fairly similar – the deviations may be known. Soil conditions may be useful – there is an indication that that aggressive soil causes more corrosion in ductile iron pipe, and most soil information is readily available.  Likewise tree roots will wrap around water and sewer pipes, so their presence is detrimental.  Trees are easily noted from aerials.  Likewise road with truck traffic create more vibrations on roads, causing rocks to move toward the pipe and joints to flex.  So with a little research there are at least 5 variables known.  If the break history or sewer pipe condition is known, the impact of these factors can be developed via a linear regression program.  That can then be used as a predictive tool to help identify assets that are mostly likely to become a problem.   We are working on such an example now, but suspect that it will be slightly different for each utility.  Also, in smaller communities, many variables (ductile iron pipe, pvc pipe, soil condition…) may be so similar that differentiating would be unproductive.  That also remains to be seen, which brings up another possible variable- the field perception – what do the field crews recall about breaks?  Are there work orders?  If so do they contain the data needed to piece together missing variables that would be useful to add to the puzzle?

After all we want to avoid this before it happens….


Asset management plays a vital role to help minimize unnecessary or misplaced spending while meeting the health and environmental needs of a community. The goal is to provide strategic continuous maintenance to the infrastructure before total failure occurs.  Costs should be well distributed over the life of the asset to help avoid emergency repairs. Emergency repairs can cost up to multiple times the cost of a planned repair. Therefore the ultimate goal of asset management is to provide quality, economical infrastructure by identifying the system’s needs and addressing the needs appropriately.  At some point repairs cost more than replacement, or technology may make repairs obsolete.

An asset management program should be developed accordingly to the client’s goals and objectives. It consists of determining the selected area of study, type of system and the quality of data used for evaluation (see Figure 1).  Before a condition assessment can be determined, an inventory of assets needs to be established. Depending on the accuracy wanted, the data can be gathered in many ways ranging from onsite field investigation which could take a lot of time, to using existing maps, using maps while verifying the structures using aerial photography and video, or field investigations. Not doing destructive testing is important to reduce costs.  The question is how you do it.  One project we did was the downtown area of Dania Beach.  You can see the areas that are a problem.



Figure 1

Asset Dania

FIgure 2

Summer Kids – Get them early

FAU sponsors summer camps for middle schoolers on campus. The camps are a week long.  The kids come it and learn about some aspect of civil engineering.  I did two summer camps for civil engineers – I call it the make it and break it camps, because that is what we do.  Make stuff, then break it.  The kids love the breaking part.  We tried out a series of project – dropping eggs from 2 and 5 stories, concrete Frisbees, concrete cylinders, geotechnical fill made of recyclables, did a little surveying, made bridge. Then broke stuff!  They had fun, but it really speaks to a larger issue.

I see the University of Miami recruiting an 8th grader for the football team.  College and pro sports do this all the time (recall they were scouting LeBron James in middle school or earlier).  Why do we not do this in our industry?  Getting middle schoolers on campus is great; they think it is really cool, but we need to keep in contact.  Future camps, seminars, invitations for research participation, helping with clubs, offering classes, mentoring.  All things we need to do to track the kids right into the college and the industry.  If an FAU professor mentors you and puts your name on a paper, you think that kids is going elsewhere?

Sports sees money in athletes, but because only the athletics are spending money, it makes the athletes seem more important than other professions.  But we all need water.  We all need sewer.  We all need many things we take for granted.  So perhaps the colleges and industry needs to think about how we elevate our profession to those kids we want to have become part of our organization.  Most do not have the talent to play sports, so get left out.  But I am convinced that middle school is the place to start recruiting them our way.  High school is too late and they are too distracted by “life.”  Middle schoolers can be “formed” into future water professionals.  Let’s think on that.

Meanwhile enjoy their work….



June was a tough month and looking back I realize I really didn’t post.  I was in Chicago, spent 2 weeks with middle schoolers, prepared my promotion package, god the doors completed on the house, etc. and suddenly it was the 4th of July.  Yikes time flies.  But it was interesting.  Here I want to talk a little about Chicago.

I went to Chicago to do a 3 day, 12 hour class with elected officials.  Most are board members for their local utility, but they went from a small South Carolina system to San Antonio and St. Paul.  A huge variety.  And we learned a lot.  Obviously the Flint crisis was on their minds.  But I thought the most interesting thing was that these folks understood what happened.  I asked what they thought the real issue was in Flint and the resounding answer was – politics.  Bad decision-making.  Poor preparation.  Notably, not lead service lines.  These people got it.  They read behind the headlines.  Of course these are the officials that wanted to learn more about their water and sewer systems, as opposed to the many that do not take the time to, but interesting nonetheless.

Another issue was talked about was finances.  I ask them to bring their budget, water use, pipelines, etc.  The goal is to do a quick comparison between systems and then discuss what it means (if anything).  I have started doing the exercise each year and we find the same thing – smaller systems cost more per thousand gallons to run than larger systems, so hence their rates must be higher or they are not doing repairs and replacements on a timely basis. This group got that as well and understood that comparisons of their system to others needed to be carefully vetted.  No two system are alike, but size, treatment, terrain can all affect costs to the customer.

We also talked about leadership.  I am applying for an AWWA project on leadership, but when asked, these folks had some great answers. They see leadership as a personal trait (inspiration, vision) as well as being driven by event (negotiating crisis or change), and having the ability to bring people along through the rough patches.  Leadership is an issue that needs more exploration, but I thought this was a good start to preface the larger survey I hope to do for AWWA’s members.

In the meantime, I learned a lot about the Chicago River bridges, enjoyed the planetarium, a Cubs night game, Millenium Park and a walk along the waterfront.  Very cool.

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

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