July 19, 2010

10 minutes with Dan Duchniak

DAN DUCHNIAK, P.E., is general manager of Waukesha (Wis.) Water Utility. The BC Water News team sat down with Dan to talk about the challenges that water utilities face during these tough economic times, as well as Waukesha's search for a long-term water supply.

AWWA

Name: Dan Duchniak

Title: General Manager, Waukesha (Wis.) Water Utility

Background: Dan is an active member of AWWA and has served on the section board as secretary-treasurer. In 2005, he co-founded the Midwest Utility Expo, an annual two-day conference for water operators that focuses on training. An engineering graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Dan earned his master's degree at Marquette University. He worked at water utilities in Franklin, Racine and Oak Creek, Wis., before joining the Waukesha utility in 2003.


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How has the recession affected your agency?
Dan Duchniak: With our agency, growth is specifically tied to the economy. With the downturn in the economy, the addition of new homes to the water system has been very limited. Before the downturn, the Waukesha Water Utility was adding between 400 to 500 customers per year (or a growth of 2 percent to 3 percent per year). Since the economic downturn, we are adding between 50 and 100 customers per year (or a growth of just 0.2 percent to 0.5 percent per year).

This is an impact because the growth in our system would be high enough to cover the regular increases due to inflation; however, with the growth rate limited, the existing customer base has had to bear the price increases related to inflation. This results in a higher cost to the existing customers for the same level of service.

What’s the most significant project you’ve been involved with in your career?
Duchniak: It is the project that we are currently involved in and that is the search and implementation for a new long-term water supply for the City of Waukesha. The city currently has a water supply that is contaminated with radium.

Due to the drawdown in the aquifer, the city needs to develop a water supply that is more cost effective and sustainable for the long term. This project began around eight years ago, when we began negotiations of a consent order with the state Department of Natural Resources to bring our water system into compliance with the radium standards. The initial negotiations provided a three-year window to comply with the standards. Because the City of Waukesha was the largest system in the country to be in violation of the radium standard, when we were unable to meet the deadline, the state worked with the city to provide until June 30, 2018, to develop a new water supply that would meet the standards.

After studying the alternatives, it was decided to apply for a diversion from the Great Lakes as a sustainable water supply for the City of Waukesha. The city worked with state and national legislators to develop and pass the Great Lakes Compact, which would allow an exception to the diversion ban for communities that met certain criteria. The City of Waukesha meets that criteria and is in the process of applying to obtain water from the Great Lakes. In order to receive permission for the water supply, we not only must get the approval of our own state, but also the approval of the seven other Great Lakes states.

It is anticipated it will take at least five years to complete the work at a cost of $164 million.

It has been a challenge to work with the various agencies and interested parties throughout the process. Because this is a precedent-setting application, it will undergo intense scrutiny throughout the process.

What is the biggest challenge your agency has faced in the past 10 years?
Duchniak: The need for a new water supply and all of the necessary approvals would be on the top of the list; however, deteriorating infrastructure continues to be an area that needs to be addressed. In an ideal world, the city would be replacing 1 percent of the water main in our system every year, which would equate to about 3.5 miles of water main every year. In reality, with the amount of dollars needed to support the effort to develop a new water supply, we have been able to replace just 0.3 percent of the water main every year. While we have developed a plan to get to a level of 1 percent replacement per year, there is the need to develop a stronger program and stronger funding to achieve this result.

What do you see as the biggest issue for your agency over the next decade?
Duchniak: Infrastructure replacement and water conservation. We are blessed to live in an area of the country that has a vast supply of water resources in the Great Lakes. However, without the proper protections in place, this resource will not remain as sustainable for future generations. We must educate the public on the importance of safe, clean drinking water and using this resource wisely. As the cost of our product increases, the need to educate the public on proper use and conservation of our product will become more and more apparent. We need to prepare for a multifaceted approach to water conservation.

What kinds of trends are you seeing in the water industry?
Duchniak: There are many trends that we see in the industry, besides the aging infrastructure and the challenges of obtaining and preserving a water supply. One trend that will impact many utilities is that of an aging workforce. The average age of the employees at our utility is in the low 50s. Within the next 10 years more than 50 percent of our employees at our utility will be eligible to retire. That is a vast amount of knowledge and experience that will be lost due to retirements. We must face this challenge and develop proper succession plans so that this knowledge will not be lost when our employees retire.

However, that is only one of the challenges as we must also attract new employees to the industry. This effort must begin with the youth in our schools today. Getting out into the schools and informing the students of the opportunities that will be available within our industry is something we must look at doing together so that when the need to hire employees is there, the people that want to work in our industry are available.

 

If you could change one thing about your business/agency, what would it be?
Duchniak: Our willingness to charge customers an amount that properly represents the true cost of our product. Right now, we charge people approximately $20 a month for an unlimited supply of clean drinking water at their faucets. When you try to put this into perspective, you try to look at other utilities and what it costs for that service. For example, people are willing to pay $80 per month on average for cable television service, $60 per month for cell phone service, or $50 per month for internet access. While these are all important, you need clean drinking water to survive.

How important is it to you and your family to know that when you turn the faucet on in your kitchen to get a drink of water or to cook that you will have a clean, safe water supply? Or, how important is it to your family to know that if there is a fire at your residence, there will be an adequate water supply available to fight that fire? We must be willing to pay for this service and understand what it takes to have it available in the amount we need, when we want it. The challenge is to educate our customers about the challenges the industry faces.

What’s something people might be surprised to know about your agency?
Duchniak: I think people would be surprised by the amount of infrastructure that exists below the earth that is necessary to provide them with the services that they have come to expect. One of the reasons that people do not understand the challenges our industry faces is that they cannot see the infrastructure. All they see is that when they turn on their faucet or their showers, the clean, safe drinking water comes out. If they could physically see the amount and size of pipes it takes to accomplish this or the amount of pumps and pump stations, I believe that they would truly be amazed.

What’s one thing the federal government could do to help your agency?
Duchniak: Besides providing funding for utilities to address the aging infrastructure that faces the industry, looking at the utilities when considering legislation to be implemented would be greatly appreciated. Understanding how our industry operates or the costs associated with implementing the proposed legislation that is being considered, would allow for the legislators to hear what the true impact of the legislation will be.

Is your agency encouraging any water conservation or other “green” practices?
Duchniak: Our utility has implemented the most aggressive water conservation plan in the Midwest. We have water sprinking bans between the hours of 9 to 5; we have implemented a fee structure that charges people a higher amount, when they use more water than average; we have provided rebates for water-efficient toilets; we have worked on a youth education campaign in our schools; and we have worked on a public education campaign regarding safe, clean drinking water.

To date, our water usage has declined approximately 11 percent due to this effort, but more importantly our peak usage on high demand days has reduced by more than 30 percent. While this has been successful, we continue to look for ways to conserve water and make more efficient use of this resource.

What’s on your to-do list?
Duchniak: The most important item on my to-do list is to get out into our workforce and recognize the employees for the jobs that they do, and thank them for the job that they do. We have exceptional employees at our utility and without knowledgeable people in the field, the delivery of our products, in amounts that people want when they want it, would not be possible. I feel it is important to recognize and interact with the employees who make that happen. Unfortunately, I am not able to do this as much as I would like, but would like to try to make this a higher priority.

How did you get started in the business?
Duchniak: When I was in college, I knew I wanted to be an engineer, I just did not know the direction I wanted to go in. I wanted to make a difference. I was introduced to a great mentor at my first job in the City of Franklin, Wis. His name was John Bennett. He taught me the importance of public service and the challenges that I would face if I chose to stay in this area. He also taught me the different challenges, whether political or operational, that would provide me something different to work on every day.

With that, I decided to try the public sector. I started in the streets division and quickly found out that I wasn’t as interested in that area. I quickly learned that water and wastewater treatment is what interested me. Since then, I’ve tried to take advantage of every learning opportunity I could find. It has always been a challenge for me, but also very rewarding.

What’s the worst job you ever had?
Duchniak: When I was working my way through college, I worked at a small potato salad factory. I have made so much German and American potato salad and coleslaw that I do not know that I will ever enjoy eating it again.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without at work?
Duchniak: My computer because it gives me access to the information that I need to get my job done right, but also allows me to keep connected with other people in the industry so that when I face an issue that I have not seen before, I can reach out to all of my peers and see if they have ever faced that challenge. It is a very powerful tool.

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