Cutting Through the Red Tape

Working for the Wastewater Enterprise

March 29, 2011

by Marielle Earwood, SF2011

It’s been about six months since I started the City Hall Fellowship and I am happy to say that I could not be more excited with my placement! As a City Hall Fellow, I have been fortunate enough to work at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) helping to develop an Urban Watershed Planning Framework (UWPF). This framework is a component of the new SFPUC integrative watershed approach, spear headed by the Wastewater Enterprise (WWE) as a part of the Sewer System Improvement Program (SSIP). The SSIP is a collection of capital projects created  to ensure that the SSIP Level of Service Goals are met. These goals include: minimize flooding, increase system reliability and sustainability be a good neighbor (odor control), and to help the sewer system adapt to climate change.

The integrated watershed approach includes the planning of possible Low Impact design projects, green infrastructure projects including rainwater harvesting, permeable pavement, day lighting creeks, and the creation of more green spaces. These LID projects help manage stormwater while at the same time can enhance the surrounding environment.

The UWPF will also be used as a capital projects decision-making tool that applies Triple Bottom Line plus (Environmental, Social, Economic and available technology) analysis. It is intended that the tool will help the WWE prioritize top SSIP projects while taking the social, environmental and economic implications into account. It is incredible to be a part of such an innovative, cutting edge program. Through the creation of additional green infrastructure and retrofitting existing grey infrastructure, stormwater can be captured, slowed and diverted from the collections system during the wet weather season. The diverted water can then be used for groundwater recharge and recycled water for irrigation. The SFPUC WWE is implementing cutting edge approaches to stormwater management and watershed analysis, and it’s only the beginning! How exciting is that?

The WWE conducts phenomenal work to ensure that San Francisco residents can happily and safely flush their toilets.   I got to tour the treatment plants here in the city and was fascinated by how biological wastewater treatment can be. During one of the treatment steps, the wastewater is inoculated with bacteria! Incredible! Through this placement, I continue to learn about how the city of San Francisco operates for its residents, and have been able to enhance my communication and coordinating skill sets.  Almost everyday I am in the face of a new and interesting challenge, have learned so much already, and look forward to the days to come!

Regulating with Nuance

March 10, 2011

by Megan Degeneffe, SF2011

Every year millions of gallons of drinkable water are used to irrigate landscapes in San Francisco, presenting a great opportunities for conservation. Working at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) for water conservation has made that a top priority of mine. Since agreeing a few years ago to cap water sales, keeping more water in the river, the SFPUC has been looking for ways to save millions of gallons of water in order to meet increasing demand. Directed by a state mandate, the SFPUC sponsored an ordinance to save water outdoors which passed the Board of Supervisors just last week.

Conserving water outdoors, however, is often trickier than conservation outdoors. Indoor conservation efforts usually involve rebates for efficient fixtures or educating people that turning off the faucet while brushing saves water. In order to save water outdoors, residents need to plant the right plants for their given climate and location and give those plants the right amount of water, delivered in the most efficient way. If any part of that equation is off, a landscape can become a sinkhole for our limited water resources. San Francisco, once filled with rolling sand dunes, cannot support a banana tree farm without a lot of water. The need to conserve water, however, has to be balanced with other goals, such as the need to provide green recreational spaces and the simple desire to have a beautiful front yard.

The Water Efficient Irrigation Ordinance tries to address this challenge. In writing an ordinance specific to San Francisco, the water conservation section was both ambitious and nuanced. While the state only requires us to look at landscapes over 2,500 square feet, because San Francisco has smaller landscapes, we lowered that threshold to 1,000 square feet. Along with the requirements for considering water use in new or modified landscapes, the SFPUC is providing resources to help resident make their gardens more water efficient, such as installing a demonstration garden at Garden for the Environment.

Throughout the process of developing the ordinance, I’ve seen the importance of fully understanding every actor’s modus operandi before making rules which could effect them. By working with developers we came to understand that one aspect of the ordinance requiring landscape to be evaluated before occupancy of a new building would hinder developments trying to occupy model units. In response we built into San Francisco’s ordinance a process for developments to create special project arrangements in order to ensure the planned development is not derailed, but water conservation is still considered.

Writing nuanced regulation can have a dark side- precise rules are often complex ones. When variation is allowed for different circumstances it can become difficult to pick out what rule your particular circumstance falls under. Even before the ordinance was passed, we have been working with a myriad of different stakeholders, from landscape architects and nurseries to everyday residents just looking to redo their backyard, to explain the ordinance in clear and simple terms. For those that want to go deeper, we have more to offer, later this week we will be talking to a group of landscape designers about the finer points of efficient irrigation. Informing people of what we are doing, and how it would apply to them is a key part of translating what is now on paper to what will be happening on the ground. We do have to create regulations in ways that take into account complexity, but that doesn’t mean our rules need to be overwhelmingly complex.

A Running Problem

March 07, 2011

by Ross Nugent, BR2011

The state of Louisiana tends to get the reputation of being years behind different trends that are catching on in other parts of the country.  This idea normally pertains to fashion, food, or other lifestyle fads.  Although, when it comes to environmental policy, Baton Rouge lives up to that reputation.  Only in the last year has the city made efforts to promote bike and walking paths between downtown and residential areas as well as other green initiatives.  While smaller steps such as these are important in the long run, the biggest environmental concern Baton Rouge faces involves its sewer system.

Baton Rouge sewers have needed an overhaul since the 1980s.  There are problems in many areas with sewage overflows, especially during rainy weather.  Heavy rains pour into broken sewer lines and cause backups in low spots within the system.  The need for improvement came to a head in 2001 with a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency that had the city pay a $729,500 penalty for violation of the Clean Water Act, as well as implement an improvement plan.  Prior to this, many manhole covers in low lying areas were slotted to allow sewage to backup into the street instead of houses.  Since then, Baton Rouge has created a plan that will spend $1.2 billion over the next decade to fully modernize its sewer systems.  The first phase of construction began in 2010 and is expected to cost $423.4 million.  The city is also receiving a huge savings in future interest payments on the $540 million in bonds issued for the project.  Being placed with the Department of Public Works, I’ve been able to see how well construction has been going from an administrative standpoint.

So far, construction has been laying groundwork in different areas and is on schedule.  The first focus of construction is on the South Wastewater Treatment Plant.  Ground was broken in September on two new pump stations at the plant and a new preliminary treatment system at a cost of $113 million.  Since then, the contracted construction firm Brasfield & Gorrie, LLC  has made headway and expects to be completed in 2013.  Work on this improvement is occurring simultaneously with other projects involving rehabilitation and capacity improvements on sewer and drainage lines throughout the city.  As I continue my service here, I may not be able to see the completion of the overhaul, but I am happy to be able to see how the beginning of such a large project takes form.

Changing the Question: Managing Risk in a Budget Crunch

March 03, 2011

by Luke Fuller, SF2011

“Get rid of your pools. Get rid of your play structures. They are nothing but hazards, and you should never have built them.”

Working for a municipal government in California means that I get a first-hand perspective on budget crises. As in most recessions and budget shortcomings, various programs and services are cut, citizens become more critical of their government’s use of resources, and even government itself becomes critical of its own perceived indiscretions. While the demand increases for efficient spending, the criteria for continue or terminating a public project are expectedly skewed. Many programs and opportunities that do not produce immediate and measurable returns are cancelled, and programs that may offer incredible long-term benefits may simply be scrapped. From my exposure to San Francisco in the Risk Management industry, I regularly see or hear about organizations abandoning their projects because they feel that they can no longer afford them. As the cost of managing the risk of an endeavor increases, and the amount of resources an organization has decreases, the prospect of investing in that endeavor seems more and more uncertain. Priorities shift to support efforts with less uncertainty.

Last fall, my department graciously sent me to a training and education program in San Antonio, TX, in an effort to give me a leg up on the industry’s learning curve and to provide me with effective professional insight. It was an incredibly helpful experience overall – indeed, you cannot help but digest some useful information after four days of eight-hour lectures and discussions. At one point during the conference my colleagues and I were listening to a presentation on the legal and financial pitfalls of public projects. The presentation was well crafted, persuasive and intelligent, everything that you could hope for in a substantive lecture. But I could not help but to cringe at the speaker’s suggestion to abandon public spaces as excessive government exposures. “Get rid of your pools. Get rid of your play structures. They are nothing but hazards, and you should never have built them.” Though it appeared to be an intuitive financial policy – these areas have high exposure, so avoid them – the conclusion did not sit well with me.

This perspective of risk aversion is indicative of a traditional model (or at least perception) of risk management over the past several decades; avoid risk, avoid risk, avoid risk, and when that fails, transfer and mitigate the risk. This policy is generally acceptable in a private enterprise; if a practice or product is costing too much to manage its risk, then you get rid of it or make a better one that’s cheaper. Unfortunately in public service we cannot always do that. We do not always have the option to avoid uncertainty or liability or high costs for insuring the completion of a capital project. There are some things that the government – especially a local government – ought to and is expected to provide for the members of its community, even if the level of risk would otherwise cause a private entity to abandon it. This is part of the nature of public government, and it cannot be avoided. Children will use park play structures, people will gather at pools as a community, and the public will expect open spaces that offer individuals the opportunity to interact and develop social capital.

San Francisco is actually trying to adjust for this recognition by utilizing an Enterprise Risk Management model. Sounds fancy, but it boils down to a holistic approach to identifying and managing risk across an entire entity with considerations for policies, priorities and ambitions, and the risk appetite of the organization in pursuing development goals. Risk is then treated as both a positive and a negative concern – it could include the potential for loss, or the prospect of creating greater capacity and opportunities. With this in mind, the central question that our field ought to be asking – and indeed the question every municipal government ought to be asking in the face of budget shortfalls – is not “if” an agency’s goal is acceptable, but “how” to manage their concerns in the smartest, most coordinated way to achieve that goal before saying “no”. This approach has already produced creative solutions, and has encouraged City and private organizations to work collaboratively in pursuing their objectives.

I was brought into this department with minimal expertise in contract review, financing and exposure analysis. Most of my studies in college were policy oriented. But this has provided me with an unusual advantage in my work to help our department incorporate Enterprise Risk Management – I necessarily think outside of the box that suggests we ought to fill our pools and dismantle our playgrounds, and I instead get to look at the whole picture as the project. San Francisco is once again taking the lead in implementing this innovative new policy to provide a more comprehensive management of risk, and it will be among the first municipalities in the world to do so.

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