Three Seemingly Unrelated Topics: Experiments, Reality and Grad School

Warning, slightly cheesy opening line ahead:

In the midst of the epic rains and flooding here in Colorado, I was lucky enough to find a way to stay grounded in reality.

In August (2013) I taught the math camp for incoming economics graduate students. It’s less s’mores and sleeping bags and more of a week-long prep/refresher course containing the mathematical background the fresh-faced newbies will need to survive the economics graduate career they’ve just signed on for.  Since it’s my last year in the department, nostalgia took over and I offered up all sorts of unsolicited advice to my audience. I told them to approach everything as an opportunity to become an expert on the material, rather than the common undergrad tactic of ”I just need to get through this exam, this class, this semester”.  On the other end of the spectrum I suggested that they find something (hobby, sport, friends) that has nothing to do with economics, to maintain sanity and the ability to talk about something other than economics at a happy hour.

Somewhere in between I recommended that they get involved in something that keeps their economic interests grounded in reality.  Otherwise you end up like me the year after the first two years of coursework: frustrated and unable to remember why I had thought a graduate degree in economics was a good idea.  Luckily, I’ve mostly left those murky waters behind. The turning point for me was when I joined the City of Fort Collins Water Board. I was able to see water resource economics issues in a new light: reality.

I had the unexpected opportunity recently to be reminded, once again, of how important this last bit of advice really is. There are three parts to this story (…keep in mind that Wikipedia states that “things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things” so you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t read all three).

First, I was able to reconnect with my experiment (see Research) that I conducted for a chunk of my dissertation. It’s motivated by the question: How will smart meters, which can provide real-time information on use and prices to households, affect consumption of water/energy and responsiveness to prices and other policies? I originally ran it with undergraduate students in Spring 2012, then ran it with Fort Collins Utilities employees in early September 2013. It reminded me why I like experimental economics and allowed comparison across the typical experiment participant (students) and practitioners. This last part is a somewhat rare opportunity. Many economists think young, undergraduate students don’t act like the rest of the population (which sometimes they don’t: Redbull instead of coffee and leggings instead of pants) but since they’re such easy recruits, experimental economists keep using them. Turns out, there is no difference in the behavior of practitioners as compared to my earlier student-generated results. AWESOME (contact me to further talk about just how awesome this result is).

The second part was presenting the results to the utility employees. (Note that the experiment sessions and the results presentation sandwiched the epic Colorado flooding. I’m still shocked anyone showed up to hear how the experiment turned out.) We ended up having a great discussion about how the results can be used in design of rate structures and the online portal that they’re developing for customers to check their usage regularly. We talked about the benefits of using an experiment like mine before testing a policy through a likely costly pilot experiment with real customers.

The third moment occurred over the course of three days following that debrief with the Utility employees. Some of my employee experiment participants were hosting and presenting at the Western Load Research Association fall conference. There was an opening in the agenda and my talk on consumer behavior/ experimental economics got squeezed in! While my talk was just another talk, the time I spent at the conference was what mattered. I was immersed in a supportive and active community on electric load research issues ranging from forecasting to the impact of electric vehicles to design of demand response programs like time-of -use pricing.  I was inundated with rigorous and fascinating research that has a real impact on thousands of people’s everyday lives. Plus they’re really fun group of people: When presenters were introduced, their bios included a long list of impressive credentials following by their love of running or having a miniature Shih Tzu named Chewbacca. The after-conference activities included a New Belgium Brewery tour.  Discussion of location for future meetings centered on where/when a ski trip could be piggybacked onto the conference.

I’ll agree that I somewhat benefited from being lucky, (but that’s just preparation meeting opportunity, right?). But as a result of taking the steps to connect with the so-called ‘real’ world I’m trying to improve with my research, I ended up learning a ton about the electric utility industry and consumer behavior issues motivating change in the utility business. Plus, I gained a wealth of candid career advice. I cannot stress the importance of graduate students keeping their research interests grounded in reality enough. It improves your research, ensures that your research is relevant, and enhances your teaching (students love real-world examples).

Now, choose your own ending: 1) cheesy end to match the cheesy opener, “keep your feet on the ground but keep reaching for the stars” idiom, or 2) stop reading this article and get reconnected with the real world that lives outside of your [tiny graduate student] office.

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Quick engineering and collaboration in Fort Collins creates a concrete beauty that helps maintain clean, low-cost water.

Along the Front Range, effort is underway to manage damage from wildfires. A new concrete tub – a presedimentation basin – is the most recent wildfire-related project by the City of Fort Collins Water Utility and was put to work for the first time on Tuesday June 18th.
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As kids, we learn about the four seasons: fall, winter, spring and summer. But in Colorado we experience fake winter, fake spring, real winter, and fire. During ‘fire’ season (unwittingly called summer), city customers use 2 to 3 times more water per day than in the so-called winter months.

Normally the water provided by Fort Collins Utility is half Horsetooth Reservoir water (transported from the Western slope via the CBT system ) and half Poudre River water. But in 2012’s fire season, we took no water from the Poudre. Zilch. The fire generated unprecedented amounts of ash, debris, and sludgy sediment, mucking up our river that’s both a National Heritage site (only one of 49 rivers in the U.S.! Learn more here and here) and designated as wild and scenic river (info here and here). Combined with restricted access along Highway 14, for three full months, none of the water used in one of the hottest, driest, fire-iest seasons came from the Poudre. That’s 100% reliance on Horsetooth water, which is fine for a while, but not forever.

There is strong effort to restore the watershed, like mulching and re-seeding to prevent erosion, stabilize soil and regenerate ground cover. This will reduce the amount of erosion and sediment run-off in the future, but what to do about the existing burned debris and sediment in the meantime?

Sediment in a river is normal. The Utility already has a presedimentation basin at the entrance to Gateway Natural Area (you may know it as the round building that marks the entrance to where tubers and rafters put into the river to float down to Picnic Rock). This almost 90 year-old basin is designed to settle out some sedimentation and debris before the water goes into the Pleasant Valley Pipeline, which transports water to the treatment plants during the summer – ahem, fire – months. Typically, this is cleaned out once a year. But in 2012, for example, it had to be cleaned out 4 times in the month of September alone.

After traveling through this basin, raw water from melted snowpack is turned into potable water through a treatment plant, located on the west end of LaPorte Ave. Through a series of tests and processes, raw water is transformed into clean, tasty, drinkable water – a main reason for our robust community of breweries:“Napa of Beer” blog and how wildfire affects beer).

Consistency is key in the water treatment business, which is why Horsetooth water relatively easy to handle. Poudre water, on the other hand, is Fort Collins’ wild child. It is a live, variable, working river. The major reasons for its volatile behavior is that flows naturally vary throughout the year, and every time it rains in the Poudre canyon, the period of increased flow mixes a bunch of ‘stuff’ into the water. This ‘stuff’ is called total organic carbon (TOC), and is decaying or burnt natural organic matter, such as soil, decaying vegetation, and animal and human waste. When there is increased TOC in the river, i.e. high ‘turbidity’, the water has to be treated more extensively (read: expensively), or not at all when the plant shuts down the intake valve. Now, add in the fire effect: when the snow melts or it rains, all of the burned matter on the slopes drain into the river and is transported downstream to our pipelines.

Check out this video on how the High Park fire affects water treatment.
Excerpt from the corresponding Coloradoan article: “It’s a big deal because we have to remove the sediment for all our processes to work properly, and it creates a lot of additional residuals or sludge that we have to take care of and also any chemicals we have to add to take out all the solids from the system,” Voytko said.

Without a new presedimentation basin, any water we divert this summer would bring a ton of sediment and ash into the PV pipeline, which would cause the pipeline to act like a sediment basin instead. This pipe would become clogged like an artery after too many cheeseburgers – not cheap, easy or fun to clean out.

Now join me in welcoming the new basin at the existing Munroe Turnout, in the company of farms and llamas, just north of Highway 14. The basin floor is approximately 39,800 sq. ft. – almost eight and a half basketball courts. The basin’s capacity is just shy of three Olympic-sized swimming pools (about 1.8 million gallons). She (it involves water, so it should be a she, right?) went online Tuesday June 18th, and filled in only 90 minutes! The design process started in early February, which translates to less than five months from conception to delivery! While most people need the full nine months to get ready for a baby, the Utility needed this baby up and running before the heightened water and sediment flows of the summer months. In addition to the basin, an improved, cleverly designed rotating screen filters out large debris like pine needles. At one point it was a full-time job to hang out and remove pine needles, can you imagine that job description?

Construction during a muddy April visit, water will flow through this large area to the row of holes:
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A view of where the river water enters the presedimentation basin, in an early June near-completion visit:
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The benefits of the basin include keeping the pipe and treatment system clean and running smoothly. This translates to keeping treatment costs low, which then keeps water rates and bills from increasing. Second, sifting out sediment early ensures more consistent raw water, which ensures easier, less expensive treatment and delivery of clean, potable water. Finally, the City will be able to rely on our senior Poudre River water rights, rather than just Horsetooth water, which will be critical in meeting City water needs. We recently went off restrictions and if we weren’t able to treat Poudre River water, the restrictions may have been more severe instead. The community is great at complying with restrictions, but restrictions have monetary implications, for customers and the utility itself.

We’re in the process of understanding the short and long-run effects of the fire on our watershed, but this is one step in the right direction. The Fort Collins Water Board – my wonderful, educational plunge into public service – come to a meeting! — just got a sneak peak of the 2012 (that’s last year, the epic wildfire year) annual drinking water quality report at the June 20th meeting. Let me sum it up for you: Fort Collins’ drinking water is awesome and will continue to be, thanks in part to the new presedimentation basin.

More information is available through the Fort Collins Water Utility here.