Since BC Water News last caught up with you in early 2012, you've made a career move and seem to be more active than ever on the local, regional and national scene. What are the most promising trends you are seeing in the industry?
Well, there are a couple that come to mind. The first is the Utility of the Future. This was an effort that was spearheaded by NACWA, in association with WEF and WERF. Things are changing for your typical wastewater treatment plant and it's important to put this in a document so it can be utilized to brief and explain some of these concepts to elected officials in Washington, D.C. It's a great read, only about 40 pages long, and lays out all the concepts we're looking at now in the wastewater industry that could make the industry more sustainable and benefit society. Another trend that I have seen recently is the development of new technologies. We've been using activated sludge for a hundred years without too much change but recent developments in membrane technology, such as discovery of the Anammox bacteria, work being done on anaerobic secondary treatment and some of the resource recovery projects, are all very promising in terms of changing the concept of wastewater treatment.
On the flip side, are you seeing any negative trends?
Well unfortunately I see several, one being lack of funding and this goes hand in hand with the infrastructure gap that has been documented for both water and wastewater. We have aging facilities, many of which are pipelines — out of sight, out of mind — that need rehabilitation and renewal and it's very difficult to get the funding for that. There are a lot of things facing our elected officials at the local, regional, state and national levels, and unfortunately at the higher levels you don't see a lot of focus on the issue of water and wastewater funding. And even at the local level it's very difficult to get the message out about the need for good, quality water infrastructure. We have so many issues on our plate that it always seems to take a back seat.
From your work at the national level, what are some positive examples of the regulatory process that you've observed?
I think the EPA's unveiling of their integrated planning concept a couple of years ago was very positive, particularly the recognition of the use of green infrastructure.
How about negative examples?
We have instances across the country where nutrient limits are being applied as one size fits all and I don't think that is in the best interest of society, or the best use of ratepayers' limited funds, or any kind of guarantee that you're going to get the benefit you're looking for in the environment. A more collaborative approach where the regulators are working with the regulated community and figuring out what kind of nutrient limits, if any, are required would be a much better approach. Another problem that is still out there, that hasn't been fixed, is the inability to craft a solution to the sanitary sewer overflow problem in the country, particularly in California. We have predatory lawsuits that go after communities that are actually among the best performers and those communities are being sued because the Clean Water Act has a strict prohibition on any overflows. Thus communities have little or no defense and end up settling. Also under the Clean Water Act we need to effectively address non-point sources. It's been recognized for decades but just the unwillingness in Congress to talk about fixes to the Clean Water Act is continuing to allow situations to occur that could be dealt with much more cost-effectively, much more beneficially, and more sustainably.
Do you think in the long run the integrated planning approach out of U.S. EPA is going to be an effective tool for both regulators and utilities?
That's a really good question and my answer is I don't know. The EPA came out with the integrated planning framework with a lot of fanfare and it was welcomed with open arms. So how effective is it? That's to be determined. Is it merely going to prolong the inevitable, allowing more time to meet the regulations? Because one of the tenets of integrated planning was the intent to prioritize things so that the public's limited resources can be used most effectively and maybe hidden in that concept was that at some point perhaps the regulations need to be changed if they are mandating things that aren't producing significant net environmental benefit. I think it's a great step forward, but I think the jury's still out on meaningful impact.
You seem to be at the epicenter of the debate on whether to and how to regulate nutrients in San Francisco Bay. In your role as BACWA executive director, what are the key challenges you face?
The biggest issue for the Bay Area Clean Water Agencies is that regulation of nutrients has the potential for being the largest funding demand since secondary treatment. It's in the billions of dollars. When you're talking billions of dollars, you want to make sure you get it right. We don't have money to waste or to expend on something that doesn't produce the desired results in terms of environmental protection.
Secondly, nutrients are so complex in terms of their interaction with the ecosystem and their ability to move around and that they are coming from so many different sources. Third, POTWs (publicly owned treatment works) are documented as a major contributor of nitrogen and phosphorus to the San Francisco Bay — on the order of 65 percent of the total loading.
So it certainly has BACWA's attention and we are devoting a lot of our energy to the issue. We are working collaboratively with the water board to fund scientific studies because we want to get the best science on the table so we can make the best decisions. But it's going to be difficult even with the best science because the science isn't going to be black and white, it's going to be gray. And there are going to be interpretations and we will have to balance risks and rewards moving forward.
It's our main challenge to have good answers to the questions of nutrients to the extent that a solution is needed, and good nutrient management practices that can be put into place.
Beyond the nutrient watershed permit, what are the other hot topics on BACWA's strategic plan for the coming year?
We are always focused on the compounds of emerging concern, things like pyrethroids, where studies have shown that pyrethroids are basically in most wastewater treatment plants, biosolids and their effluent. We have air quality regulations that are very complex, very numerous, and we're trying to make sure there's a recognition for biogenic emissions and the benefit of taking material that's essentially a waste material and using it to extract the energy from it rather than forcing society to pump more carbon out of the ground in the form of oil and natural gas and getting that into the environment. I recently heard a speech by William McDonough, co-author of Cradle to Cradle, and he made the point that carbon is an essential element; it's extremely important for all living things but carbon in the air is not good so the goal is to keep it in solid form or keep it sequestered in the ground. That's something that POTWs have the potential to do through their anaerobic processes and their resource recovery processes moving the goal of being the utility of the future.
Under your leadership at EBMUD, the district's wastewater treatment plant became a net energy producer — one of the first in the country to do so. What do you see as the next steps in moving the industry toward lower energy demands and increasing resource recovery?
I think in addition to generating energy from waste material, there's the potential to extract more of the embedded energy within wastewater that comes to the treatment plant and there are new technologies out there that are being explored: the CANDO process, anaerobic secondary treatment, the discovery of the Anammox bacteria, which will greatly reduce the energy required to control nutrients. So I think we need to have public agencies move these technologies forward through demonstration projects. We need to do it cost-effectively, we need to do it judiciously, we need to look at the risk and the reward and make good decisions. But having said that, I do believe that as public agencies we need to be moving the ball forward in that arena.
With the proliferation of interest groups and professional organizations with a narrower mandate, it's challenging for individuals, agencies and private firms to decide where to invest their time and money. How can the industry be more effective in communicating with regulators, legislators and the public with so many voices?
That's the $64,000 question. I tend to be an optimist, but it's hard to be an optimist on this issue. You ask yourself, does the wastewater and water industry have too many associations and groups that are doing the same things, whether it's research or advocacy? You look at our industry and you need many hands to count all the organizations and then you look at doctors and they have the American Medical Association and speak with pretty much one voice. They are very effective at getting their message through, so I believe that public agencies need to really embrace this concept of "one water."
Irrespective of all the jurisdictional boundaries and the political self interests that often accompany decisions that get made, we need to look at what's in the best interest of the public we serve. And if it means merging organizations or compromising on a position or understanding the watershed concept and really embracing that, I think that's what we need to do. I'm optimistic it'll move in the right direction, but I don't know what it'll take to get us there. Perhaps some crisis.
Like the driest year on record?
That very well could be.
Now that you're no longer wearing the hat of wastewater director at a public agency, what sage advice can you offer other utility managers as they deal with their day-to-day challenges?
I don't know how sage it is but throughout my career I always embraced the concept that it's not important to win every battle, it's important to pick your battles and focus on the ones that are really important and compromise as best you can. If you just dig in your heels and don't try to find a solution you will never get anything done. Second, trust is your biggest ally, and being vulnerable is not necessarily bad. When people realize you're human like everyone else, that you make mistakes and you will stand up and take responsibility and take the blame, if necessary, it builds trust. Then finally, always look for opportunities to acknowledge and appreciate the work of others.
We talk a lot about the utility of the future. What does the utility manager of the future need to do?
I think a successful utility of the future needs to understand risk and be able to balance risk. Utilities tend to be risk averse and pursuing some of the concepts under utility of the future is not going to be without its risks. Get buy-in from your staff, educate your board, then when you've determined that it's a reasonable risk to take, take it and support your people all the way through to the end, whether you succeed or fail. But a very important caveat to that is that if you don't succeed, you don't come down on people like a ton of bricks, because that will snuff out innovation and you just don't want to do that.
As you look back at your career, what are you most proud of?
You never accomplish anything as an individual; it's always an organization's accomplishment. So things like the resource recovery program at EBMUD and becoming energy self-sufficient and … those are all just things. This is fairly personal, but this is something I've always held dear: It's how you accomplish things and why that is really important. I try to make decisions without regard to personal professional gain or glory, so you're making decisions that are in the best interest of the public, the people we as civil servants are supposed to be representing, even though they don't even know who you are. I wasn't always successful at that, but it was always in the back of my mind as a measuring stick.
How are you progressing on your goal to play the top 100 golf courses throughout the world?
It's a lofty goal that my friends and I set 11 years ago. To date, we've played around 30 of the top 100. We're still striving but it's been fun. Life is short; work hard but you should also enjoy yourself.