In the early 1990s, the City of Philadelphia became the first municipality to appoint a temporary public advocate to represent the interests of “small users,” residential customers and small businesses, during water rate-setting proceedings. It also established the role of a hearing officer whose function was to listen to testimony and provide a recommendation on water price during rate-setting cases.
Whenever a proposed rate change triggered case proceedings, the mayor, city council chairperson, and city controller appointed a public advocate who may submit evidence, bring in experts to testify, and coordinate community testimony to provide different perspectives on the water department’s proposal. The public advocate could also provide alternative approaches that could benefit the small users. The public advocate plays a community engagement role by gathering and disseminating information to community organizations in order to better assist low-income residents in enrolling in assistance programs.
The Philadelphia Water Department has the task of maintaining an aging water system while providing affordable service in a city where 26 percent of city residents live at, or below, the poverty line. Philadelphia Water had addressed water affordability through an assistance program. Residents below 250 percent of the federal poverty level could apply for the Water Revenue Assistance Program (WRAP), which provides $200 per year for water bills and $300 for past due balances. Despite this program, between April 2012 and January 2018, unpaid bills and water debt affected over 40 percent of Philadelphia households. Twenty percent of all household accounts or 86,000 customers, experienced at least one shutoff, and 40,000 households were eligible for shut offs as of May 2017. For the Philadelphia Water Department, unpaid bills and water debt represent over $242 million in uncollected revenue.
In the early 1990s, the Lansing Board of Water and Light (LBWL) pumped approximately 23 million gallons per day (gpd) for its customers, not quite half of its 50 million gpd capacity. The loss of large industries, a small population decline (7,000 people over 10 years), and more efficient plumbing technology had lowered the community’s water use. Worried about rising rates, LBWL used funding from the Tri-county Regional Planning Commission to convene a task force to explore options for generating new customers by providing water on a regional scale.
During this same period, West Side Water (WSW), a small utility that serves 2,000 customers in the western area of Lansing Charter Township, found itself in violation of the new Safe Drinking Water Act and needed to act quickly or pay fines. WSW pumped and distributed approximately 450,000 gpd from its single water pumping station, with about 150,000 gpd being sent to two large General Motors plants. Like LBWL, WSW drew drinking water from the Saginaw Aquifer, which had particularly hard water, but unlike LBWL, it did not have the technology and capacity to soften its water. As a result, WSW had heavy metals above regulation in the finished drinking water it supplied, putting it in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s Lead and Copper rule.
In 2012, water softening chemical prices increased, something that hit service providers in the center of Michigan’s lower peninsula particularly hard. These mid-Michigan utilities, clustered around the capital city of Lansing, draw water from the Saginaw Aquifer. Saginaw Aquifer water is particularly hard, and requires a number of chemical inputs to soften it for use and consumption. These rising chemical costs put extra pressure on water utilities as they attempted to distribute safe and high quality water, while keeping rate increases modest.
As a result of the price increases, central Michigan communities began exploring ways to cut costs and keep rates low. In 2014, the Lansing Board of Water and Light, the East Lansing-Meridian Water and Sewer Authority (East Lansing-Meridian), and the City of Jackson started meeting with the Groundwater Management Board in Lansing and the Michigan Chapter of the American Water Works Association to explore opportunities for cost savings. Water infrastructure consultants at the meeting suggested that the joint chemical purchasing arrangement in the Holland-Grand Rapids area might offer an approach that central Michigan communities could replicate to save on chemical costs. After speaking with Holland and Grand Rapids utilities, in 2014 the Lansing Board of Water and Light and East Lansing-Meridian formed a chemical purchasing group, the Mid-Michigan Drinking Water Consortium (MMDWC).
In the 1990s, Cincinnati, OH and Boone County, KY experienced differing development trends. Boone County—and its largest city, Florence – was growing 10-12 percent annually. The expansion of a regional international airport, the Greater Cincinnati Airport, and the complementary businesses it attracted aided in its growth.
At that point, the Boone County Water District (Boone Water District) had been purchasing all of its drinking water – one billion gallons per year – from the Northern Kentucky Water District, a multi-county water utility. With Boone County’s growth, the Northern Kentucky Water District began to realize that regional water demand would outstrip its capacity in the near future. The district asked Boone Water District to modify the existing water service agreement to include capital costs to build an additional water treatment plant. This approach would require Boone Water District to raise rates. As a result, Boone County and the City of Florence began exploring alternative options. They had two possibilities: pay to expand capacity at the Northern Kentucky District or enter into an arrangement with an outside water supplier. The first option required massive investment and sweeping reconstruction of infrastructure. The second idea required a willing and able supplier.
In recent years, the scientific community has become increasingly aware of the need to address a gap between scientific research and policy and management decisions. Collaborative research, which integrates scientists and decision makers into the research process and fosters two-way communication and learning, presents an alternative to traditional research that can help bridge this gap.
In November of 2017, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System Science Collaborative team organized a workshop for their research and integrated assessment grant recipients. Participants included 37 people that lead or co-lead 20 projects funded by the Science Collaborative in 2015, 2016 and 2017. Workshop discussions were facilitated by Dr. Julia Wondolleck, an associate professor of environmental policy and planning at the University of Michigan and a member of the Science Collaborative team.
We have captured the collective findings and advice of workshop participants in this guidance document in hopes that it can serve as a resource for those interested in developing end user-driven collaborative research projects, both in the National Estuarine Research Reserve System and beyond.
Keywords: Nerr, Wondolleck, collaboration, Science Collaboration Team
From 2015 to 2017, Georgetown County, South Carolina, experienced threats to life, ecosystems, infrastructure, housing, schools, and businesses due to a thousand-year rainfall event, Hurricane Matthew, and repeated flooding episodes. The increased frequency and severity of these rainfall events mirrors climate scientists’ projections for the region as climate change intensifies. Like many small counties in the United States, Georgetown County is challenged by financial limitations and burgeoning infrastructure needs, creating a difficult decision-making environment for considering climate adaptation and mitigation planning.
This project will develop and implement a novel approach to climate adaptation planning, first conducted in New England from 2013 to 2014. Georgetown County will use role-play case studies developed using local climate information and sociopolitical context to engage local citizens and community leaders in exploring climate change impacts and potential decisions in their local context. The goal of the simulations is collective community learning and engagement with the potential for policy and planning recommendations to emerge.
The University of Michigan Water Center and partners are working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to implement the NERRS Science Collaborative, by coordinating regular funding opportunities and supporting user-driven collaborative research, assessment and transfer activities that address critical coastal management needs identified by reserves.
Megan Czerwinski, a doctoral student in nursing, is using data from the U-M Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program (SCIP) survey as part of her dissertation. Her research focuses on sustainability education in the nursing profession, and she wants to understand “what nurses know or feel” in regards to sustainability.
“The foundation is there” for nurses to be engaged with sustainability, she says. “Florence Nightingale talked about the environment patients are in and how we need to pay attention to that.” What’s more, nurses are the largest component of the US healthcare workforce, and have been consistently rated as the most trusted profession by Gallup Polls. “Nurses can play a role as trusted, nonpartisan voices in starting sustainability discussions and pointing out the immediate impacts and health impacts of [sustainability issues],” she says. For instance, talking about reducing medical waste, or location-specific contamination like the current dioxin pollution impacting Ann Arbor groundwater.
Keywords: Case Study, Nursing, SCIP
In Dr. Victoria Campbell-Arvai’s class, The Science and Practice of Social Change, students learn about how social science methods can be used to study human behavior as it relates to the environment, and how it impacts sustainability efforts. Campbell-Arvai is using the U-M Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program (SCIP) data as a teaching tool to help students understand the use of surveys in environmental social science.
Keywords: Case Study, SCIP, Learning, Teaching
Drs. Levine and Yan study transportation behavior and choice as part of the RITMO project, to improve the understanding of the feasibility of a university ride-sharing program. They used the U-M Sustainability Cultural Indicators Program (SCIP) data set to help identify the travel modes of university affiliates, such as the percentage of faculty or students using buses, the percentage that own cars, etc. SCIP data provides the “revealed preference” for transportation, a measure of what people are actually doing. Revealed preference data is input into Mode Choice models to allow researchers to examine current behavior. Using the model, researchers can review behaviorial prevalence (i.e., how frequently people actually exhibit a certain behavior). In Levine and Yan’s study, it will help them model potential use of a university ride-share program. The other piece they need for their Mode Choice model is “stated preference” data, which is data on what people say they will do in the future–a statement of what they would like to do, not what they are actually doing. Levine and Yan are collecting stated preference data by re-surveying people who have already taken the SCIP survey.
Keywords: Case Study, SCIP, Campus Transport, RITMO