Who Owns the Water? Pt. 1, Groundwater

This week we bring you a post from our colleague Richard Whisnant from his new blog: Environmental Law in Context.

This is the way the question often comes to me–who owns it?–as a way of asking either who controls water in NC (for beneficial purposes) or who is responsible for it when it does harm (e.g., flooding). Framing the question this way is an unsurprising reflection of the importance of property rights in American law. And property rights do matter for water law. But water, the great solvent, has a way of dissolving preconceptions about ownership of property and forcing anyone who really cares to reexamine their understanding of ownership itself. Things, like water, that are always moving, often in mysterious ways, and that are so vital to us that we can’t imagine life without them, just don’t fit well in simple definitions of “property.” To make matters especially complicated for water, the law has come to treat its ownership very differently as it moves through the eternal cycle in which it always moves: from ocean to sky, back to earth as rain (“stormwater”) or snow, then either infiltrating into the ground (groundwater) or into streams and lakes (surface water), and then passing through myriad human channels, including our own bodies, on its way back to the sea. In this post, I will outline the way NC law treats ownership of groundwater–probably our biggest and ultimately most important store of freshwater.

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Key Financial Indicators for Water and Wastewater Systems: Debt Service Coverage Ratio

In a previous post, we outlined how to use the financial statements of a water or wastewater system to calculate the key financial indicator of operating ratio, a measure of self-sufficiency. Another key financial indicator is debt service coverage ratio, which, as the name suggests, measures the system’s ability to pay its long-term debts.

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Fiscal Sustainability Plans – A Rose by Any Other Name

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet; – From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, 1600

This often-quoted phrase by Shakespeare’s Juliet seeks to nullify the fact that Romeo has the surname of her family’s enemy. Since that time people have used the phrase to convey that the nature of the thing is more important than what the thing is called. But, today’s world is more complicated than Shakespeare’s, perhaps not when it comes to love, but certainly with respect to getting people’s attention. Our in-boxes and lives are so cluttered that something needs to stand out in order to win our attention. The thing needs to be new, and/or solve our problems, and the name needs to portray this, otherwise we bypass it. Many names have evolved for the smart management of water infrastructure. Asset Management and Effective Utility Management are now common terms. The “fiscal sustainability plans” that EPA is requiring with the Clean Water State Revolving Fund Amendments as part of the Water Resources Reform & Development Act (WRRDA) also incorporate elements of this smart management.

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An Ally of the People: Good Governance and Sustainable Finance for Environmental Services

In honor of the UN’s World Water Day, a group of us from the Environmental Finance Center attended last month a performance of the play, “An Enemy of the People,” at Playmakers Theater here on UNC’s beautiful campus. It was well done and featured timeless, dramatic themes such as the struggle of one man’s battle to awaken the conscience of the community, the role of a whistleblower, the struggle to protect one’s family, and more. But the play also revolves around environmental finance and governance themes, which got me to wondering: How might this story (essentially set in nineteenth century Norway) fare differently in our own time and place? What different options for protection of public health and promotion of sustainable finance would governments, utilities, and the people have today, especially in regard to safe, clean water?

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Solving the Puzzle: Understanding Customers through their Water Use History

Last week, I posted a graph of my household water use for the past few years and challenged our readers to identify as many interesting characteristics about my household as they can. Often, the only data a water utility has on their customers are what they have in their billing records. Other household characteristics, such as size of household, income, age, house and lot size and features, water use behavior and preferences, etc., are very difficult to obtain for each customer. However, as demonstrated by my own personal example, mining the billing data alone can reveal much about each household. Here is what my water use history reveals about my household, and the application of this exercise in water resources and utility finance management.

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