Archive for April 2013

A $13 million failure of imagination in Center Point

April 20, 2013

Center Point is a small unincorporated town in Kerr County, Texas, lying along the Guadalupe River, about midway between the larger towns of Kerrville and Comfort. The sewer plan proposed there is an excellent example of a mental model, when left unexamined, costing society way too much money to solve a fairly simple problem. At the same time this deprives society of an opportunity to implement deep conservation, and so move society toward, rather than ever further away from, sustainable water.

Researching this matter, it seems that the idea of sewering up Center Point had been cast about for many years. It was asserted that existing on-site wastewater systems were polluting the Guadalupe River, and relieving that condition creates the “need” for the sewer. In the recent reports, it is also asserted that the sewer is “needed” to accommodate growth, even though population growth projected thru 2040 over a several square mile service area is fairly low, from a current estimate of 2,090 persons to a projected population of 2,519.

The facility plan I found in the Texas Water Development Board (TWDB) file was performed by a large nationwide engineering firm, out of its San Antonio office. This plan offered as options only the continued use of conventional on-site systems – termed in the plan “septic tanks” – or piping the stuff “away” in a conventional large-pipe sewer system. In the recommended option, many miles away to the treatment plant in Comfort. The price-tag for the collection system to get the wastewater there is listed at $13 million and change. Total system cost would also include the price of providing treatment capacity for this flow, a cost which was not evaluated in the planning documents I found in the TWDB files. Spread over the 900+ connections in the service area, the cost is over $14,000 per connection for just the collection system.

This is a very impoverished range of options, ignoring everything between those two extremes, reflecting what I call the “dichotomy view”. That is a mental model which holds that wastewater management can be done in only two ways. One, totally within the confines of one’s lot, with the owner being unilaterally responsible for planning, design, permitting, funding, installing, and operating and maintaining that system. Or two, by dumping it in a pipe leading to the centralized treatment plant, with the user paying a fee and the sewer system operating authority doing all that. One or the other, no options in between. As observed in the case of Center Point, that is the commonly held “understanding” of our controlling institutions, including the large nationwide engineering firms.

Should the people in those institutions know better? In this case at least, ABSOLUTELY! Among the ranks of the engineering firm which prepared the Center Point facility plan are two employees with whom I am acquainted that are both long-time proponents of what I labeled in 1986 the “decentralized concept” of wastewater management. This concept adopts a “continuum view”, considering a range of options lying between the two extremes that compose the “dichotomy view”. The basic idea is that you treat – and beneficially reuse to the maximum extent feasible in the situation at hand – the wastewater as close to where it is generated as practical in the context at hand.

In many circumstances – as reviewed below, Center Point almost certainly being one of them – this strategy can deliver wastewater systems that are more fiscally reasonable, more societally responsible and more environmentally benign than conventional centralized systems. This is the so-called “triple bottom line” of sustainability. Those two employees that I know have been advancing that message for many years, including obtaining for their firm several contracts for various studies about decentralized concept strategies. So clearly, the knowledge exists within that firm to have known that a whole range of options was being ignored in Center Point.

It may be, however, that “mainstream” engineering firms avoid all that for “business reasons”. It is impossible to underestimate the level of resistance that the controlling institutions pose to the decentralized concept. As noted, the long-standing presumption has been that Center Point “needed” to be sewered up, so the local political leaders advanced that as the explicit goal, touting it in every interview I’ve read. These politicians no doubt want to be connected to a “grand project”, to deliver a large grant, and so are disinterested in advancing a “smaller” solution, no matter the relative merits. Then too, an engineering firm would be assured of a hefty design contract to implement the centralized system – indeed, for the Center Point project, TWDB has provided a $1.8 million grant for planning and design – while for a decentralized concept strategy, the available design fees are unknown. It’s also well understood that all the regulations, funding programs, etc., are heavily biased toward conventional projects. Then there are the legal firms, the financial advisers, etc., who stand to get a cut of the pie all lined up cheerleading the centralized system. In the face of all that “weight of expectation”, it’s easy to understand why a firm which wants to keep on doing such projects might hesitate to suggest any “outside the box” options, perceiving a risk of being branded as “not a team player”, of being “blacklisted” on future projects.

The result is that decentralized concept solutions, which could deliver superior service at less cost – including putting that water resource to work in Center Point instead of shipping it “away” – will never even be put on the table for consideration. I have observed this same pattern of behavior repeated by firm after firm, in community after community. In effect, our controlling institutions are operating a conspiracy to constrain the options that get considered to those which match their current mental model of how one manages wastewater.

Options which could have been put on the table – should have been, routinely so, in a context like Center Point – include improved on-lot systems and “cluster” systems, at various scales. These systems would feature high quality treatment – using technologies that are robust and resilient, thus are manageable in distributed systems – and subsurface drip irrigation dispersal. Those practices would preclude whatever pollution issues are purported to be caused by existing “septic tanks”, and they would provide whatever level of service is needed for further development in and around the town.

I would expect the preferred configuration to be on-lot or small-scale cluster systems, so the reclaimed water could be most cost efficiently routed to the most beneficial irrigation usage. This perhaps could be in the pecan orchard or commercial nursery, each close to Center Point’s town center. Or it could provide much of the landscape irrigation water demand at houses, businesses, parks, etc.

That sort of strategy would save money in several ways. First, not all of the 900+ connections have failing “septic tanks” so the initial installation could be limited to properties where the existing on-lot systems are failing, and to commercial sites on which conventional “septic tank” systems are inappropriate. Thus, the cost of fixing the actual immediate problems may be drastically lower. Long term, some properties may never need anything but their existing conventional “septic tank” system, so the ultimate cost of the whole system would most likely be lower, even if the cost per house needing new service under the decentralized concept approach were to be greater than it is with the centralized system.

An evaluation of a decentralized concept system in a similar community, however, indicates that small-scale collective systems could be installed for less than $14,000 per connection. In contrast to what that buys in the centralized system, a collection system only, this buys a collection, treatment and reuse system. Therefore, even if every connection did require an upgraded system, the total cost of the decentralized concept strategy is almost certain to be way less than the centralized option, on an “apples to apples” basis.

Second, since facilities need be built only to serve existing development and imminent new development, this strategy does not speculate on the scale of future development. Whatever new development does occur would not incur costs until it actually hits the ground, so those costs would be delayed until actually needed. This works with the “time value of money” – a dollar you can put off paying until later is worth more than a dollar you have to spend now. This frees money for other investments in the meantime.

This also has a “social justice” aspect. Under a decentralized concept strategy, the costs of developing new capacity, whenever they occur, would be borne directly by the development generating the need for that capacity. This relieves the existing population from having to participate in financing of facilities to serve activities which may not benefit them in any way, as they will be forced to do under the centralized system. Indeed, Kerr County has asserted that it has not been requiring failing “septic tanks” to be upgraded in Center Point because the residents cannot afford it. Yet, the proposed plan would surely impose high monthly fees on these people, likely higher than the amortized cost of an upgraded on-lot system.

Third, regarding those monthly charges, the overall operations and maintenance costs of the decentralized concept system are likely to be lower. This is difficult to evaluate right now because the planning documents for the centralized system provide O&M costs only for maintaining the collection system. Those costs work out to about $40/connection/month, already a pretty high sewer rate. Decentralized concept systems in a somewhat similar community were projected to incur a considerably lower monthly charge than this for all the O&M. In Center Point, however, the users of the proposed system would also have to pay sewer fees to the treatment plant operator, increasing their total monthly payout by an undetermined amount. As noted above, however, under a decentralized concept option, not all the connections are likely to require upgraded service, so the total O&M cost would very likely be much lower.

Fourth, the water has value, so if reused to defray irrigation that would be done in any case, that would save water. Whether or not this yields direct savings on an explicit water bill, there is also another planning process in play to augment water supply in Center Point, entailing another multi-million dollar project. Defraying water demands in this community would limit the need for new water supply. In particular, irrigation supply creates demand peaking, so shaving that peak with reuse could reduce the scale of facilities, saving some of that money.

Fifth, optimizing the beneficial use of the reclaimed water benefits the regional water economy, so would likely put off or decrease the cost of future water supply projects generally. Other, less readily apparent benefits may also decrease global long-term costs to society. For example, salinity of the estuary at the end of the Guadalupe River is of concern, and lessening water demands anywhere in the river basin frees up water for environmental flows. This simply highlights the multi-faceted water challenges facing this region. Without this sort of deep conservation being built into the water management system at every opportunity, costs would be incurred to free up water from other sources to provide the environmental flows, or the estuary will suffer, damaging the economy that depends on its productivity.

It is understood that, given the high institutional bias for conventional projects, getting a decentralized concept system approved and funded might entail a “hassle factor”. But this is no reason to ignore it. Really this is just another cost factor to be evaluated, as the “hassle” translates into hours expended to work through the barriers. So it would seem that the rational course is to evaluate the relative costs and benefits of various options, and then consider if any “hassle” really offsets the benefits that would be delivered by a “non-standard” project. Noting once again, not the least of which is moving us toward sustainable water. It seems that all concerned choose instead to simply presume, without analyzing it, that the conventional strategy is the only one that could be funded and approved. This avoids ever exposing the barriers and working toward their resolution. So the pattern repeats, with the engineer on the next project again fearing to venture “outside the box”.

The bottom line is that the work has not been done to know if the proposed centralized system is the most fiscally efficient, societally responsible or environmentally benign option available. Indeed, the necessary work to expose all the costs of that option have not even been done. Yet the controlling institutions are all conspiring to move this option forward, apparently unconcerned that other viable – and perhaps significantly superior – options have not been considered at all. In Center Point, this apparent compulsion to cater to a prevailing mental model is a $13 million – at least – failure of imagination.

In terms of both money and water, society cannot afford to continue to suffer such failures.