Who Should Pay for Clean Water?

WaterfallThere's been an ongoing legal dispute in Iowa between the Des Moines Water Works (DMWW) and drainage districts in three Iowa counties to decide who should pay the price to clean up polluted water. It's an interesting case for those of us who are involved in stormwater regulation and water treatment. And it is one more step in the ongoing struggle to determine how best to protect the environment and who is best positioned or most responsible to pay that cost.

Background on the DMWW Case

According to the final ruling document (No. 16-0076), DMWW "is a municipal water utility … that provides drinking water to an estimated half-million Iowans in the Des Moines area." Their water sources are primarily the Racoon and Des Moines Rivers. The watershed for the Racoon River is about 2.3 million acres in size and spans 17 counties in Iowa. DMWW stated in their complaint filed in federal court that "from 1995 to 2014, nitrate concentrations in the Racoon River at the DMWW intake points exceeded the 10 mg/L standard for drinking water at least 1636 days, or 24% of the time." Example concentrations mentioned in the complaint are 11.98 mg/L, 13.23 mg/L, 11.89 mg/L, 13.43 mg/L, and 12.56 mg/L. Therefore in order to provide water to its customers that meets drinking water regulations, DMWW incurred costs at its three treatment plants to reduce this level below the standard. DMWW also noted the need to expend funds in the near future to construct a new facility to handle the continuing elevated levels of nitrate.

In an effort that appears to force a reduction in or capture of these costs, DMWW filed a petition in federal court on March 16, 2015 (Trial Case No. C 15-4020-MWB). According to the Order Certifying Questions to the Supreme Court, the complaint basically alleges the drainage districts, or defendents, are "responsible for the increasing nitrate concentrations in the Racoon River." And because DMWW provides water to its customers from this river, which now has elevated levels of nitrate, it must incur costs it would not otherwise have to in order to reduce these concentrations below regulated standards.

On the defendent side, the drainage districts argued they were not the proper party for this lawsuit. They also indicate that other agencies of the state and federal government are responsible for regulating these matters – not a court of law. In the end, their bottom line was  "the existence and functions of drainage districts are so limited, the Iowa Supreme Court repeatedly, for over a century, has found districts not amenable to suit for damages, i.e., they are entitled to unqualified immunity."

Court Ruling in the DMWW Case

As reported in the online article of the Des Moines Register on Jan. 27, 2017, "the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that Des Moines Water Works cannot win damages under the Iowa Constitution against drainage districts in the three counties it is suing." The article includes an embed of the ruling in case anyone is interested in reading the court's explanation for each count of the complaint. The article also mentions there will be another ruling in June of this year to decide if drainage districts should be considered polluters under the Clean Water Act and subject to those regulations including the need to obtain permits for their discharges.corn


Why does this matter?

Water receives contaminants from natural and man-made activity, and removing those contaminants is not free. In the end, someone has to pay the cost, but who? In the Des Moines area, the cost to remove contaminants to provide safe drinking water is currently paid for by the DMWW which most likely passes the costs onto its customers. If the city subsidizes its utility for this purpose then the taxpayers of the city are also paying. But the people paying for that cost are not directly responsible for putting nitrates in the water. Instead studies show elevated contaminants in receiving streams are primarily a result of agricultural operations. (An earlier article in this blog cites a report indicating results of this in Illinois). So should agricultural operators pay the costs to remove contaminants?

Who pays is really what is being decided by lawsuits like the one brought by DMWW. In that case the court's decision leaves those using the water to bear the costs. Whether that is because of the manner in which the complaint was written or the specific defendents named, I cannot really comment on since I am not a lawyer. Articles and opinions I've read on the case indicate the matter is best left to legislators and regulatory agencies. What does seem obvious to me is no matter which entity pays, the cost will always ultimately be passed along to the end user. So whether it is the water or stormwater utility paying or the farmer, it seems we will pay for it through increased water bills to treat our water, taxes to clean our waterways, or grocery bills for increased costs for food production. So really the question should perhaps be How Do We Want to Pay for Clean Water?



Gamifying and Crowdsourcing ADA Inspections

The Makeability Lab at the University of Maryland is on a mission to "collect street-level accessibility information from every street in the world and enable design and development of a novel set of location-based technologies for accessibility." In order to achieve this goal, they set up an interactive website where people can inspect, identify, and label accessibility issues along sidewalks and at curb ramps.

The accessibility issues generated by this site are fairly basic, but would still be very helpful to cities interested in quickly and easily identifying issues. Currently the site is focused on auditing infrastructure in the Washington, D.C. area.

The group also plans to use the inspection data collected to "create new types of map-based accessibility tools, such as AccessScore, an interactive map of a city's accessibility, and RouteAssist, personalized routing algorithms based on a user's reported mobility level."

In addition, they are using the labels people assign to issues to develop algorithms to allow the computer to automatically find accessibility issues in the future.

So far 218 people have inspected almost 400 miles or 37% of Washington, D.C. If you are interested in volunteering your efforts, you can visit their website at http://sidewalk.umiacs.umd.edu and click on the "Participate" button.

Project Sidewalk Participate Screen

 Before beginning, you'll be offered a quick tutorial. You can also create an account to track your contributions. Here are a few screenshots taken while I inspected about a half mile of sidewalk in the Bellevue neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The first shows a section of heaved and cracked sidewalk I labeled as a surface problem. You can see I was able to choose this option from the group of issue icons located above the street-view image.

Project Sidewalk Surface Problem

When you place an icon on the image, a box pops up as shown in the screenshot below to allow you to choose the severity of the problem. The site gives some guidance on this, but there is still a lot of judgment in assigning a rating. Initially I wasn't going to give this specific problem the worst rating, but then decided the slope looks severe enough I don't think a wheelchair would safely navigate across the heaved section. Below the rating, there is a space for a more detailed description of the problem.

Project Sidewalk Surface Problem Rating

The screen also shows which neighborhood I am in, where I am at on the street, how many miles I have audited and labels I have placed. As you complete assigned sections, the site summarizes your progress as shown below:

Project Sidewalk Mission Summary

Finally, you can view your dashboard to see your overall contribution to the site. Below is my current status after only working on it for a short time:

Project Sidewalk Dashboard

As you can see on my dashboard, the locations of the problems I found are displayed on a map. A zoomed in view of this is shown below. I was not sure if there was a way to see everyone's contributions, but if so, this would be very helpful to a city engineering or public works department in managing their sidewalk or street repair program. It would also be helpful if the data could be extracted from a given area so it could be overlaid in a city's GIS with other data such as land use, destinations such as schools and hospitals, and locations of capital improvements and developments.

Project Sidewalk Map Zoomed

Because the site is so easy to use, cities could also partner with schools and ask students to participate in inspections. This would help to engage students in their community and build awareness of the needs for and barriers to accessibility.

From what I can tell, the group also has the code for the site over on GitHub. Their license grants permission to make use of the software according the terms specified, and instructions for setting up your own development site are provided in a README file.

You can follow the group's progress through their Twitter feed: @umd_sidewalk.


Preparing Yourself and Your Organization for the Future!

drone by fellowdesigns on morguefile.com

Staying competitive in this time of rapidly changing technology is starting to look more challenging every year. Driverless cars, rapid-fire communications, drones, laser scanning, virtual and augmented reality, 3D visualizations – all just a spattering of the onslaught of technological advances our field has seen implemented over the last few years. And if we are to believe Moore's Law, this rapid growth in technology is not stopping anytime soon. Instead it is increasing exponentially and will continue to do so until we get to the point where technology will advance along a vertical projection. Do you have a plan for this future? What are you doing for yourself or your business to prepare? What can you do?

I may not have many answers myself, but I recently heard a presentation from someone who might and thought I would share some of his insights. Meet David Zach, a person who has been officially trained in the future and holds a "master’s degree in Futures Research from the University of Houston." He was one of the keynote speakers at a one-day conference hosted last week by the Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter Association for Talent Development. He started out his talk by asking something I'd never before considered: "who is your role model on how you enter the future?"

For me this seems to be a very unusual question, and I'm very interested in hearing who people might choose so please share your ideas in the comments if you get a chance. For me, you might think I would have picked someone who is the very personification of future readiness. But instead I realized the person who motivates me most to learn, embrace,and implement technological change is someone I know who was close-minded and not at all prepared – ME! Well, me at about age 20 when a colleague interrupted me from hand-drafting a mylar plan sheet with ink and a Leroy set to show me a plan sheet drawn with the use of CAD. Did I say cool – can't wait!? No, I said, that looks horrible – that will never replace plans drawn by hand – there's no comparison. I think that was probably the least intelligent thing I have ever said in my life, and because I was obviously so wrong, the experience taught me a great lesson and motivated me to never be that close-minded again.

Leroy Lettering Set

But back to Zach's talk…the surprising overall message I got from it was the secret in being prepared for the future is not really found in technology or in the need to understand the specifics of it at all. Instead Zach stressed the importance of connections, learning, and the past. He said, "in a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future." He explained how this is tied to how we research topics. If you need to know something do you Google it, go straight to the answer, take what you find, and go on your way? Or are you the type who researches the topic, reads the sidebars, goes off on tangents, then comes back to the main point before moving on? In the end, Zach said how we research topics becomes critical to our ability to encourage creative thinking and understanding. He said, "without diverse experiences you don't have enough dots to connect." So it is the person who collects as much information he can find that at first glance might not seem directly related who can later make those connections and fill in the gaps to come up with innovative solutions. He compared the process to building a web of information from which you can collect ideas and insight.

Connecting the dots graphic

Zach also gave us seven specific suggestions we should start doing right away. While some might initially seem bad for our health, I think he might instead be encouraging us to observe behaviors related to these activities and the environments in which these things occur and consider how they might encourage growth and innovation:

1. Start smoking 

2. Start drinking 

3. Protect and direct attention (play with fads, work with trends, and live by principles)

4. Change and tradition

5. Elegance and Eloquence

6. Concierge mindset

7. Play

The other advice Zach left with us was a list of what we should read/watch to help prepare us for the future. I've left what I could collect from the talk below. (The links are tied to an Amazon Affiliate account for the Public Works Group. So if you buy through a direct link from our blog, you help support the site and have our eternal gratitude!!) And if you ever get a chance to hear Zach speak, I'd definitely take advantage of that opportunity. He was funny, inspirational, insightful, motivational, thought-provoking, and a really nice guy.



Do you have a permit for that Pokemon?

Pokemon Screen with PokeStopsAbout five years ago I wrote a blog post about augmented reality and the concerns a city might have over its potential impacts to a community (see Adding Augmented Reality to Your Zoning Ordinance). But I had not noticed the types of issues discussed in that post actually occuring until this week after the release of the incredibly popular Pokemon Go game. If you have not yet heard about the game, it is an app you install on your phone which represents you on a map of your location and allows you to capture Pokemon who randomly spawn while you move through your environment. As with most games, you level up and collect objects as your Pokemon collection grows. There is also virtual infrastructure supporting the game such as PokeStops typically located at points of interest in a community. PokeStops gift you objects when you visit them and spin the stop on your phone. They can also be set up to attract Pokemon. Other fixed objects in the game are Pokemon Gyms where your Pokemon can battle other Pokemon.

So what is the big deal and how does this relate to zoning? The issue people are having is not only the location of the random spawns of Pokemon, but also the placement of the fixed objects, particularly the gyms. The company which owns the game makes the final determination of where these all occur – they don't need to ask permission from a property owner or the city to place their virtual objects. So there have been reports of Pokemon showing up in places that appear to be on private property, and people are trespassing to catch those Pokemon. While this might be an occasional issue with a random person showing up, the more serious problem reported appears to be with the placement of the gyms. Both the gyms and the PokeStops have the potential to attract crowds of 30 or more people at a time.People playing Pokemon

To get an idea of the concerns gyms and the resulting crowds are causing, here's a Tweet from a person who lives in a home in a renovated church on which a gym has been placed.

If you read through @boonerang's Twitter feed, you will see questions raised about impacts to property value and hours of operation. At what point do the impacts become significant enough to warrant the need for government regulation? And if regulation is imposed, will it be through permits? zoning?Right now, it appears the company is the sole decision maker on whether or not that gym remains at this person's house. While they have offered a method by which someone can report an issue with a gym, the removal is totally at their discretion. Should the local government have the ability to require its removal?

The other topic I have not yet seen explored is the potential problems with the type of virtual content. Pokemon Go is a G-rated game with cute little characters and objects. What if someone launches a more adult game with much more adult content? Someone who might tolerate a cute little Pokemon might not feel comfortable with X-rated content appearing on their property, even if it is only virtual. Should adult use zoning ordinances also apply to virtual content to ensure it does not get placed within so many feet of a school or church? And if so, how would the city regulate this and address complaints? A city employee downloading and installing something like Pokemon Go to check on placement of objects might be tolerated, but would downloading and use of something much more adult be allowed even if only used for regulatory purposes?

The world is definitely changing. And now that augmented reality has actually shown up in the form of cute little creatures, it will be interesting to see if or how cities and other government entities address the use of their virtual spaces. The legal questions which might first need to be answered are do property owners have ownership of the virtual space within the geospatial coordinates of their property and does government have the authority to regulate virtual content within the geospatial coordinates of their boundaries?

(The photos in this post show a location where people hang out to catch Pokemon. The one photo is everyone playing and the other is a screenshot showing the gym and PokeStops at this location. The pink petals around the PokeStops indicate people have placed lures there to attract more Pokemon.) 


Water Unleaded Launch

Water Unleaded Window Cling ExampleHaving worked for many years in the water industry, I've closely followed the recent events related to the lead controversy in Flint, Michigan. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've also probably seen the articles my partner and I posted about the topic. As we continued to discuss the topic over the last few months, we realized we could continue to offer through our blog information to people about minimizing their exposure to lead in their homes. But what could we do to help people be sure they are not exposed to lead once they ventured outside their home? So we started to wonder if it might be useful to have a place online where people could check to see the levels of lead in places they were thinking of visiting. Today we are launching that site – Water Unleaded – to serve as a type of drinking water quality registry focusing on the content of lead in drinking water. 

If you own or manage a business and are interested in listing information about lead in the drinking water at your site, we encourage you to head on over and check out the various listing methods. One basic listing can be created for free in the primary categories. If you are interested in posting test results or placing a listing in a lead-level category, a small fee applies. Memberships and paid listings are also available offering additional features. Some premium memberships allow the abilty to purchase a window cling to post at your place of business with verfication of test results.

If you provide testing services or other water related services or products, you can also create a listing. For a small fee, you can place your listing in the category representing the type of service or product you offer.

Because the site is newly launched, we are very interested in your feedback. Please let us know if you find any bugs or have any questions or suggestions. We are trying to provide a useful site to help all of us better understand lead levels in our drinking water and minimize our exposure. Thanks for checking it out!!!


Lead Paint and Elevated Water Tanks

Elevated Water Tank - Source: MorguefileRecently I read that the USEPA is considering revising the Lead and Copper regulations because of public concern over the drinking water issue in Flint, Michigan, and lead poisoning in general. And it got me wondering if the USEPA is going to develop a more comprehensive approach to addressing lead and copper in our water systems, will they add in regulations to address lead paint on elevated water tanks? I have not really seen any data on how many tanks in our country might still have lead paint, but based on my past experience, I would guess most tanks painted prior to the late 1970s could still have a lead paint coating if the original paint had not been removed by sandblasting to bare metal. I also have not seen any data indicating leaving the lead paint in place is causing any issues, but if we are talking about replacing all the lead pipes in the country even if phosphates are used and lead is no longer leaching into the water, why would we not at least discuss the pros and cons of requiring removal of lead paint from our elevated water tanks?

I know in one city where I worked, one of the tanks for which I prepared specifications for repainting definitely had lead paint which surprised me because it had been painted about 1977-78. The reason it was surprising is that by the late 1970s, people in the industry must have been well aware that lead paint was being phased out. So I could not figure out why the consultant who developed the specifications and managed the construction and painting of that 1 million gallon tank allowed the contractor to use lead paint. But because he did, I was faced with the decision 30 years later to just do minor sandblasting and paint over the remaining paint or to blast to bare metal and repaint. Although it was more costly, I chose the latter because I could not imagine leaving lead paint on the tank and risking a problem in the future. Unfortunately I left the position before the tank painting was put out to bid, so I can't guarantee the city chose in the end to follow that plan since it was more costly.


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