Mayors Roundtable Elected Officials Talk Water
Jul 27, 2012
As we move forward into 2012, several familiar issues still linger across the water and wastewater sector. Municipalities and utilities continue to face critical decisions not only concerning the best methods to improve infrastructure, but also in determining the best ways to spend resources in an economy that still has not fully recovered.
Despite these challenging issues, there are still positive developments emerging, perhaps none more important than technology. As new technology continues to advance, cities and utilities are finding more efficient ways to better manage assets and monitor critical infrastructure. At the top of the decision-making pyramid are the elected officials tasked with making strategic choices regarding infrastructure policy.
In 2011, UIM published two separate presentations of its yearly Mayors Roundtable – one highlighting small cities and another with a big-city focus. This year, we present another mix of mayors from across the country who took time to share their thoughts on these prevalent water issues.
The mayors polled in this year’s roundtable are: James M. Baker, Wilmington, Del.; Mike Brown, Weatherford, Okla.; Jennifer Hosterman, Pleasanton, Calif.; Ron Littlefield, Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Michael Nutter, Philadelphia, Pa.
James M. Baker, Wilmington, Del.
In January 2009, James M. Baker became the first mayor in the history of Wilmington, Del. to be elected to a third four-year term. Born in Fostoria, Ohio in 1942, Mayor Baker completed high school there and enlisted in the Air Force, from which he was honorably discharged in 1966. Mayor Baker’s political career began in 1972 when he was elected to serve on Wilmington’s City Council as a district councilman. In 1984, Mayor Baker became the first African-American elected council president – a position he would hold until his election as Mayor in 2001, making him the longest serving council president in Wilmington’s history.
Mike Brown, Weatherford, Okla.
Mike Brown was elected Mayor of Weatherford in January 2004. Prior to his election, Brown served as city commissioner for three terms beginning in April 1996. Mayor Brown is also the owner of American Insurance Group, an independent life and health insurance company. He is a graduate of Weatherford High School and Southwestern Oklahoma State University with a degree in Business Education and Administration. Mayor Brown has been active with youth programs, serving in the past as president of the Weatherford Quarterback Club, the Tip-In Club and the Track Booster Club.
Jennifer Hosterman, Pleasanton, Calif.
Jennifer Hosterman is currently serving her fourth term as Mayor of Pleasanton, Calif., preceded by one term on the Pleasanton City Council. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of San Francisco and a Juris Doctorate from the John F. Kennedy School of Law. Environmental issues are at the forefront of Mayor Hosterman’s local efforts and she currently serves as co-chair of the U.S. Conference of Mayors Water Council and on both the International Affairs and Energy Committees. Mayor Hosterman also serves on the Local Government Advisory Committee of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and numerous other regional panels dedicated to environmental protection and management.
Ron Littlefield, Chattanooga, Tenn.
Ron Littlefield was re-elected and sworn in for a second term as Mayor of Chattanooga in April 2009. Mayor Littlefield brought with him many years of experience in city government and urban planning, having served as commissioner of public works, two terms as District 6 councilperson, having twice served as council chair. He also held the positions of economic development coordinator for Chattanooga and director of planning and operations for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission. He has been an instructor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, as well as a teacher for a postgraduate course on metropolitan politics and policies. Mayor Littlefield is a 1968 graduate of Auburn University.
Michael Nutter, Philadelphia, Pa.
Recently re-elected to his second term as Mayor of his hometown, Michael Nutter has set an aggressive agenda for America’s fifth largest city. Since taking office in January 2008, he has vigorously managed city government through the worst recession since the Great Depression by maintaining core services and reducing the city’s spending. He continues to implement the nationally recognized GreenWorks Philadelphia initiative that is helping to make Philadelphia become the greenest city in America. Mayor Nutter has been committed to public service since his youth in West Philadelphia. He served almost 15 years on the Philadelphia City Council, earning the reputation of a reformer before his election as Mayor.
As a public official, how do you view the importance of water and sewer systems as how it relates to economic prosperity and quality of life?
BAKER – Water and sewer systems have always been, and will continue to remain, the primary mechanism by which societies protect against water-borne diseases. A safe, dependable supply of potable water, free from pathogenic organisms and the prevention of human contact with human waste through sewage collection and safe disposal are fundamental to the functioning of urban communities in the U.S. Together, they enable the relatively dense habitations that we now take for granted.
BROWN – Weatherford is a small town that spans approximately six square miles in the central part of the State of Oklahoma. The prosperity and growth we have experienced is due in large part to our ability to provide residents and businesses with access to safe, clean drinking water. We are committed to continuously looking for ways we can bolster our water system – especially in terms of improving conservation, operational efficiency and the level of service we provide to our customers.
HOSTERMAN – Quality utilities infrastructure is the foundation for maintaining required public health and safety standards and creating a solid base for economic prosperity and growth. In addition, it represents an important aspect of any city’s environmental effort and its overall focus on maintaining quality of life issues. The City of Pleasanton has always placed significant importance on both maintaining and developing local utilities infrastructure and assuring that city policies are consistent with both local and regional utilities infrastructure capacity. Our focus continues to shift to water conservation and environmental issues as we prepare for the potential of climate uncertainty during this 21st century.
LITTLEFIELD – Water and sewer are part of the essential infrastructure of a city. It is impossible to have a healthy urban settlement of sufficient density to support a high quality of life without effective water and sewer services.
NUTTER – There is little doubt that the ability to supply abundant, clean water is a vital municipal function and is a necessary condition for economic growth and quality of life. The ability to collect and adequately treat water is equally critical to public health and a major contributor to maintaining clean and healthy rivers that are so characteristic of our city. I have worked with our municipal water utility to make a major shift in investment toward sustainable cites and an economical, holistic approach to meeting our public health and environmental responsibilities.
What are the major issues affecting your water/wastewater system (aging infrastructure, water supply, finance/funding, etc.)? What problems are unique to your situation?
BAKER – Water and sewer systems have become a victim of their own success to the point where the true value of water is no longer recognized. Wilmington faces significant needs with regard to aging infrastructure across the spectrum – storage and treatment facilities, distribution networks and collection networks. Our water supply source faces significant threats from upstream suburban development, through greater demands on the resource as well as loss of percolation capacity affecting stream flows.
BROWN – Until recently, our water system had become outdated, as the 5,500 meters in our service area had been installed 20-40 years ago. Many of the meters were not reading accurately, which made receiving frequent complaints and questions from residents regarding their water usage a common occurrence. Our water department was also spending an increasing amount of time on the manual collection of meter reads (1-2 days each week) and tending to service related issues.
HOSTERMAN – The first major issue facing California is water supply. We have been in an extended drought the past five years and in 2011-12, our winter precipitation to date is the lowest it has been in the 100 years we have kept those records. As a result, even more emphasis needs to be placed on water conservation and developing new local water supplies, including the use of recycled water. The second major issue we are grappling with is the environmental aspects of water movement throughout the state. California’s water system is over sixty years old and requires significant improvement to meet current and projected future needs.
LITTLEFIELD – Chattanooga has the physical heart of an old industrial city surrounded by newer suburbs including some smaller, separately incorporated municipalities. We do have a problem with aging infrastructure both in water and sewer, but the more complicated issues relate to problems with interconnections between systems and, of course, funding to make necessary repairs, upgrades and technical advancements. This is most pronounced in our water services where the center city is served by an old private company that has owned the infrastructure since the Civil War.
This system, Tennessee American Water Company – a division of American Water – serves what can be characterized as the “old city” and its system is physically separated from the surrounding public utility districts that serve the newer suburbs. Accordingly, the water distribution system is disjointed and poorly interconnected. Chattanooga’s sewer system is regional and totally public, but the older, central part of the system is a combined storm and sanitary system which suffers from age (some old brick sewers are more than 100 years old) and overflows during periods of heavy rain.
NUTTER – Nationwide, cities and their water utilities find themselves under increasing pressure to meet continually evolving environmental, demographic and financial challenges while also meeting customer expectations for a safe and affordable water supply. Issues are compounded by new challenges to water quality and quantity, aging infrastructure and the impacts of climate change on human health and our ecosystems. Philadelphia is no different. Meeting these challenges requires significant infrastructure investment and a paradigm shift in managing urban water resources.
Infrastructure asset management, the energy-water nexus, water conservation/reuse and public-private partnerships are increasingly being discussed. What new initiatives, if any, has your city started in these areas? What are the results to date?
BAKER – Asset management is a tool for prioritizing infrastructure expenditures using scarce resources. Much of our infrastructure is well past any standard definitions of useful life, making resource allocation decisions particularly challenging. As a city, we have been at the forefront of public-private partnerships, having successfully privatized the operation and maintenance of our wastewater plant in 1997 and, more recently, engaged in a Guaranteed Energy Performance relationship with a major energy services company. Both of these relationships have provided long-term financial benefits through cost-control and energy savings.
BROWN – Water conservation has always been an important issue to the City of Weatherford, as drinking water is a precious resource that is expensive to treat and distribute. That is why we recently upgraded our water infrastructure in ways that help us to efficiently detect household leaks while enabling our customers to closely monitor their water usage. The capabilities provided by our water system upgrades have not only helped us as a community to better conserve water, it has benefitted our customers by helping to meet their personal conservation goals while preventing them from being billed for water that would otherwise be lost through leaks.
HOSTERMAN – Our city has spent the last 11 years developing a comprehensive asset management and maintenance management system (MMS) to maintain our utility infrastructure and to provide enhanced customer service in all phases of public works. Also, we have integrated these systems with our Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The MMS has enabled enhanced customer service by providing full work order/GIS integration and resulted in system maintenance and replacement cost savings.
Secondly, our city has recently adopted a comprehensive Climate Action Plan (CAP) that identifies energy reduction targets throughout all city operations. To date, the most significant outcome of meeting CAP goals include the installation of a photovoltaic system at our largest ground water well site that will save the city $3.6 million over the next 20 years. We are currently putting together a performance contract to hire an energy services company to install efficiency upgrades throughout our municipal and utility infrastructure.
LITTLEFIELD – Chattanooga has spent much of the last three years negotiating a new water quality permit with state authorities and a new consent order with the EPA. The permit addresses how we plan to move forward with addressing stormwater and nonpoint source pollution and the consent order deals much more aggressively with sanitary sewer and combined sewer overflows. Both are closely linked by topography and gravity since Chattanooga is located on the Tennessee River at the “bottom of the bowl” in terms of the regional watershed. In short, everything flows downhill and into Chattanooga. In dealing with the environmental requirements of both the permit and consent order, the city intends to employ green infrastructure to a much greater degree.
Over the last 20 years, Chattanooga has also relied heavily on more conventional pipe lining and replacement, plus the construction of large underground detention facilities. While a certain level of success has been achieved, it is apparent that a more natural means of handling water must be employed going forward.
NUTTER – As our water system grows older, it does not grow stronger. Philadelphia has initiated numerous programs to manage costs for renewal and replacement and operation and maintenance, including identifying new and improved strategies for managing its assets using a comprehensive computerized maintenance system and improved capital planning. We have extended the “look down the road” for capital planning from six years to 25 years and developed a new financial plan to manage costs in the long term.
The city has also developed a strategic energy plan to establish a framework, goals, objectives, and opportunities to conserve and generate energy and manage rising energy costs. For the water utility, this has meant the award of a $47 million public-private partnership for NE Cogeneration Facility (a solar farm at our waste treatment facility), thermal heat exchangers which use sewage as a heat source for buildings, and a significant drop-off of energy usage, among a plethora of other innovations.
The Water Utility is also working on strategies to provide private financing for our green stormwater infrastructure program — Green City, Clean Waters. As we venture into new areas of green sustainable development in Philadelphia, we are home-growing our green industry to produce innovative ways to reduce stormwater pollution and create growth and a path out of poverty.
Technology is changing the way utilities manage, plan and operate their systems. How has technology changed your utility? What new programs or technologies have you implemented and what has been the result?
BAKER – Over the past decade, we have made significant investments in GIS as our primary tool for managing our infrastructure. GIS, in turn, has helped us gain an improved understanding of the performance of our water and sewer networks through better modeling techniques. These efforts have been critical in our decision making with regard to combined sewer overflow (CSO) mitigation; we are among a few select communities world-wide who have utilized a technique called Real Time Control that makes optimum use of our sewer capacity to manage and minimize overflows during rain events.
BROWN – Recently, we replaced all of the water meters in our service area and implemented a two-way advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) network provided by Mueller Systems. The new meters and two-way network has improved billing accuracy and eliminated the need for workers to manually collect water meter readings — a process that used to take us as many as 10 days to complete. Now, department workers are able to collect all readings in one day or less from their office.
We also provide our customers with on-demand access to their household water usage through a web-based consumer portal they can use to monitor their water consumption, compare current water usage to previous periods, configure individual alerts and set budget and water conservation goals. Our water department has been receiving lots of positive feedback as a result of these projects.
HOSTERMAN – First, we focus on money saving technologies that can be deployed in a beneficial and cost effective manner. As indicated, we’ve had tremendous success with our maintenance management system that has resulted in improved customer services and cost reductions. We have also invested regularly in our Supervisory Control and Date Acquisition (SCADA) system which has proven successful in reducing operating cost and providing superior control and operations of our utilities. This SCADA system includes a sophisticated time of use program and built-in features designed to help operates roll water in storage reservoirs to improve water quality in the distribution system. Currently, we are further developing our advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) that will also result in reduced operating costs.
LITTLEFIELD – Most significantly, Chattanooga has employed state of the art sludge handling processes to enable the disposal of this byproduct of purification in a safe, cost effective and environmentally responsible manner. Now, instead of disposal in a lined landfill, Chattanooga’s sludge is in high demand for land application as an agricultural soil enhancement.
NUTTER – Utilities have much more detailed information available to them today than ever. What is important is how they apply these technologies to support communicating with the public, improving services and reducing costs. Some of the technologies being applied in Philadelphia include real-time data acquisition, internet based applications, sophisticated hydraulic and water quality models, and data systems to view volumes of information within a map using GIS.
In Philadelphia, we have changed the way we charge customers for stormwater services, creating a parcel-based billing system that provides a truer cost-of-service model for customers to understand the impact of their land on our water quality and to offer “credits” to customers that manage their stormwater. We were also one of the first major cities to transition to automatic meter reading, which vastly improves the communication between customer and the utility.
How are EPA mandates impacting your city/utilities? What specific mandates affect your city? How are increased expenses, if any, being addressed?
BAKER – The city’s water/wastewater obligations fall under the purview of the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. Our approach to these regulatory obligations has been to get ahead of them so that we have flexibility in how we respond to new issues. We have thus avoided being subject to enforcement actions which tend to result in cookie cutter and expensive approaches to problem solving. This the approach we have taken with the three signature projects described elsewhere in the responses to this questionnaire.
BROWN – We have just completed two new Arsenic removal plants at a cost of $4 million. The levels of Arsenic amounts were changed several years ago that had a direct effect on us. Even though we were only a few parts per billion over the limit, we still needed to treat our water accordingly.
HOSTERMAN – The two most significant areas affecting Pleasanton include requirements related to developing sanitary sewer management plans and enhanced storm water programs. Meeting sanitary sewer management plans creates time intensive reporting requirements which must be absorbed by our city staff. Storm water enhancements have resulted in considerable cost increases which are born either by the city or by new developments. There is no significant funding source for these efforts and cost must be absorbed by the rate payer and/or the city.
LITTLEFIELD – Chattanooga’s recent experience with negotiations of a new consent order has resulted in a complete rethinking of how EPA mandates will be addressed and financed. To put it briefly and succinctly, the mandates dealing with overflows will significantly increase the budget of the entire regional system. The increased expenses will necessarily result in increased rates. The city is already moving rates up each year in anticipation of new bond issues to support a much expanded capital investment in infrastructure – both conventional and green.
NUTTER – As a drinking water, wastewater and stormwater utility service provider, the City of Philadelphia reacts to a significant number of federal mandates on a daily basis. Clearly the EPA policies most affecting our costs and impacting our programming decisions today are those that involve stormwater – whether via CSO National Policy, MS4 Regulations or from the impacts of flooding along our rivers and in our neighborhoods. Among these three issues, the city is expending billions of dollars.
How do you see water viewed within your city? Is it a high priority or an afterthought? How has this changed over time?
BAKER – Protecting our water resources and providing our citizens with safe and ample drinking water are of the highest priorities in the City of Wilmington. Such challenges will only become greater due to the impact of global warming, including rising sea levels. Only a very small percent of Earth’s water is potable; therefore, it is only reasonable that we do everything within our power to protect our water supply from harmful land activities and ongoing climate change and create sustainability for future generations.
BROWN – Water is certainly a high priority within the City of Weatherford. We are constantly searching for other sources and options for water needs for the future. What was once just taken for granted, is now a major concern for everyone.
HOSTERMAN – Water is most definitely a high priority in our community and the amount of time dedicated to water related issues will be increasing in the future. The primary change relates to water supply and availability and increased emphasis on water conservation. My involvement in the Mayors Water Council has been a positive part of highlighting changes required to meet future challenges. It will take all of us Federal, State and Local officials to navigate the water challenges we face.
LITTLEFIELD – Although natural, potable water is plentiful in Chattanooga it is not taken for granted or treated as an afterthought. We only have to look south to Atlanta to see the effects of unplanned growth and how limiting a lack of water resources can negatively affect a community. Atlanta area politicians have even attempted to move the Georgia/Tennessee state line north to gain access to the Tennessee River (without success). Over time, the focus on water resources serving our near neighbor has led to a greater appreciation of the substantial value of water to the future growth and development of Chattanooga.
Now, it seems that the greatest threat to progress is a lack of coordination and interconnection of the potable water systems that serve the growing Chattanooga region. With the generally uncooperative response of the Tennessee American Water Company coupled with their continuous application for rate increases, the entire community has begun to seriously examine the possibility of creating a much more coordinated public utility.
NUTTER – Water in urban environments is often undervalued and underutilized. In Philadelphia, we are looking to improve the water environment and manage social and economic justice issues at the same time. While we spend billions to make our rivers and streams fishable and swimmable, we also recognize the absolute need to make them safe, attractive and accessible. The best way to see the change in how water is viewed is through the increasing value placed on waterfront developments. In Philadelphia, major initiatives include the extension and creation of new “river trails,” new “river parks” and significant waterfront development.
How has the recent economy impacted your water/wastewater system operations? What have you done in response to the economy?
BAKER – The recent economy has had a mixed impact on the city’s water/sewer operations. On one hand, the difficult economy has made it politically challenging to put through needed rate increases to cover expenses. On the other hand, the availability of stimulus funds and the general low-interest environment and favorable construction market has proved advantageous in allowing us to execute the significant initiatives discussed earlier.
BROWN – I think we are like most municipalities; we are trying to be more efficient at how we spend taxpayer’s dollars. Even though there is more paperwork required, we are trying to meet the requirements with the same personnel.
HOSTERMAN – A portion of our utility infrastructure is funded with private development fees, and as a result, the slowing economy has impacted funding available for new capital improvements and major system upgrades. Water sales have also dropped approximately 10 percent during this time, which also affects sewer revenues. To deal with the revenue reduction, we have both improved efficiencies and reduced expenditures including a reduction of temporary workers and miscellaneous benefits for permanent employees. We have also instituted a five-year water service rate structure that is tied to local CPI indicators as allowed by California law to maintain the fixed costs of running our utility.
LITTLEFIELD – The fiscal demands and constraints of the recent economy have resulted in resistance to costs and rate increases for all customers – residential and commercial. Some businesses are finding ways to reduce their need for water and sewer services by adopting more efficient methods of operation. In terms of government, our ability to finance and improve has been restricted – hopefully temporarily. Like our major customers, we are being much more attentive to doing more with less.
NUTTER – Like everyone, everywhere, the economic downturn has had significant impacts on our water utility’s operations. Perhaps most notable was the difficulty in obtaining capital funding which caused a slow-down in our capital improvement program, affecting our contractors and our plans for system upgrades. ARRA funding and state revolving funds helped at just the right moment to keep our construction projects moving forward. In response to the economic downturn, the utility has created a new financial plan to not only ensure that bond ratings don’t decline, but actually improve with time.
If you are a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Water Council, please describe why you joined and your experience.
BAKER – I joined the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Water Council because water quality is obviously critically important to a city’s well being. The Council is an excellent resource for sharing ideas and benefitting from the experiences of other municipalities.
HOSTERMAN – My work on the Water Council has been very beneficial in assuring that issues impacting Pleasanton and local governments remain part of the overall community dialogue.
LITTLEFIELD – I am a city planner by background and a former public works administrator. So, I believe the best way to learn what works and what doesn’t and the best way to choose the right path toward the future is to listen and compare notes with peer communities. Yes, I am a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ Water Council and it has enabled me to meet face to face with other mayors, utility professionals and (perhaps most importantly) federal officials regarding the common challenges facing us all. I don’t know of any other opportunity to have such total engagement with others on such an important subject.
NUTTER – I joined the USCM Water Council because I care a great deal about water-related issues, such as protecting our water supply, rivers, streams and managing stormwater runoff. Philadelphia has a history of innovation in water management and I am proud to keep that tradition going. Serving on the Council has been helpful and instructive.
What area of your water/wastewater system are you most proud of? Why?
BAKER – The hallmark of my administration has been a strong focus on infrastructure investment as a necessary underpinning to economic growth in the city. A broad array of investments has been made that have significantly strengthened our water/sewer infrastructure and set the tone for future administrations. Among these have been three signature achievements: (1) the satisfactory resolution of the Combined Sewer Overflow issue within a ten-year span through innovative technology; (2) the creation of a magnificent new city park over a two-block area once occupied by an open finished water reservoir has protected the quality of water delivered to our customers while creating a new public amenity; (3) the decision to move forward with a major technological upgrade to our oldest water filtration plant through the implementation of cutting membrane technology.
BROWN – I think the new AMI system recently installed moves us into the future. We are already seeing the benefit in hours worked and efficiency.
HOSTERMAN – I am most proud that our community continues to embrace change in areas such as water conservation and technological advancements. Further, there continues to be strong support from the development community to incorporate the latest water and sewer technologies, including the use of recycled water within their developments. The community recognizes the benefits of technological improvements and has supported budgets incorporating these improvements. The SCADA and maintenance management systems represent significant customer service and efficiency enhancements and assure that we are in sync with current standards in these areas.
LITTLEFIELD – I am most proud of the sludge handling system that permitted us to deal with a very significant problem (300 wet tons per day) in such an environmentally positive fashion. We achieved savings in landfill space and disposal costs while creating a product that promises greater financial rewards in the future.
NUTTER – I am most proud of the employees of the Philadelphia Water Department. As we have gone through very difficult economic times, our employees have sacrificed raises to ensure that no one was laid off. Our employees maintain their work ethics, and their values and have protected our rivers and streams and made sure that everyone in Philadelphia has gotten – 24/7 — the highest quality drinking water at a very affordable price.
I am also tremendously impressed with the innovation that this utility has demonstrated in the areas of energy, stormwater management, financial stability, infrastructure management and urban sustainability. The relationship that has grown between the water utility and the other city departments has created a sense of working together for the betterment of our city.
What advice would you give to your successor regarding water and wastewater management? Other concluding comments?
BAKER – While clearing snow and filling potholes are essential to maintaining public support, water and wastewater issues transcend administrations and require a truly long-term perspective, falling squarely into the realm of stewardship and long-term viability of the city. A strong commitment to infrastructure also provides confidence to investors and businesses looking to set up or expand operations.
BROWN – Try to think about the future! A little planning goes a long way.
HOSTERMAN – My primary advice would be to continue taking steps to assure that these matters remain a priority because one way or another, we will have to deal with this service area. Being proactive assures that we can maintain costs and meet city and regional needs.
LITTLEFIELD – It certainly isn’t glamorous or exciting, but nothing is more basic and important than good water and sewer services. Don’t wait for a crisis or the inevitable lawsuit. Start planning now for the next phase of development for your community and for the infrastructure needed to support the quality of life that your citizens deserve.
NUTTER – Respect the professional leadership of this organization, their history and their plans to make Philadelphia the greenest city in America.