March 24, 2010
10 minutes with Joel Komarek
JOEL KOMAREK spent six years as city engineer for Lake Oswego, Ore., before becoming project director of the $200 million Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Supply Expansion project in 2008. He graciously answers a few questions from the Water News team.
Name: Joel Komarek
Title: Project Director, Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Supply Expansion project
Background: Joel is a graduate of Portland State University in civil engineering and is a registered professional civil engineer and certified water rights examiner in Oregon. Joel worked as a consulting civil engineer for seven years prior to becoming a utilities engineer with the City of Lake Oswego in 1994. In 2002, Joel was appointed to the position of city engineer and served in that capacity until 2008, when he was appointed project director for the city’s $100 million Lake Oswego Interceptor Sewer (LOIS) upgrade and $200 million Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Supply Expansion project. Joel is married with two children ages 21 and 18, and when he has spare time enjoys live theater, classical music, cooking, camping and road biking.
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What drew you to a career in water?
Joel Komarek: I took a long path to a career in engineering and water services. After high school I studied music at the University of Nevada-Reno. I moved back to Oregon in 1977 and began taking a few courses at Central Oregon Community College in Bend. An environmental science course introduced me to the water and energy cycles of the Earth, which I found fascinating and relevant. Growing up in Central Oregon I had an appreciation for the importance of water to everything that this part of Oregon is known for: agriculture, recreation and growing communities. In 1979 I moved to Corvallis and enrolled in the engineering technology program at Linn-Benton Community College. In 1981 I graduated from Linn-Benton and moved to Portland to work for a local architectural/engineering firm called Blaesing Granite. One of my first assignments was to develop detailed drawings of how thin slabs of polished granite would be mounted to the structural framing for a high-rise building in Portland known as “Big Pink”. In 1984, the commercial office building market crashed and I was downsized out of a job. A structural engineer with the company encouraged me to return to school and pursue a civil engineering degree, which I did. In 1987, I graduated from Portland State University and started work with Murray, Smith & Associates, Inc. MSA at that time was a small consulting engineering firm focused on providing municipal clients with engineering services for water, wastewater and surface water utilities. That is how I finally arrived at a career in municipal water services engineering.
How has the industry changed since you started?
Komarek: To me the biggest change is in the level of interaction engineers must have with elected officials and the public. In the late 80s, I remember preparing my first master plan and only having to talk with members of the engineering department in developing the plan, before making a short presentation to the city council for plan adoption. Today, to develop a water master plan in Lake Oswego, we host community meetings, conduct focus groups and stakeholder surveys in order to inform and educate the public on plan elements like planning horizons, design criteria, financing, rates and to provide information about public health concerns and the importance of a clean and reliable drinking water supply. We need to engage the public so they understand the cost of providing quality drinking water and to build trust that the city is being a good steward of that public investment.
How do you see water rights affecting how you manage your utility and plan for the future?
Komarek: Western water law is complex and not easily understood by the public, and yet it is fundamental to how all water in Oregon is allocated and used. It is a subject that interests me, and water rights law is critical to the future of Oregon. That is why I became a Certified Water Rights Examiner. With the exception of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, most, if not all, streams and rivers in Oregon are fully allocated to some type of beneficial use like agriculture, municipal, industrial, in-stream and domestic uses. The Portland metropolitan region is forecast to expand by one million people over the next 30 years. Most rivers and streams in Oregon are home to many species of endangered salmon. Agriculture in Oregon is a multi-billion dollar a year business. These realities will create significant competition for and conflict between users of scarce water supplies. Add to this mix climate change and its potential to further constrain water supplies and you can understand why water supply planning and management can be such a polarizing issue.
What I would like to see is an open conversation between all private and public interests that have a stake in Oregon’s water supply future and the development of an Integrated Water Supply Strategy for Oregon similar to those created in other western states like Utah and California. Many Oregon cities are starting to deal with the potential of water shortages in the 20-50 year planning horizon in Oregon, but without an integrated approach, the likelihood of poor decision-making based on incomplete information increases. Oregon is on the right track now by investing in development of an integrated plan.
You have developed a collaborative relationship with the City of Tigard in planning an upgrade for your water treatment plant. What started this conversation?
Komarek: Lake Oswego’s peak day water
demands are approaching our current maximum supply capacity. Our water supply infrastructure is more than 40 years old and must be upgraded and replaced to increase capacity, reduce maintenance and improve reliability. Tigard purchases its water from others pursuant to supply agreements, and for the past 15 years has been seeking ownership in a water supply system in order to have more control over the cost it pays for water. In 2005, Lake Oswego and Tigard sat down and developed an interlocal agreement in which the cities will jointly plan, design, fund, construct and operate a 32 million gallon per day (MGD) system. Of this total capacity, 14 MGD of supply will be allocated to the City of Tigard and the remaining 18 MGD will flow to the City of Lake Owego. It is really a win-win for both communities. By spreading the cost of the expansion over a much larger rate base, both communities’ ratepayers will experience smaller rate impacts than if each community went their own way.
We are currently in the planning stages of this project with a projected construction completion date of June 2016.
How do you see emerging contaminants of concern affecting the planning of this new plant?
Komarek: Emerging contaminates are a concern because we know they exist in water supplies at extremely low concentration levels, but we do not know what adverse health effects, if any, exposure to these compounds may create. Because EPA does not currently regulate these compounds, prudent water supply planners need to ensure, through good water treatment plant design, that appropriate treatment technologies can be incorporated into existing plants if, or when, such contaminants of concern become regulated. For example, recent sampling of the Clackamas River by USGS found low levels of synthetic organic compounds in both untreated and treated water. Using very sophisticated laboratory techniques, most contaminants were detected at levels measured in parts per trillion. The challenge for municipal water suppliers is communicating this information to consumers in a way that doesn’t cause alarm and yet acknowledges a responsibility to use this information to protect public health.
In developing the design criteria for our plant expansion, we are conducting an extensive planning process using a business case evaluation approach. We have assembled a team of water treatment experts to assist the cities in selecting the appropriate treatment levels and technologies for the expanded water treatment plant. We have also enlisted citizens from each community to form a “sounding board.” The charge of the board will be to provide a grassroots perspective to the expert panel and program management team on water treatment as it pertains to issues like public health, sustainability and cost. It is our hope the sounding board, due to their higher level of knowledge about treatment technology, will be advocates for the public when the councils of the two cities ultimately select the preferred treatment alternative.
We are also doing surveys and conducting focus groups to inform and educate the public so that they can understand the many tradeoffs being considered in selecting an appropriate treatment technology to achieve desired water quality objectives.
What fun thing would you like readers to know about you?
Komarek: If you would have asked me what I wanted to be in high school, I would have never said engineer. I am artistically and musically inclined. After my stint at the University of Nevada-Reno, I played professionally as a drummer in a variety of bands playing everything from ‘40s big band swing to covering Top 40 music in both Nevada and Oregon. Oh, and I also worked as a welder to pay the bills.
What would be one thing that you would hope to have as your legacy?
Komarek: That is a heavy one. It depends on if you mean career or personal. From a career standpoint I would like to look back and say “I had a hand in building a sustainable water infrastructure and long-term water supply for Lake Oswego.” From a personal standpoint, I would like to see my children have success and happiness in their lives.