POSTED ON AUGUST 8, 2012:
City service futures in a convulsive time
Enjoying the heat, or at least managing it? Are you watering the yard and using water in necessary, but responsible ways? Will you comply with mandatory water rationing if the City imposes same?
Tulsa: A History of Bold
Beginning at the turn of the last century, the City secured its water from the Arkansas River: untreated water that was distasteful and filled with salt and silt. So in the early part of the 20th century, aggressive city-elected and business leaders crafted a plan to secure better quality water. The City secured land near Spavinaw and in the '20s, a composite dam/reservoir/distribution system that exploited Spavinaw Creek, was financed, engineered and constructed. A bold, imaginatively engineered, 50-mile-long pipeline to carry the water to a new treatment facility was an audacious feature of the plan. At this stage of US history, few municipalities had ever conceived or constructed a water project of this scale: Tulsa was a great pioneer in water provision. We need to re-ignite this heritage.
Big Assessment Afoot
The Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority (TMUA) -- the city body that oversees the pricing, delivery and provision of water/waste services in Tulsa -- is completing a top to bottom appraisal. The assessment looks at water sourcing, water quality issues, the status of the huge flow lines that link our water sources to treatment plants and storage facilities and the water distribution network. The work also features a parallel look at our sewer/waste water system. The assessment also surveys a range of service growth and expansion scenarios, staffing, organization capacity, a bevy of technology and federal compliance matters and a spectrum of huge capital project improvement issues.
And it scans a host of nasty service support matters: The water/waste water operation has to negotiate with a bevy of regular city departments to run its efforts. Sometimes, the assessment claims, the Authority and its mission don't get the best results.
The TMUA and the folks who run Tulsa's water department appear to be exceedingly hard-working and diligent people. In fact the consultants say rightfully that the City's utility crew is very passionate about its work. And in a time when public sector employees are bashed for their pensions and other things, it's very important to say that they are doing a very good job under trying circumstances: They are carrying out a function that allows us all to live well and in a fashion that's safe and convenient.
One of the strategic options looked at -- an option that seems very over played these days at City Hall -- was privatization of our water/waste operations. As readers will understand, this strategy would have entailed selling our water and sewage utility/facility off to a private firm that would operate it on a for-profit basis. This has occurred in a number of American cities and retraces the history of electrical power provision.
Many American cities secured their electrical power from publicly owned entities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, operations that were later sold to private companies.
In a typical privatization arrangement (there are several deal "types") a public board, nominally overseen by the Mayor/City Council, would make "high" policy: that is approve rates and green light fundamental practices, consistent with public/consumer interests. The private purchaser would pay a lump sum or a series of large payments to the City. This one-time windfall would be wonderful and, we could argue, would vastly simplify City Hall's management "plate."
But a service that is life and death to every person in this community is of transcendent import. It is likely that a great deal of control and oversight, even with a public oversight board, would go away. Plus base rates/all rates for water & sewer services might be higher -- in part because a private company has to yield a profit and also has to have higher revenues to cover private capital market costs for big capital project/replacement efforts.
So it looks like Tulsa is avoiding one bad path, but we still have some huge challenges. Part of the reason that this wide ranging, very detailed (draft) water/sewer assessment isn't altogether satisfying is that it doesn't fully account for the convulsive circumstances in which water services and other public enterprises, with a tight connection to the physical world, are operating in at the moment -- and will be in the near future. It's a traumatic context -- heavily influenced by a still fragile economy, enhanced environmental/safety thresholds (state and federal), and public aversion to new taxes. But the real biggie -- more visceral evidence (look at the average temp these past two weeks on your weather app) that climate change is very real -- and a practical phenomenon that is visiting us in the short-term. Our current round of water rationing -- this year's and last year's -- are hard to ignore evidence.
There is a revolution afoot in the way that energy, water and other resources are being employed in our society and across the planet. Question: has this revolution, a big shift in outlook, a re-look at current practice, behavior and consciousness reached Tulsa?
There're a variety of folks who have conjured up strategies for doing water conservation: that is converting the normal role of a water utility from providing, selling and marketing water to a venture that provides "water resource services." That is, an organization that can provide consumers, industrial operations and commercial folks with water but also advises them on how to make optimal use of it. And a "water services operation" also provides substitutes for heavy water usage and more efficient ways of consuming it consistent with what some call a conservation mission.
The down-the-road capital requirements for Tulsa's water and wastewater provision are of course among the items discussed in the new assessment document. We are talking about many, many millions of dollars to maintain, replace, upgrade and expand existing distribution/collection networks, water treatment facilities, and the wastewater operations currently in place.
With only modest population growth and some industrial/commercial expansion in Tulsa, the assessment righteously says we will need these dollars. The key question: Could we use an imaginative bundle of conservation initiatives -- for home and commercial/industrial uses, optimal technologies to ratchet down demand, waste water recycling, changes in land use and lawns (more use of native plants and novel irrigation systems), more aggressive incentives to encourage flow constricted showers/toilets -- to reduce mid-run water demand in T-Town?
Shouldn't these options get fully costed and looked at in the next draft?
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