Adel Hagekhalil, assistant director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation, talks to BC Water News about stormwater management, aging infrastructure, and the revitalization of the Los Angeles River.

April 17, 2013

What do you see as the greatest challenges and opportunities in California water today?
We are all facing many of the same challenges. These include a growing population, an aging infrastructure, pollution at our beaches and waterways, a shortage of parks and open space, a shortage in water supplies, and a change in our climate. Stormwater management has the biggest challenge and opportunity in California, especially in Southern California and Los Angeles. Today, Los Angeles imports 85 percent of its water. However, every time it rains billions of gallons wash down to the ocean.

To meet these challenges and make our cities sustainable and a healthy place for our children and grandchildren, we need bold and integrated solutions that provide multiple benefits. We need to leverage our resources to improve water quality, capture and reuse more local water, conserve water use and maximize the use of recycled water. We need to harness every drop of water and maximize its use while providing multiple benefits for our communities and neighborhoods.

What about the national level?
Our biggest challenges at the national level are our aging infrastructure, increasingly strict regulations, climate change, and limited funding. With these challenges come huge opportunities. We must find creative ways to address our aging infrastructure, use green solutions, and maximize the use of limited resources. We can conceive projects that benefit both the environment and the community, such as wetland parks and stormwater reuse.

These types of projects maximize our resources by serving to both meet regulatory requirements and to improve our communities. NACWA, WEF and WERF have jointly developed "The Water Resources Utility of the Future," which sets a clear blueprint on how utilities can move forward and meet these challenges and opportunities.

If you could change one thing about state or federal regulatory programs, what would it be?
I would provide utilities with more flexibility and adaptability in complying with water quality standards to allow for more integrated and green solutions that can provide multiple benefits. I would encourage and incentivize agencies for taking a risk and implementing innovative and multi-benefit green solutions for water quality by providing extended compliance dates and more flexibility in compliance measurement. I would also allow for water quality trading where an agency can replace a project or a compliance mandate with another project that can provide equal or more environmental benefits while providing added community and sustainability benefits. For example, instead of upgrading a wastewater plant to remove nutrients (which could reduce quality and add energy consumption), an agency should be able to implement decentralized green projects in the watershed to remove nutrients in addition to other pollutants while addressing flooding, augmenting water supply, and greening communities.

Your agency has been recognized as a leader in green infrastructure by the U.S. Water Alliance and others. Please share some of your insights on L.A.'s transformation to green and clean.
As part of the city's Water Integrated Resources Plan (IRP) and through the influence of many local visionaries like Dorothy Green and Andy Lipkis, we all came to the realization that clean water projects have to be integrated into the community and provide multiple benefits and address other needs and challenges. Key drivers were the lack of open space, flooding, dependence on imported water and pollution in our waterways. Capturing runoff and infiltrating close to the source will address these needs while enhancing the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

The passage of a half-billion-dollar water quality bond (Proposition O) in 2004 with more than 76 percent approval was the start of the implementation of the vision. A key component of the measure was green and multi-benefit projects. One of those projects that come to mind is the South L.A. Wetlands Park, where we transformed a nine-acre underutilized maintenance yard into a stormwater wetland park and community oasis. The project is not only treating runoff, but is providing a green park and community asset in a disadvantaged community. Clean water is no longer an abstract issue for our residents. It is real. They can see it, feel it, touch it, walk it and enjoy it.

Can you tell us a little more about how you're leveraging the greening of the L.A. River corridor into broader community benefits for the city?
Los Angeles has grown into the great city that it is today because of water. Los Angeles started around the L.A. River. As the city grew, our streets and rivers were paved to move runoff quickly away from our streets and communities. The city has undertaken a commitment to revitalize the river and make it the focus of the city again. The L.A. River revitalization has the potential to enhance the quality of life along the river, connect communities and enhance water quality and supply.

Another growing area of sustainability is in the resource recovery arena. What have you been doing in that arena?
The utility of the future is a resource recovery utility. In Los Angeles, we are transforming ourselves to a resource recovery utility. We are maximizing the capture and reuse of our resources. These include maximizing water reuse, harvesting rainwater, constructing green projects, reusing biosolids, converting biogas to energy, and integrating solar energy into our facilities. L.A. Sanitation is implementing innovative solutions including injecting biosolids underground into depleted oil fields for energy recovery. We are in the early stages of an innovative new project to convert biogas to energy at our Hyperion Treatment Plant. We recently completed the construction of solar panels at our Tillman Water Reclamation Plant. Last year we adopted a Low Impact Development Ordinance that requires all developments and redevelopment in Los Angeles to capture, infiltrate and reuse onsite the first 3/4 inch of rain.

Similarly, our solid resources program is doing the same by recycling more than 76 percent of municipal waste and implementing waste-to-energy facilities.

Many utilities are struggling with the need to increase rates for their services. The Board of Supervisors recently won a huge vote of confidence from the public, which approved rate increases for the next 10 years. What were the keys to your success?
In sanitation, we take pride in our ability to engage and work with the community at all levels. By open and transparent communication, we have gained the trust and respect of our constituents. Sharing our results and successes was essential. In addition, we demonstrated the steps we have taken in reducing costs and increasing efficiencies in our operations. As water utilities we can no longer afford to be out of sight and out of mind. We need to share information with our constituents on a regular basis, informing them of needs and challenges and inviting their input. Engaging the community at all levels is key to our success. We have had more than 60 community meetings for the sewer rate increase alone, in addition to the other routine public meeting and open houses we hold regularly with the stakeholders. To be successful, we need to gain and maintain the public trust through transparent and open communication and involvement.

What are the top priorities for your agency over the next few years?
Providing a sustainable source of funding for our stormwater quality mandates is our top priority. We are currently working with the County of Los Angeles on a watershed funding initiative built around integrated watershed water management and green solutions.

We must diversify the beneficial reuse of our biosolids. Although we continue to use biosolids for land application for animal feed and deep well injection underground for energy recovery, we need to continue to look for innovative solutions.

Continuing efforts to increase efficiencies, reduce cost, and recover resources is essential. We are implementing a state-of-the-art control system modernization in our facilities and an innovative biogas energy recovery facility

We also must adapt to climate change as part of an integrated water management plan. Managing runoff in a green way, reducing peak flows and infiltrating and harvesting rain water is one of the key ways for us to adapt to climate change.

What's something people might be surprised to know about your agency?
We are in the farming business. We own a 4,600-acre farm in Kern County near Bakersfield.

What's the most significant project you've been involved with in your career?
Two projects come to mind. One is the award-winning Integrated Resources Plan (IRP), and the other is the sewer spill reduction program. Through extensive public engagement, the IRP framed the roadmap for our water future by employing bold and integrated solutions. The IRP planned for water as one water: water reuse, stormwater and wastewater. Many of the things we see today are the result of the forward thinking brought forth in the IRP. By implementing innovative wastewater collection management tools and multi-prone approaches, we were able to reduce sewer spills by more than 85 percent in less than 10 years. This effort and commitment by the city transformed our relationship with the community and most importantly made our communities cleaner and safer.

What is on your professional reading list?
"Great by Choice" and "Running out of Water."

What's on your to-do list?
Maintain my health. Become fluent in Spanish. Take a vacation with my family to Spain and Morocco.


Name: Adel Hagekhalil

Title: Assistant Director, Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation

Background: Hagekhalil is an assistant director with the City of Los Angeles' Bureau of Sanitation, where he is responsible for the bureau's wastewater collection system management, stormwater and watershed protection program, water quality compliance, and facilities and advance planning.

Hagekhalil is a registered civil engineer with the state of California and a national Board Certified Environmental Engineer. He has a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in civil engineering. He has participated in many leadership development programs, including the Water and Wastewater Development Program at the University of North Carolina.

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