Nov. 18, 2009
10 minutes with Tom Barry
TOM BARRY has spent the past decade working for public works departments in the Pacific Northwest. He graciously answers a few questions from the BC Water News team.
Name: Tom Barry
Title: Director of Public Works, City of Meridian, Idaho
Background: Tom holds a bachelor’s degree in the geotechnical sciences and three master’s degrees in environmental hydrogeology, business management and public administration. He has worked in the private and public sectors and has experience at the federal, state and local levels. He holds licenses in three states, has authored many national papers and award-winning presentations, and is a nationally recognized educator. Tom worked for nearly a decade for two full-service public works departments in the greater Seattle area before moving to Idaho in January of 2008.
King County (Wash.) Wastewater Treatment Division
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How have tough economic conditions affected the city’s budget and CIP?
Tom Barry: We’ve had to find new and innovative ways to keep service levels up, maintain a high public perception of the value of our services, and demonstrate cost savings under a new atmosphere of intense scrutiny. But what many don’t realize is that, despite our current economic climate, demand for our water and sewer services continues to climb. We don’t see our customers drinking less water or curbing their wastewater use because the Dow is down.
What is the city’s vision for managing water over the long term (20 and 50 years from now)?
Barry: We recognize that water is a finite resource and that we live in an arid environment replenished by only 14 inches of precipitation annually. This places not only a burden, but a responsibility for us to monitor, maintain and utilize wisely our water resources. On our potable water side, we are embarking on an unprecedented hydrogeologic study of our source water so we can fully understand and best manage the resource we rely so heavily on. We intend to diversify our potable water sources, intertie with other jurisdictions for emergency flexibility, identify safer disinfection means, improve in service efficiency to conserve energy and minimize operational wasting, institute leading-edge conservation strategies, and shore up our water rights portfolio to preserve our future water needs today.
From a wastewater perspective, we’d like to recycle and reuse as much water as we can. We have identified nearly 6 million gallons of current and future water demand in the area around our wastewater treatment plant. These areas include a number of parks, golf courses, open spaces and other irrigable areas. By reusing water from our plant for irrigation, we can lessen the burden on our potable water system for irrigation.
Meridian is the first city in Idaho to be issued a Class A Reclaimed Water Permit. What were some of the challenges to getting the permit?
Barry: It’s always difficult (and often very expensive) to be the first to do anything. In the case of our Class A Reclaimed Water Permit, we decided to start small — with a parkland pilot project. With that permit, we had attempted to irrigate about 30 acres of parkland with about 150,000-200,000 gallons of water per day. When the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality issued our draft permit for public comment, we opposed many of the impractical restrictions. Recognizing and appreciating the perspectives of one another, we formulated a partnership with DEQ. Our staff and consultants worked side by side with DEQ staff to educate them on our treatment, operational and safety practices to ensure public health and safety. We voluntarily increased site monitoring and reporting to demonstrate efficacy and remove doubt. We applied this strategy in the acquisition of our citywide permit (in process) and helped DEQ apply the rules via a watershed-based approach. This gave DEQ regulatory flexibility and assurance and gave us the opportunity to institute a responsible program and demonstrate compliance.
How does using reclaimed water fit into the city’s overall sustainability strategy? What need is the city addressing by using reclaimed water?
Barry: We are actually in the process of developing a citywide sustainability strategy. We see a reduction in the use of potable water (and associated well infrastructure) and the utilization of an otherwise wasted product a mutually
compatible water conservation benefit. For us reclaimed water is a “drought-proof” water supply. It will reduce demand for potable water, free up agricultural water for agricultural uses, provide year-round irrigation, allow lower effluent flows to the river, and offer less stringent regulatory limitations than our impending NPDES permit will likely have. Not to mention it can be more economically and environmentally sustainable for WWTPs and really is the right water for the right use.
Have you seen a shift from providing just treatment to resource management?
Barry: Absolutely. The political challenges certainly involve the cost of instituting strategies that provide for more responsible resource management. But many communities cannot afford to become more “green” simply because it’s the rage or the right thing to do. It often just costs too much. So the strategy for becoming “greener” requires incorporation of approaches that are cost neutral or better. Our reuse program is a great example of how doing the right thing will actually save us money in the long run. We are able to relate capacity improvements, economic development advantages, nutrient management approaches and reduction in potable water infrastructure to a net benefit. Because it’s the right thing to do is icing on the cake.
Treatment plants can produce three main products: clean water, biosolids and digester gas. Do you see these products as eventually becoming a source of revenue for the city?
Barry: I would like our treatment plant to become self-sustaining and utilize closed-looped systems to recycle and/or reuse 80 percent of our waste streams by incorporation of strategies like water reclamation, co-generation, nutrient recycling and composting. We are also looking at ways to harvest alternative energies to offset our electrical demand like wind and solar power, and we are working to expand the use of digester gas for heating and other uses. Right now, we have entered a public-private partnership on a pilot scale to grow algae at our plant to produce biofuel. We also recently piloted nutrient harvesting technology where we were able to produce high quality, slow release fertilizer from our centrate. And we are working hard on a partnership with our waste hauler to develop a shared composting facility to recycle our biosolids. Each of these efforts has the potential to develop revenue for us, but our goal is to just try to do the right thing on a cost neutral basis.
What do you like to do in your free time?
Barry: I try to spend as much time as I can with my wife and young children. I enjoy the outdoors greatly, and the Boise area is filled with all sorts of fantastic recreational opportunities. If I’m not hiking, boating or camping then I’m thinking about it. I also enjoy teaching college management and environmental courses and am a member of a band.
What would be one thing that you would hope to have as your legacy?
Barry: I suppose I’d like to think that I made a difference in the world somehow. I’d like to say that I had something to do with improving the environmental consciousness of our community. To see the environmental goals and initiatives we’ve started become the foundation of a stronger, more sustainable community would be very rewarding. It’d be really great to look back and say that I had something to do with helping our region to accomplish the important work of responsible and sustainable resource management.