Monday, February 23, 2015

GLWA, Don't Ignore Subsewersheds

There’s an opportunity now with the creation of the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) to re-examine how ratepayer money is spent region-wide.

A good example would be efforts to reduce combined (storm and wastewater) sewer overflows in the River Rouge watershed.

In the past, Detroit water authorities concentrated efforts to reduce such overflows by building retention/treatment basins.  They have been augmenting the basins with green infrastructure, so far mostly by planting a few trees or disconnecting a few downspouts, in lower Rouge areas not far from the mouth of the river.
But the problem also occurs much farther upstream in subsewersheds.  Think of the big, interceptor sewers leading to the Detroit wastewater treatment plant as artificial rivers.  The many, smaller municipal sewer systems that feed the interceptors are like the creeks and ditches that feed natural rivers.

Reducing runoff into streams and sewers during heavy rains should begin far out in the Rouge watershed in places like Rochester Hills, West Bloomfield and Southfield.

River Rouge Watershed

Planting shrubs and trees, creating water gardens and swales, installing cisterns, paving with water-permeable materials, disconnecting downspouts from drains and impeding construction site and agricultural soil erosion throughout the watershed will pay dividends downstream at retention basins, pumping stations and wastewater treatment plants, as well as in natural water bodies.  Lower costs in the system translate into lower sewer bills for everybody.

This would be a good time for a vigorous collaboration between the new Great Lakes Water Authority and the State of Michigan to expand watershed-wide stormwater controls like those described above.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

DWSD's Costly Overcapacity in Water

We learned this month that the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) is abandoning its suggestion last September that a 4% lid on water and sewer rates was feasible for 10 years.

The Detroit News reported, “Water department officials said a decline in water sales is a major reason behind the increase in flat monthly charges. They estimate the department lost more than $26 million between July and December due to lower water usage and are projecting a $59 million shortfall this fiscal year,”

and (same article),

“In January, water officials said a $12.5 million decline in water sales might push rates higher than a 4 percent cap to be established under the new Great Lakes Water Authority.”

OK, so the numbers are jumping around a little.  What’s $12 or $13 million among friends?

Of course, most of the shortfall was known to DWSD before the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), formally proposing a regional water authority, was cosigned by City of Detroit negotiators, no doubt with input from DWSD Director Sue McCormick.

In the MOU, it was “assumed” (p.4) that water and sewer rate increases would not need to exceed 4% for years.

It’s abundantly clear, however, that the real problem isn’t declining water usage.

The truth is that DWSD has had too much water production capacity for years.  Ratepayers have been carrying the cost unnecessarily.

The following is quoted from the analysis of Veolia in its Peer Review Report to DWSD in December 2014 (p.14) -- note that the overcapacity issue is anticipated to fall on GLWA:

5. Right-Sizing Capacity

Reduce the long-term expense of operating and maintaining capacity surplus to requirements

GLWA’s significant water production over-capacity should be right-sized in order to reduce both capital investment requirements and operations costs. [Emphasis added.] The necessary analysis could be done to reach a revised capacity decision in the next 12 to 18 months and Veolia recognizes that work is already underway in this regard. It is critical, however, to increase the speed and urgency of executing this particular initiative.

Indeed, existing discussions about closing one water treatment plant have been ongoing for many years. With almost twice the capacity of water treatment required, Veolia considers it both reasonable and responsible to execute this plan unless an alternative method of utilizing the excess capacity is identified. One such option includes selling it to other communities.

It is beyond the scope of this report to calculate the net detailed savings that would result from these approaches; however, the benefits would be significant in terms of both operational and capital savings, freeing up resources for other important initiatives.

Veolia recommends expeditiously determining if there is a reasonable possibility of selling water to other communities, while at the same time evaluating which of the plants to consider shutting down.

Closing at least one of DWSD’s five water plants should be a condition precedent to finalizing a regional water deal.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

DWSD's 4% Rate Cap Was a Sham

In the transition of regional water services from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to the new Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA), the most important documents so far are (1) the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by representatives of the principal units of government in the region and (2) the Articles of Incorporation.

GLWA’s new website contains both of those documents.

The website introduces GLWA’s six recently appointed board members and the interim director, Sue McCormick (who has been DWSD’s director the past three years).

The Detroit Free Press reported last month that, “Suburban communities could face double-digit water rate increases this year in part because falling water sales have hurt revenue,” and further that “[t]he authority [GLWA] was created as part of Detroit's bankruptcy and included a promise that  it would limit budget increases to 4% annually.”

However, the only reference to a 4% rate cap in the aforementioned documents is a short blurb at the bottom of page four in the MOU.  It falls far short of being a promise.  It says, “Each system [i.e. water and sewer] as a whole, is assumed to experience revenue requirement increases of not more than 4% for each of the first ten years under Authority management.”

It looks to me like the so-called 4% rate cap was nothing more than an artificial sweetener, just  one more deception in a long line of deceptions coming out of DWSD, the city and its bankruptcy.

In her January 28, 2015 Director’s Report (p.1)* to the DWSD board, McCormick seems to be saying that rising costs weren’t the reason for reneging on the hint of a commitment not to raise future rates more than 4% per year. No, her suggestion (see footnote) is that rates have to go up substantially more than 4% because revenues have gone down (unexpectedly?), by reason of a shrinking population (presumably in Detroit**), which uses less water.

**UPDATE 2-13-15:  A county official who read this post forwarded it to DWSD Director McCormick with the comment, "...please have someone from DWSD correct the misinformation in the below email concerning ‘rates’ and ‘revenue requirements’ as it apparently remains confused..." (copy to me).  

I haven’t heard back from anyone at DWSD as of this update, but news accounts in the meantime attribute the falloff in water sales to the withdrawal of Genesee County communities from the Detroit water system.  Beg your pardon, but that’s old news.  I can’t even be sure that the Genesee County circumstances are the “misinformation” to which the official referred.

Nevertheless, the important point is that everybody knew about Genesee’s withdrawal and anticipated a DWSD revenue shortfall long before the MOU containing the 4% cap was signed last September. It appears to me likely that the problem now is less about revenue loss (that's old news) and more about DWSD overestimating its cost cutting. Look at the quotes from Veolia's report in the January 22, 2015 post on this blog ("The Risk...").

But wait a minute!  How could she have been surprised by a shrinking population, skewing her calculations?  Hasn’t she had access to population trends, routinely estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau, year to year, state by state and city by city, not to mention a number of other sources, such as Data Driven Detroit?

And where did this galloping exodus go?  I’ll bet you a dollar to a donut that 99% of those leaving the city resettled in Detroit’s suburbs.  In other words, the same day that they closed their Detroit water tap for the last time, they opened their new water tap in the suburbs for the first time -- in the same water system. Same system, same volume.

I think you’re giving us the runaround, Sue.

* Last paragraph, page one of Director’s Report, January 28, 2015:

“As challenged by the BOWC, DWSD has been working with customer representatives through our outreach process to explore options for addressing the revenue shortfall experienced by the water fund during the current fiscal year. The solutions proposed in collaboration with our customers, require changes in the volume purchase numbers to align with actual sales in recent years. Additionally, some additional shift to recover some of the assigned costs through fixed charges will also be proposed. In short, we must be more conservative in our water sales forecasts and recognize the significant amount of fixed costs in our methodology, to assure the needed system water revenue in a manner that is fair to all of our water customers. This effort is required to accomplish for the water fund what the BOWC challenged us to do, and what we accomplished in collaboration with our sewer customers with sewer rate simplification last year - establishing equity and stability of revenues in the process. This change will require extraordinary communication efforts to assure our customers that our commitment to cost containment is ongoing, and adjustments are not due to increases in expenses beyond our commitment to 4% per annum. The communication effort has started, and will continue through the rate season.”

Friday, February 6, 2015

More about Janicki Wastewater Processor

Janicki Bioenergy claims it is on track to produce the next model of its small capacity wastewater processor, the S200, within a year. The innovation was featured on this blog several weeks ago.

Some of S200’s characteristics are:

- processes about 24,000 gallons of sludge per day;

- produces 150-250 kW of electricity per day (enough for 25,000 households at 10 watts each);

- produces 13,000 to 22,700 gallons of pure water per day;

- produces not quite three cubic feet of ash per day;

- serves a population of 100,000 to 200,000 people;

- requires a staff of one or two people per shift;

- with all the bells and whistles, occupies a space of 37.5 ft. x 95.5 ft.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Using Visuals to Educate Public about Water Services

Water quality people throughout our region could do a better job of communicating with and educating the public about technical processes.

Few have even attempted visual presentations online.

Take a look at how the Village of Holly portrays its wastewater treatment plant:


THIS IS PART OF OUR SCADA SYSTEM (Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition)

For more SCADA screens with explanations, 
click on the picture