building the infrastructure that counts

As I’ve mentioned before, China has some issues when it comes to building infrastructure that is out of sight and less than prestigious, like stormwater and wastewater treatment.  Many places in the US also try to keep their water and sewer rates low for customers, putting off key maintenance and upgrades for the next generation.  The West can’t afford this.  Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has increased its rates 5% per year for the next two years, annoying many of its customers, largely to accommodate the bills for repairs and increasing the system reliability.  Utah’s lawmakers are getting some difficult news, too — a plan is up for vote to fund $13.7 billion over 20 years to fund necessary repairs and upgrades.  Better to allocate the money now, rather than wait until the dams are empty and the taps are dry…

“People have a hard time getting excited about water and sewer projects, even though they are very fundamental and basic components of our day-to-day life,” said Mike Wilson, manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Salt Lake and Sandy.

Systems have routine operations and maintenance budgets, but often punt on wholesale replacement due to the huge capital costs.  One idea is to build in a 3-5% annual rate increase for the bond to fund all this work.

“These systems are out of sight and out of mind,” Walt Baker, director of the Utah Division of Water Quality, said. “Some communities, to their detriment and unhappiness, are loath to raise rates, and when something cataclysmic happens, that is when you see the huge rates come. But they’d rather get beat up harshly every 10 years then face it every year.”

Baker said it takes financial savvy and foresight — as well as political will — to muster a savings account that can help pay for huge infrastructure needs and to put in upgrades to keep pace with growth.  “There’s not a lot of heroism in doing that. Cities like to build trails, parks and statues. Bringing in a sewer system is not very sexy. The tendency is to let that happen under some other mayor.”

Thankfully for some parts of the US, we have some political officials who get that point, and act on it.  The political officials who don’t act may be more popular in the short-term, but their constituents will not be better off in the end.  To quote the savvy Pat Mulroy: “Yeah, you have a basic human right to water. Here’s your bucket, you can go down to Lake Mead, and you can take all the water out of Lake Mead that you want. But you don’t have the basic human right to have that water treated to an absolute guaranteed safe standard, delivered to your home in whatever quantities you want to use.”

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please put this lady in charge of everything

Las Vegas is known as a water-intensive place in the middle of the desert — the fountains in the Bellagio, the canals at the Venetian, the pirate ship at Treasure Island.  But you might be surprised to know that its per-capita water use is tiny.  The city uses 3% of the state’s water and produces some 70% of its revenue.  How does that happen?  Well, there was a multi-year drought about 20 years ago that brought this to the forefront of developers’ minds (they were required to attach proof of water supply to their development plans and SEC filings).  Also, the regional water agencies merged to form the Southern Nevada Water Authority, and they put this woman in charge: Pat Mulroy.

Pat Mulroy, in my opinion, is one of the savviest water politicians in this country.  Because of its location, Las Vegas has had to adopt cutting edge water recycling technology (water comes out of a pipe in Lake Mead, gets used in Vegas, and discharged to Las Vegas Wash, which runs back into Lake Mead) as well as cutting edge policies to convince locals to dig up grass lawns in favor of desert landscaping.  SNWA has a very high-level analytical lab to make sure that trace organic compounds aren’t reaching the drinking water supply.  And Mrs. Mulroy has worked with regional water agencies as well as the other 6 states in the Colorado River Compact to come to an agreement about what to do when a major drought hits the southwest.

I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Mulroy, back at Eawag in Switzerland, where she kept an international audience rapt with her stories of getting things done and water policy-making in the “wild west”.  But you can see her give a talk at the recent WaterSmart Innovations Conference or just read the transcript of an interview she gave.  Either will give you a sense for her shrewd, yet no-nonsense manner.  I’m hoping that some bigger-name politician will recognize her for her work and make her Secretary of the Interior, so the country could have a truly sensible and effective federal water policy.  Heck, I’d elect her President based on what she’s been able to accomplish…