Wednesday, October 22, 2014

An Ounce of Maintenance is Worth a Pound of Cure

Maintenance saves the world!  Every day, all over the world, maintenance men and women are both protecting us and saving money.  In the water world we often think our efforts are unheralded, and within our unheralded world, the most unheralded work may be maintenance.  Yet there is a good case that their work is near the top in importance.

How and why?  Good question.  Take a look at the following video:

What this video captures is the dedication of our maintenance staff, their drive to innovate, and the particular ways the work is changing with the times.  What the video does not capture is the vast and complex systems that must be maintained.  It only begins to hint at the financial benefits that come from pro-active maintenance.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Good Company

WEFTEC, the annual trade show for the folks who serve our nation’s wastewater systems, has come and gone again. WEFTEC is put on each year by the amazing staff at the Water Environment Federation, and rotates between Chicago and New Orleans.  I attended this year in the Big Easy and was yet again staggered by what I saw:

  • The size and scale of the businesses and services that serve this cause.  Although there is a new report that emphasizes the economic and community vitality that we drive – one need but see the floor of the convention center to be amazed by this reality.   The floor was nearly a half mile long and about a football field in width, teeming with people describing a nearly endless array of innovative goods and services.
  • The remarkable creativity of the people who do our work, and their willingness to help their brethren.  From dawn to dusk from Saturday to Wednesday, programs and seminars on almost every conceivable topic burst with vision and wisdom.

For me, I arrived on Sunday evening and spoke at my first event at 7:15 on Monday morning – to the annual breakfast of the American Association of Environmental Engineers and Scientists (AAEE).  AAEES’ membership list is a who’s who of some of the most accomplished members of our profession, and much of what they focus on is both how to create suitable technical standards to underscore our work and people, and also to identify and highlight the best of scientific and engineering accomplishments of these same people.  I was honored to be there.

Yet as I scurried from one engagement to the next, I took away three special messages:

  1.  EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy knows water!  During the opening morning plenary, the Administrator spoke to a huge, standing-room only crowd in a gigantic ballroom.  The Administrator is known for her expertise on air issues and climate change, given her prior position as Assistant Administrator for Air at EPA.  Some of us were concerned that maybe she would not be as attentive to water issues.  I can state with certainty that this worry was put to rest. 
    The Administrator spoke with authority on water issues, painting a compelling picture that water (is) will be the first and perhaps most important measure of climate change, and that the protection of water when there is both growing scarcity and flooding is becoming more important, not less.  She explained the need and importance of an updated definition of the “waters of the United States” for the Clean Water Act, and the need for both increased flexibility in implementation, yet continued focus on reducing nutrient pollution.  Mindful of algae blooms in Lake Erie and droughts in the West, the Administrator has a command of water issues and is a powerful voice for us at the helm of our nation’s environmental agency.
  2. The Johnson Foundation released a remarkable report that is the capstone of a six-year effort to chart a new future for water in the United States.  I was honored to be asked to provide brief remarks about the report, which I have already read and annotated!  While I am mindful that reports on almost any topic seem to be published by the day, I am certain that this one is different. 
    Unlike many reports on water, the Charting New Waters report does not spend much time on why we need to act.  This report, neatly organized and well written, is about what we need to do and how.  It is a practical roadmap, a game plan for any coach of a water team, of the extraordinary flowering of creative ideas and approaches that can leap-frog our enterprises to new levels of service, effectiveness and efficiency.  And the best part is that every idea is tied to examples – real world examples that demonstrate the words go beyond fascinating ideas, but have already been developed and implemented by some of the best of us in the industry. 

    I applaud the work of the Johnson Foundation at Wingspread, their creative and charismatic project leader Lynn Broaddus, and John Ehrmann and Molly Mayo of the Meridian Institute who helped create the report.  Honestly, if I were to suggest one read for our industry this year it would be Charting New Waters.  I guarantee your copy will have underlines and notes in the margins like mine does.  It captures this moment in time – one where our industry is changing because it must, led by the spirit and ideas of our own. 

  3. Water Works!  Once again, we also emphasized the economic and community vitality we are driving in the water industry.  SanFrancisco PUC General Manager Harlan Kelly seemed to be everywhere, representing a group of 30 General Managers who have banded together to tell the story of the strength of our industry.  WEF highlighted the importance of the study we published about the hundreds of billions of dollars of work we will be undertaking over the next decade, and the tens of thousands of jobs we will foster.

My most significant take-away, again, is to admire the people who work in our industry.   We are a group that is dedicated to public service, are problem-solvers to our core, and both creative and practical.  I congratulate WEF on another extraordinary year of WEFTEC, and look forward to next year in Chicago.  

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Bravo for the Anacostia Watershed Society!

Kingman Island, Northeast Washington, D.C.
The Anacostia Watershed Society celebrated its 25th Anniversary recently on the banks of the Anacostia River in Washington, DC.  I was delighted to be there and to share the podium with the Honorable Anthony Williams, founder Robert Boone and a new friend from Boston – more on that in a moment.  For my part, I was pleased to emphasize that the people who give, work or volunteer for AWS are undertaking the most important work for the River.  Why?

Because people are at the heart of any action.  People must care about the river.  People must enjoy the river. People must monitor and report on the condition of the river.  People must advocate for change.  Informed, thoughtful people are what drives government, businesses, and other community organizations to act.  The action, though, starts with the people – not the other way around.

The proud Wild Rice seed collection team.

When dedicated people take on almost any issue in this manner - supported by science-based assessments of what is going on and what is needed, presented in thoughtful and reasoned arguments of what needs to be done and why – the world changes!

Only an organization, like the AWS, that cares about the whole watershed and sees the river as a vibrant system can safeguard the health of the entire waterway. Unlike government entities who can only govern sections of the watershed’s tributaries, and all of the land that drain to those waterways, AWS is free to take a holistic approach to protecting the watershed.

And AWS has been brilliant.  Starting from its roots in the heart and mind of Bob Boone, one of the most deeply passionate, and deeply principled environmental advocates I have met – AWS has helped lift the Anacostia River from polluted and forgotten obscurity to prominence as the “it” river for the current day. 

Countless boat trips, presentations, stream clean-ups, community meetings and volunteer monitoring efforts have introduced countless people to the River.  Some of the countless people include Senator Ben Cardin, House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, House Minority Whip Chris Van Hollen, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, every mayor of the District since Anthony Williams and local officials from every jurisdiction in the watershed.
Summer evenings on the Anacostia river.
All of us have both marveled at the beauty of the river, the improvements that have been achieved, yet the heart-breaking challenges that still remain.

We also heard from Tom Sieniewicz from the Charles River Watershed Association at the event – which is just about twice as old an organization at 50 years.  He highlighted that the Charles River, another great waterway of a great older city, was graded at a D in 1994.  Yet after 20 years of committed dedicated effort since that date, the Charles received an A- in 2014.  Wow – an urban waterway, the Charles River in Boston, from D to A- in 20 years!

Two messages resonated with me.  One is that we can succeed!  Just as people can now swim in the Charles River, we can achieve the same for the Anacostia.  Fishable and swimmable on the Anacostia is possible…

The second is that the AWS is instrumental to the prospects for the Anacostia and its many neighborhoods. Its energetic membership and staff, led by superstar Jim Foster, who followed fellow superstar Jim Connolly, understands that people are the cornerstone of the future of the river.

DC Water will certainly do our part – and the Clean Rivers Project will drive the most significant improvements to the River in the last many decades.  Yet it is the Anacostia Watershed Society that is at the core of this effort.  We should all celebrate their 25th birthday, and join in helping them continue celebrating long into the future!

We all share in their success!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Water works!

Earlier this month I joined my colleague Harlan Kelly, GM of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (water, sewer and power) and Tony Parrott, Executive Director of the Metropolitan District of Greater Cincinnati to launch a national effort to convene the chief executives of water utilities to focus on one principal issue: the economic and community benefits that spring from our work, to parallel the obvious attention that is given to the costs. 

In every jurisdiction, water and sewer rates – however configured – are rising as old infrastructure is updated and new regulatory mandates and technological opportunities are implemented. We felt that attention has to be focused not just on rising costs, but on the opportunities we provide for good jobs, improved neighborhoods, and new businesses. From initial meetings in early 2014, we completed a study – founded on a survey of 30 municipal authorities – of our economic and community characteristics. Here in Washington in mid-September, the Water Environment Research Foundation (WERF) and the Water Research Foundation (WRF) released a report that highlights the economic activity driven by these 30 utilities. The report found that:
  • Thirty of the largest water and wastewater agencies will invest more than $230 billion over next decade; and
  • these agencies support 289,000 permanent good-paying jobs, annually, strengthening America’s middle class; and
  • DC Water will contribute $13.1 billion in economic activity over ten years; and
  • The Authority will provide 7, 090 jobs over the next years.

I also take pride in the fact that the group chose to adopt the name DC Water uses for its own jobs program – DC Water Works – by calling the national effort “Water Works!” The entire report can be found on the Water Works! website, and a DC Water-specific fact sheet is available online here. We will continue to emphasize the importance our organizations play in the communities we serve.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An Award We All Share

I was surprised and honored to receive the George Warren Fuller Award at the recent Chesapeake Bay Tri-Association Conference in Ocean City. Tri-Con is a joint meeting of regional sections of the American Water Works Association, the Water Environment Federation, and the Waste Water Treatment Operators Association.

I was surprised, because I was attending the conference to accept an award on behalf of our Innovations Chief Sudhir Murthy, who was unable to attend due to a previously scheduled vacation. I was delighted to learn I had won the Fuller Award when all the past winners converged on my table and escorted me to the podium. The award is the AWWA’s top service award for innovation in technology, management and diplomacy in the water sector. It is named for George Fuller who was instrumental to the establishment of AWWA – the oldest water association in the United States.

I am humbled by the award and noted in my remarks that I feel like a coach receiving an award for a team’s success – with the acute recognition that I am not one of the players on the field for the game itself. It is only through the excellence of DC Water’s personnel – from the Executive Team to every man and woman at every level – that generates the positive energy, ideas and action that rebounds back to recognition for me.

I am also pleased to receive recognition from my colleagues in the business itself, for only those of us in the water world can really appreciate what the work demands. I thank the DC Water Board of Directors again for giving me the opportunity to be part of this great enterprise!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Ice Bucket Challenge Accepted

Ice Bucket Challenge on top of Fort Reno Reservoir's green roof. Photo by Andy Le.
I was hoping I might survive the Ice Bucket Challenge craze unscathed, but my luck ran out when my good friend Julius Ciaccia challenged me. Ciaccia, as we call him, is the Executive Director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD). He really set the bar very high when he took the challenge – using effluent from one of NEORSD’s wastewater treatment centers. What a great, creative  way to highlight the incredible contribution wastewater treatment makes to clean water every day!

Dewatering shaft for the Clean Rivers Project. Photo by David Kidd.

To try and top that, we first thought of going deep into the new dewatering shaft here at Blue Plains, but then again, maybe dropping ice water on my head from 100+ feet in the air wouldn’t be such a great idea.

So, then we decided to go up instead – on top of one of our water reservoirs where we recently installed a green roof. Green roofs and other green infrastructure capture rainwater and reduce runoff into our storm drains and sewer system, which in turn can reduce combined sewer overflows into our rivers.

So, here it goes, bring on the ice!

And in case you missed it, here is Ciaccia’s original challenge posted on NEORSD's Facebook page.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Innovation in 3 Easy Steps - Part III - Examples from Everywhere all the Time!

As promised, I am writing a final innovation post about various examples of innovation underway or already in place at DC Water. It’s often thought that water utilities are risk adverse and lacking in innovation. DC Water is challenging this notion and is a prime example of how the water utility sector is moving faster than ever before in taking calculated risks to achieve and provide cheaper, faster and more effective services. Why? For the benefit of our ratepayers. Ultimately every decision we make is in the interest of providing affordable and high quality services 24/7/365.

In my previous posts, I’ve highlighted a few very specific examples and now it’s time to explore how innovation is the core of our business. I’m sure that many utilities could conduct a similar inventory of their current work and realize that innovation is already integrated into most of what we do!  The various short stories and examples I share below demonstrate how DC Water is innovative in all aspects of our business.

Innovation in Financing Research

This first example relates to my previous post on DC Water’s biosolids program. While DC Water is currently executing a significant effort to produce Class A Biosolids, we were already thinking innovatively ten years ago when we saw an opportunity and changed the paradigm under which we contract for the recycling of our biosolids (a valuable carbon and nutrient asset). What did we do? We started requiring contracted biosolids haulers to provide DC Water a nutrient rebate to leverage resources for biosolids research. Originally, the rebate was $1/ton, which DC Water was contractually required to spend on research. Since then, the nutrient rebate has increased to $2/ton, generating $500,000 per year for research, which DC Water uses to fund dozens of projects at several partner universities (including the University of Maryland, Virginia Tech, Bucknell, and others). 

One of the many success stories resulting from this rebate program is research conducted in partnership with Virginia Tech that investigated the benefits of using biosolids as fertilizer. It was previously observed and reported anecdotally that biosolids-fertilized crops were more drought-resistant and produced higher yield than crops fertilized with inorganic chemical products. DC Water partnered with Virginia Tech using research funds from the nutrient rebate program to discover that biosolids have high levels of vital, naturally occurring plant hormones that are crucial for resisting stress. Further research determined that the naturally occurring hormones are produced as byproducts by the microbes at DC Water’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant during nitrogen removal. In short, the research was able to pinpoint why biosolids help crops resist drought more than other fertilizers. In addition to the contribution to scientific knowledge, this result will increase the value of DC Water’s biosolids production. Through the research, DC Water was able to add value to its product, help farmers grow healthy crops, and advance the base of scientific knowledge related to drought resistance. 

Innovation in Restoring an Aging Infrastructure

DC Water spends about $10 million each year replacing damaged or old sewer laterals to minimize leaks. Sewer laterals carry sewage from a house to the main sewer line. They’re a vital part of the system and one of the most important for individual homeowners, because when there’s a problem with your lateral, you know it.

Replacing a sewer lateral is a relatively small repair for us, but a big deal for the homeowner and neighboring homes. Over several days, a crew typically will dig an entire trench, including a hole in the street and sidewalk and through the yard, removing dirt, plants, and sometimes even walls and stairs. Then, the pipe is replaced and everything must be restored. It’s an expensive and time-consuming process.

To save time and money, we now use a trenchless technology called cured-in-place pipe for sewer lateral replacement. Cured-in-place pipe is a soft fabric liner that can be inserted into an old or leaky pipe. The old pipe is cleaned first and the liner is soaked with resin and inserted into the old pipe through an access hole. Then, the resin is heated, causing the liner to harden, essentially forming a new pipe inside the old one. No trench necessary!

The entire repair is faster, cheaper, and less disruptive. So far, we’ve been testing this technology and only a small portion of our lateral repairs have been trenchless, but even that small proportion has saved DC Water over $1 million during the last two years. We’re using that money to replace more laterals faster, preventing potential sewage leaks. And soon, we’ll be expanding the trenchless program, switching two of our traditional crews from the traditional method to trenchless replacement.

Innovation in Wastewater Treatment

Wastewater treatment involves the removal of both carbon and nitrogen. Carbon is mainly associated with organic compounds in the sewage.  Sewage is treated in aerated basins where microorganisms break down these compounds using oxygen, microorganism that also consume carbon for cell growth. Nitrogen is removed in a similar process downstream of the carbon removal stage. The microorganisms that remove nitrogen also require organic carbon as food, but the upstream process is so efficient that there is not enough carbon remaining to feed the nitrogen-removing microbes. So at Blue Plains, as elsewhere, methanol must be added to the nitrogen removal tanks.

To improve this process, our wastewater research staff has developed a process modification that allows continuous pumping of nitrogen removing microorganisms into the carbon-removal tanks. This allows removal of a portion of the nitrogen load without the addition of carbon, taking advantage of carbon already present in the plant flow. As a result, less methanol is needed in the nitrogen removal process – so much less, in fact, that DC Water is saving $1 million per year on buying methanol.

DC Water was awarded a patent for the development of this technology. Initially, the proof of concept was developed at essentially no cost, and installing a dedicated pipe sending sludge from the nitrogen removal stage to the carbon removal stage was constructed at a cost of approximately $200,000 – given the massive savings on methanol, the project paid for itself in less than a year. Innovative solutions that can give that return on investment are what DC Water is all about!

Innovation in Information Technology and Customer Response Time

DC Water tracks significant amounts of valuable information, including maps of our equipment and assets, lists of work orders for our crews, the locations of our vehicles, and problems reported by our customers. While we had several systems to store and view this information, they were unable to communicate with each other. To resolve this challenge, DC Water conceived and developed a single system, called the Integrated Work and Resource Management Solution, which brings all of these different pieces together in one place.

Map showing reported problem and current repair vehicle locations
The new system allows staff in our Command Center to see everything on a single map: vehicle locations, reported problems, and where our equipment is, all in real-time. That means when a customer reports a problem via DC Water’s website ( or on a smartphone, a dispatcher will see the problem immediately appear on a map. The Command Center can view work crews that are nearby and coordinate a response with other groups within DC Water. Work orders can be issued or assigned directly from the map system, saving travel time, improving efficiency, and resolving problems faster.

This view shows a hydrant replacement job and crews assigned
Efficiency gains have already been achieved. Even better, as onboard laptops are deployed, field crews will be able to instantly access this information, no longer needing to contact the Command Center – a 20-minute wait reduced to seconds. In the future, analysis of patterns within the data is expected to allow us to do an even better job predicting and responding to problems. The Integrated Work and Resource Management Solution is just one more way DC Water is working to connect different parts of our business to solve problems and complete repairs even faster.

Innovation in Engineering Solutions

In 2009, DC Water was confronted with a significant problem when a leak developed on the slope of a hill emanating from a 78” transmission water main – that’s a big pipe! The main was critical to continue supplying water to our customers, so it couldn’t be shut off for long. When we inspected the pipe to find the source of the leak, things got even worse: we found some defects in the structure of the pipe itself. Repairing a pipe this size would be a big job no matter what, especially on a hill, but in this case another major water main lies on top of the leaky one. A traditional, open-cut excavation job would have been extremely difficult and incredibly disruptive, not to mention long and expensive. 

Because of the critical nature of this water main and the complicated terrain issues coupled with our concern that we could not keep the main out-of-service for an extended period of time, we needed to look beyond the conventional repair methods. At this time, we found carbon fiber technology as a possible solution for repair of this critical main.  Carbon fiber wrap is a trenchless technology that has its roots in bridge seismic rehabilitation and repair primarily on the west coast since the 1990’s. Here’s how it works. A high-technology fabric made of carbon fibers is bonded to the existing concrete. The high tensile strength of the fabric reinforces the structure and holds the pipe together, repairing the defects and preventing further deterioration.

The use of carbon fiber wrap turned out to be the perfect solution for our leaking 78” water main..  We were able to complete this repair in less than three weeks, saving a substantial amount of time and money over the conventional method and greatly reducing the risk to the other pipe on the same hill.  With the success of this project, we added carbon fiber wrap to our toolbox for complicated repairs that require structural reinforcement in difficult to access and environmentally sensitive locations. 

Innovation in Local Hiring

DC Water has arguably the largest capital program in the District of Columbia with multiple large scale infrastructure projects currently underway at the Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant and other sites across the city. More major projects are planned over the next 10 years. These projects are largely funded by our ratepayers, and for that reason we've launched the DC Water Works! initiative - a multi-pronged effort to boost local hiring on DC Water projects and manage the employment requirements of contractors.

The majority of workers on DC Water's construction projects are hired and employed by construction contractors and their subcontractors, and there are many opportunities in a variety of trades. DC Water Works! is a targeted campaign initiative to advertise DC Water jobs to local District residents, collaborate with District job training and apprenticeship programs and coordinate an incentive-based program to encourage DC Water contractors to interview and hire District residents.

DC Water Works involves a multi-faceted approach targeting both local residents and contractors. First, we established three satellite job centers created to advertise job vacancies of contractors and provide space for interviews. Second, we began providing a financial incentive of 5 - 10 percent of DC payroll for contractors when local employment goals are met. We’re also placing paid trainees on crews to increase the knowledge and skill base of our local residents. All of these efforts incentivize a process that supports our local economy while providing job training and skills to local residents.

Innovation in Communications

At DC Water, we prioritize our customers as #1 and as a result we’ve invested in building a powerhouse External Affairs Team that is responsible for marketing our brand and communicating about our work. Unlike many utilities, this 13-person team includes a production team with in-house designers and videographers, social media experts, a media manager and a community outreach team. Throughout the year, this group is continually launching impressive District-wide campaigns and outreach events that would otherwise require third-party marketing and communication firms, resulting in significant savings and stellar branding throughout our service area.

The DC Water Outreach Team is particularly innovative in communications. On any given day, this team is tracking dozens of construction projects that are underway in the District and ensuring our customers are informed and satisfied with our work. Part of this outreach includes traditional attendance at community meetings and snail mail notification of upcoming projects. However, DC Water’s construction outreach has moved beyond traditional communications and is taking advantage of social media to connect with our customers, including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube and Flickr. 

In addition to social media, we’ve also implemented an automated workzone notification system in which customers can receive text or email alerts about construction in their neighborhood, including scheduled and emergency work. These alerts are also distributed using Twitter in which DC Water currently has more than 7,000 followers! Every day, our External Affairs Team is on the streets, at public events and on social media communicating with our customers and highlighting the importance and necessity of our work!

And the list goes on …

There are dozens of stories to share about innovation at DC Water and I hope this provides a brief glimpse into how we are working towards becoming a world-class water utility. I am grateful to have a workforce that is eager and willing to think innovatively when challenges arise and find ways we can do our work better, faster and cheaper. It’s becoming what we do best!

And we have only just begun!