June 9, 2010
10 minutes with Kevin Cowan
KEVIN COWAN oversees a sewer district that provides services to 195,000 people in seven communities north of Salt Lake City, Utah. He graciously answers a few questions from the BC Water News team.
Name: Kevin Cowan
Title: District Manager, North Davis Sewer District in Syracuse, Utah
Background: For the past 13 years, Kevin has been district manager for the North Davis Sewer District in Syracuse, Utah. The district provides wastewater collection and treatment services for a population of approximately 195,000 residents in seven Utah communities north of Salt Lake City (Roy, Clinton, Clearfield, Sunset, Syracuse, Layton and Kaysville) as well as Hill AFB and unincorporated Davis and Weber Counties. Prior to joining the district, Kevin worked for 20 years as an engineering consultant, primarily focusing on design and construction management of wastewater treatment facilities. Kevin has a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Utah and is a Licensed Professional Engineer in Utah. He has served many roles in the Water Environment Association of Utah, including as association director, WEF Federation delegate, and association president, and has received the Arthur Sydney Bedell Award.
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What drew you to a career in wastewater?
Kevin Cowan: I started college and needed a job. A friend had an opening for a survey crew member in an engineering firm, so I took the position. Al Anderson, a well-recognized wastewater engineer in Utah and Colorado, became my mentor. Al loved what he did and told me there was variety in wastewater. No one starts out saying, “I want to be a wastewater engineer.” But I find it interesting and exciting, and owe my degree in civil engineering to Al.
How has the industry changed since you started?
Cowan: Owner involvement. In the past, there was very little collaboration on projects. Engineers were told, “You’re the engineer, you tell us what to do.” The owner did not want to bear the responsibility for the decision. Now owners want to be involved. The best product has to satisfy the needs of multiple stakeholders. Engineers, owners, operators, maintainers and citizens all know certain things and have a place at the table for decision-making in a wastewater organization.
North Davis recently updated its wastewater treatment plant utilizing an alternative delivery method. What were the challenges and/or benefits of using this method?
Cowan: We did not go out with the intent to do a Design/Build (DB) project for our recent plant expansion. In fact, the engineers were prepared to do a lot of explaining at the board level for them to consider the DB method. However, our board readily understood the benefit of having control over product quality and not having to depend on the lowest bidder. We found the process to yield better communication, collaboration and input.
Personnel made a difference. For the dewatering facility, we sat everyone down. The original concept got changed. The facility is the product of the group, and its success is the product of the group. Everyone was open to suggestions, and we ended up with something good. It was one of the most successful projects I have been a part of.
How has the recent recession affected your district, and what adjustments have you made?
Cowan: In the past, we always have been strong financially; we have a very good bond rating and strong reserves. We were not concerned with revenues as we approached the plant expansion. Now we are facing new challenges as our revenues are down. The number of new connections is approximately 20 percent of what they have been. We have already delayed a collection system project, and we raised user fees for the first time in 10 years.
The state of Utah recently approved an Antidegradation Review rule, and the state is considering implementing nutrient removal requirements at most, if not all, treatment facilities. What are your thoughts on the impact of these issues, and what other challenges do you see affecting the district in the future?
Cowan: Every wastewater treatment plant has a different discharge situation. Sometimes the EPA just has to “do something” and sets the same targets for every plant. The state of Utah is taking the initiative and doing a study in order to determine if there can be a tiered nutrient removal regulation.
Neither the EPA nor the state has enacted anything to date. However, while establishing design criteria for our latest plant expansion, we discussed potential future discharge limitations with the state and received a letter from them saying that with our discharge to the Great Salt Lake, they did not foresee us having to meet nutrient removal requirements. Therefore, we did not design our plant expansion to include nutrient removal. So, if an untiered law is passed, it would potentially be very costly for the district.
The district recently upgraded its CCTV equipment. How do you see this affecting the overall asset management program for your collection system? Do you see that type of program translating to your treatment plant?
Cowan: Our oldest line is approaching 70 years old, and our average pipe segment is around 30. Knowing that the collection system was aging, we started to think about a formal asset management program. North Davis has had a CCTV program for more than 10 years, but wasn’t really using the data effectively. To get a better understanding of our system, we started by updating the TV equipment, and we are now in the process of implementing the National Association of Sewer System Company (NASSCO) condition assessment standards.
We address asset management in the plant by “taking care of the treatment plant.” We made leaps in progress since they got our computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). Everything is trackable. We have a work order, maintenance history, and are moving toward predictive maintenance.
The plant is described as being one of the best operated and maintained in the area with a highly engaged staff. What actions/management styles have assisted you in both operating and maintaining the facility?
Cowan: I want North Davis to be the best we can be. We owe that to ourselves and to the rate payer. We promote continuous improvement and have North Davis University for internal training. We want to become a world-class organization. It is the vision and goal that they are striving for … it guides decisions.
Also, we hire well. Frank Layton, the former Utah Jazz coach, said, “You cannot teach seven feet.” You can overcome many problems if you can hire well. Experience and education cannot replace ethics, motivation and enthusiasm. Good people cannot fail, and that is who we try to hire.
What fun thing would you like readers to know about you?
Cowan: I built my own kit car, a 1929 Mercedes-Benz roadster, from the ground up.
What would be the one thing that you would hope to have as your legacy?
Cowan: I would like for my coworkers to believe I am fair and reasonable and gave them a chance to succeed. But I really want to be the “favorite grandpa” for my six grandkids.