18 Sep 2009

Fear and Water Managers

In response to this post, Terry Spragg sent a comment worthy of a post of its own:
Regarding your “Nothing to Fear but…” blog comments, why do you think so many water authorities seem to “Fear” the new, but simple to test ideas that we have been proposing to use waterbags linked in trains to form a fabric pipeline through the ocean to transport water throughout the State, and to move water through the Delta during an emergency using a fabric pipeline?

Ray Seed thinks creating a fabric pipeline through the Delta during an emergency is an interesting idea. He thinks it should be investigated. But Ray’s opinion doesn’t seem to influence the authorities who fund these ideas. Ray has told me that the collapse of the Delta levees as a result of a natural disaster is the one thing that keeps him awake at night. And it is an accepted fact that a major earthquake along the Hayward Fault, which may trigger this catastrophic levee collapse, is overdue.

I have some ideas as to how “Fear” relates to implementing new ideas but I wonder what you and perhaps your readers “think?” As I have been saying for years, these ideas are easy to “think” about. They are not rocket science.

West Basin MWD and the Water Replenishment District of Southern California have both passed Resolutions in favor of testing waterbag technology, and sent them on the DWR. Neither of these agencies have received a written response from DWR to these Resolutions, and their... letters requesting DWR’s public support for an investigation of waterbag technology and our emergency applications in the Delta.

Jeff Kightlinger has been kind enough to write me a letter in support of demonstrating our ideas. Jeff recently told me that he thinks waterbag technology will work. But in spite of this support it is MET’s position that they don’t have the time and the budget to study these ideas.

MET staff has never produced a report on waterbag transport technology, or on our idea for creating an emergency fabric pipeline through the Delta. The only letter MET has written to me related to any of these proposals was on an idea to float waterbags through the Delta, which MET staff and I both agreed needed more work.

A motion to have MET staff study our waterbag transport technology and our emergency proposals was introduced to the appropriate MET committee but it was rejected for lack of a second. MET’s opinion is that waterbag technology can not supply enough water to their system in order for MET to spend the time and money to investigate these ideas.

Naturally, I disagree.

I have told Jeff that all we need to do is to start with two waterbags linked together and move them from a selected point A to a selected point B through the ocean. Assuming that this delivery is successful it will then be a simple matter of adding more waterbags to the train, and more trains to the system, in order that over time we will find the limits of developing a simple modular fabric pipeline through the ocean. The economics will be easy to calculate. The environmental effects will be easy to demonstrate. I have told Jeff that this method could prove that waterbag technology could potentially move 100,000’s of acre feet into the Delta and/or down to Southern California.

Jeff did not refute my argument, except by making the comment that,

“It has never been done before.”

I could not refute Jeff’s argument.

But to me, that is a logic based on “Fear.” A “Fear” of failure. Yet history has proven that without failure it is difficult to achieve great success.

If something has never been done before, is that an acceptable reason for rejection, or is it a reaction based on “Fear?”

Maybe the answer is, as you and Peter Gleick have pointed out, decisions for solving California’s water problems are still based on overcoming “Fear.”

I know that Jeff is a man of courage.

I have even used “Fear” in my arguments to try to gain support for a demonstration of our waterbag technology.

What seems so incongruous to me is that almost all the men and women I have met over the past 21 years of pursuing our water transport goals are some of the most courageous individuals I have ever known. They exhibit courage as individuals in the face of the unknown, such as the unknown length and effect of the current California drought.

For years our team has offered an inexpensive way to demonstrate our technology in California, at little or ZERO FINANCIAL RISK to California taxpayers. But we have yet to see our friends in the water industry step forward to overcome the “Fear” of the unknown in order to give waterbag technology a seat at the table with desalination and other multi-billion dollar alternatives that are currently being discussed.

Perhaps you can share my comments with your readers and ask them this simple question,

To this, I replied with:
Innovation is hard because water managers get blame for failure but no praise for success. Since they operate in a monopolistic environment (with appropriate job security and a lack of benchmarking against "peers"), it's much easier to say no, do the same old thing ("Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM"), and then pass the costs of inaction onto their "customers."

As you may recall from the days before email and FedEx, the USPS gave terrible service (even today, they sometimes do, but we can avoid it...). There was no need for customer service or quality or efficiency, since they had a monopoly.

With water, the monopoly is stronger and the risk of disregard for the interests of customers that much greater. Although I know that many in the water business do *try* hard, I also know that they are not forced to. In that instance, there is no penalty for going home at 4:45 (I've been in a few offices by now) or even declaring a shortage.

As I've said before, managers who declare shortage should be fired on the spot for incompetence, but they are not. So where's the penalty for failure?

I, like you, wish that there was more desire for improvement and innovation, but they are not called water buffaloes for nothing!

(My all-in-auctions would fix Met's "dilemma" on reallocation among member agencies -- ending lawsuits -- but Met does not have a single FTE to devote to a pilot study. Why? It seems that failure-as-usual is more comfortable than trying something new. Recall that most water agencies are using the same tools in this drought that they did in 1977 and 1991. Plus ca change.)
Bottom Line: It's hard to innovate when the person in charge of innovation is not the person who will benefit from innovation.


  1. WaterSource/WaterBank18 Sep 2009, 14:19:00

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Part of it is the nature of the job. Water managers, like air traffic controllers, are charged with an important responsibility. Creativity and breaks from routine are not exactly encouraged, and probably shouldn't be. Would you like to be in the airplane when the ATC fellow decides to try out something novel?

    It is our elected leaders who need to actually lead, back the novel approaches to problem solving and take the flack if they fail.

  3. WaterSource/WaterBank18 Sep 2009, 18:33:00

    Sr. Kurtz,

    If I remember correctly, it certainly was not some politician who made the novel decision to ground all air traffic the day of the attacks ! It was the manager in charge !

    Investigation of new ideas is not novel. Many waited for the politicians in Katrina. Who took early positive action that saved lives ...

    Managers certainly do have the reponsiblity to at least investigate alternatives ... especially if there is no cost involved !


  4. Operations in the Delta are highly complex and highly regulated. Prove up the technology required to move the Sacramento River to the pumps at Tracy without massive environmental impact (CEQA/NEPA anyone?) someplace a little less regulated (like just about anywhere on the planet), hire me as your attorney, and I'll get Jeff to pay attention.

    "It's never been done before" is bureaucrat-speak for "Prove to me this works on someone else's dime first."

  5. WaterSource/WaterBank18 Sep 2009, 23:32:00

    Francis if you are an attorney, please communicate.

    Your point is well taken about the dime, that is why the subject offers are on the table to be looked at for free.

  6. If your offer is to do a sample for free, i suggest you visit a bi-partisan group of central valley legislators w/ farmers in their districts and get them to push the issue... makes them look good in their districts.

  7. @Francis -- good translation. I'm always on the look out for an early (desperate) adopter :)

  8. This is why end runs were invented. Put together a business plan that shows an eventual profit and take it to Sand Hill Road. The Venture Capitalists that hang out there are looking for "green" projects for investment. If this is truly cost effective, there are lots of places in the world that need water moved from one place to another.

    If our pal needs encouragement, have him read up on how hard it was for John Aakers to get IBM to build a desk top computer. It is a great story. He had to hand pick a crew and rent a garage in Florida to get the project away from the nay-sayers at Armonk.


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