Avon Lake Municipal Utilities, soon to be Avon Lake Regional Water, is a pretty unique agency. Tell us about it.
Avon Lake, a suburb of Cleveland, was a very rural area for a very long time. Back in the late 1800s they were talking about providing water here or whether they should just buy water from Lorain or somewhere else and Avon Lake decided they wanted to build their own water plant.
After that happened in the 1920s they had to create a board to oversee the water plant, and as Avon Lake grew large enough to be a city they kept a separately elected board to govern the operations. Though we are officially a part of the City of Avon Lake, we are also governed by the separately elected board which looks at the operations from a business perspective as opposed to just a government perspective.
What are Avon Lake Regional Water’s biggest accomplishments in your view?
We really try to work hard to keep our customers happy. A few years ago we did a customer survey that sampled 10 percent of our population, which was a very statistically significant number. What it showed was that over 90 percent of our customers thought our service was either good or excellent.
We work hard to be that small town service provider, where customers might see us at the local grocery store. They know us, they like us and they're happy with the service.
Outside of the city limits, our bulk customers have been very happy with the quality and cost of our service whether it’s providing the water or treating the wastewater.
What do you see as the greatest challenges for Avon Lake Regional Water going forward?
Like any other utility, we're faced with a lot of infrastructure challenges. Much of the system is older and needs replacement. We're a small utility, and even with all the regional service we only have annual water and wastewater revenues of about $15 million. But we have a $90 million, 10-year improvement capital improvement program so there's a lot of work that we need to do.
We've always had a philosophy to make our decisions to best balance quality, quantity, cost and service. With all of this debt that we'll need to take on to maintain our infrastructure we're going to be challenged and we're going to have to figure out how we can meet those four tenets over the next several years.
What are some of your thoughts about how you can do that?
Many things. I believe we are good at what we do because we stay focused — we provide water and wastewater services. But I think we need to look at things a little more broadly, and other utilities are doing this as well.
For instance, there's the potential to start to take in high-strength wastes for the digesters and to create energy. That could be a wonderful opportunity because we have an onsite monofill which has been closed for years and there are private companies that want to take all of the material from that monofill. If we do that, we could use that site as winter storage for other people's biosolids.
So meeting our future challenges will involve looking for enterprising opportunities. For instance, our wastewater plant treats the residuals from the water plant. We are about to upgrade that ability and could also start treating residuals from other water plants to tap into additional revenue sources.
It seems that regional partnerships are becoming more important for utilities. What would you say are the key successes in the partnerships that Avon Lake Regional Water has formed in the region?
Similar to the private sector, you always need to provide excellent service at a reasonable price and we've worked hard to do that. I think we will continue to do that and just stay consistent and straightforward — providing the good service, being honest when we have a problem and making sure we are willing to do more to help our customers.
If you could change one thing about state or federal regulatory programs, what would it be?
One of the things that we have been frustrated with is that oftentimes regulators don't speak with each other.
When we have a water issue that might bleed onto the wastewater side, or maybe a wastewater issue that pertains to the solid waste side, there can often be conflicting requirements because the regulators don't communicate well. We would like to see regulators work well together to help everyone arrive at a workable solution to the issues we face.
What are the top priorities for Avon Lake Regional Water over the next few years?
One of the biggest ones is our long-term control plan. We are about to start the separation of the 14th out of our 17 combined sewer basins and we have been going with pure sewer separation because we are a relatively small city. That might not be the best approach in the last couple of basins because there are multiple issues in those basins.
Aside from combined sewers, there's a lot of stormwater so we need to try to look a little more holistically, maybe within an integrated planning framework to decide what makes sense.
We're about to start a major rehabilitation at our water pollution control center. With the rehabilitation, we will begin the transformation from a wastewater plant to a water resource recovery facility. With this and a followup with our digesters, we're going to see if we can meet WEF's challenge for energy neutrality.
We're trying to get there and it will keep us focused for the next several years.
What is the most significant project you have been involved with in your career?
It's hard to pick any specific project. Rather than a project per se, I'd say that coming here to Avon Lake Regional Water and filling the role of the chief executive has been incredible. We work on such a wide variety of things — whether it’s the combined sewer separations and getting more water out of the sewers, or helping customers with private property issues separating their laterals.
We had a recent event at our water plant where we had a partial icing of our intakes and all the aspects of communication came into play as we worked through that challenge with our customers and regulators. The tactical, financial, environmental and communications challenges and opportunities makes every day interesting and I'd say it's been an incredible experience.
What do you do like to do for fun?
Even before I became part of this profession, water has always defined me. In the hours when I'm not here I love to spend warmer months boating and water skiing and colder months downhill skiing. It makes me feel part of this world, part of the water cycle and in touch with nature.