How to Prepare for PFAS (& Avoid a PR Disaster)

“A town’s water is contaminated with ‘forever chemicals’ – how did it get this bad?” That’s one of the headlines that residents of Pittsboro, North Carolina, woke up to earlier this year when the Guardian published a story about the community’s water supply.

Researchers had found that a local Chemours/DuPont chemical plant had released potentially toxic amounts of Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—also known as PFAS or “forever chemicals”—into the town’s water supply.

As more of these investigations play out in the public eye, PFAS represents one of the greatest threats to public confidence in drinking water in recent memory. 

For municipal leaders and water operators across the country, the question is: what can you do to prepare?

PFAS goes public

PFAS entered the national conversation just a few years ago, but research has already linked them to everything from liver cancer to reproductive health issues, and some states have moved to ban them altogether. Congress began to move on PFAS last month when it passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, which will require the EPA to establish national standards for PFAS levels in drinking water in the future.

Although the EPA already includes PFAS on the list of contaminants it tracks under the unregulated contaminant monitoring rule (UCMR), few laws currently exist dictating what utilities should and shouldn’t be doing about PFAS.

But if you ask WaterPIO founder and communications expert Mike McGill, utilities waiting for directives from legislators are missing a key opportunity to position themselves as leaders on the issue.

“The next time the EPA updates UCMR, you might have to start testing for dozens of different PFAS, and those testing requirements might cover more and smaller utilities. And if that’s the case, you’ll have to start communicating about PFAS as soon as you can.”

The price of waiting

Much is still unknown about the exact health risks posed by PFAS and the best ways to eliminate them from our water supply. But one thing is for sure: just because PFAS isn’t a problem in your backyard right now doesn’t mean that it won’t eventually be.

“Academics and activists are out there in the interest of protecting public health. They’re going to conduct tests in our waterways, and they are going to find these chemicals, and when they do find them, they’re going to keep making headlines,” says Mike McGill, who like many other water experts, believes we’re due for a reckoning on PFAS.

He says that if utilities don’t become the first communicators on the subject—that is, the first point of truth that the public turns to for accurate PFAS information in the local water supply—they risk losing control of the narrative completely.

“It becomes a scandal, if you will. Then suddenly we have to start throwing solutions against the wall to make up for the fact that we’re behind. And that’s where you start making mistakes.”

Utilities that choose to wait until they’re forced to respond risk the following:

  • Losing time and money

Waiting can get expensive. McGill recalls how one water utility in North Carolina spent more than $150 million on a facility to treat water for less than 100,000 people in a rush to address a local PFAS contamination.

PFAS treatment technologies like granular activated carbon (GAC) and ion exchange are already expensive, but if utilities wait until they’re forced to act, they risk scrambling to calm a distraught customer base and hastily picking a treatment solution that might not work for them in the long term.

  • Losing control of the narrative

Just because utilities didn’t create the PFAS problem doesn’t mean they should be afraid of taking responsibility and claiming the issue as their own. 

Not doing so could mean that someone else—regulators, environmentalists, manufacturers, or even customers themselves—takes control of the narrative. And as McGill emphasizes, when utility customers discover that they have potential carcinogens in their drinking water, “it wasn’t me!” probably won’t cut it as an excuse.

“If you’re not leading the conversation, then the customer is [simply] going to blame the utility for something they didn’t do.”

  • Eroding trust

Utilities will have to ‘go first’ when it comes to communicating the threats and challenges of PFAS, and for many organizations—especially smaller utilities not used to doing lots of communications work—doing so might seem like a nerve-wracking experience.

But McGill says waiting could fundamentally erode a utility’s relationship with its customers.

“I used to run a newsroom for a couple of years, and we had an old adage: ‘if I hear from you first, I trust you first. If I hear from you last, I trust you last.’” 

Testing, treatment, and transparency

If you’re looking to get ahead of PFAS, Santa Clarita Valley (SCV) Water Agency sets a shining example for a successful communications strategy.

In 2019, California state officials started asking utilities to test wells for PFAS contaminants. The order didn’t require agencies to take any further action, even if they discovered high levels of these contaminants.

Still, when SCV discovered that one of their wells had exceeded the 70 nanograms per liter advisory level, they sprung into action. They shut down the contaminated well, and began sampling all of their other wells for PFAS. 

The agency quickly put in motion plans to build a new treatment facility, but its plan would rely on an even more immediate line of defence. 

SCV embarked on an ambitious communications campaign to bring their fight with PFAS out into the open, led by communications manager Kathie Martin.

The agency began posting regular updates about PFAS testing, changes in regulations, and progress on their (now complete) treatment facility construction to a dedicated portal on their website, social media, and the agency’s email newsletter. Customers also had ample opportunity to learn about PFAS offline, at community meetings and via direct mail.

“Not only were we trying to be completely transparent upfront. We also wanted to be a little bit ahead of the game. That turned out to be the right decision,” says SCV operations director Mike Alvord.

The benefits of communicating proactively on PFAS

So, should your agency take a leap of faith, or adopt a “wait and see” approach? 

Experts like Mike McGill argue that effectively communicating on the issue could result in lasting, long term benefits:

  • Develop a leadership advantage

‘Going first’ on PFAS won’t just allow utilities to cut down on public relations risk. It could also permanently cement their place as leaders and experts on the issue, building lasting credibility with customers, media and other stakeholders who are looking for answers. 

“If you are willing to get out front and say, ‘we’re going to test, and we want to go above and beyond, because that’s what we think our role is as the provider of safe clean drinking water is,’ there’s a lot of power behind that. Especially when you get results,” points out McGill. 

  • Influence policy

One specific advantage to adopting a leadership position on an under-regulated contaminant like PFAS is that utilities stand to meaningfully shape policy as it’s being written. 

The more effective utilities are at communicating the on-the-ground realities of treating water for PFAS, the more likely it is that those realities will inform future legislation.

  • Build more proactive organizations in general

The benefits of effectively communicating on issues like PFAS also go beyond any single contaminant or treatment project.

As SCV’s Alvord points out, his organization’s radically transparent approach to the issue did more than just alleviate Santa Clarita Valley residents’ fears about PFAS. It also helped his organization come together and build a strong work culture in the wake of an 2018 SCV agency merger that combined four separate water utilities into one.

“We brought in different cultures, different personalities, and we immediately had to work together because we had to try to form our own new culture,” says Alvord, noting how SCV’s efforts to remain transparent to the public also ended up making the organization more transparent to itself, and therefore more cohesive.

“If we were separate, I think it would have been much more difficult.”

Proven practices for PFAS PR

Taking a lessons from agencies like SCV, here are some approaches to consider as you look to communicate how your agency is acting on the PFAS problem:

1. Take credit for your work

The first step of any good PFAS communication strategy is to take stock of what your organization is already doing about the issue, and to not be afraid to brag about it. 

Have you already started testing for certain PFAS? Has your utility already started working with PFAS treatment technologies like reverse osmosis, GAC, and ion exchange? Then your customers need to hear about it.

Make sure that any valuable work you’re already doing on PFAS doesn’t get buried or confined to just one communication channel, either. 

“I worked with one utility that tested for 75 different PFAS, and their data was spectacular. But they only made a passing reference about that in their water quality report,” points out Mike McGill. 

These types of documents tend to get buried on your website. If you’re not actively pushing this information out to the public, it will likely fall by the wayside.

2. Identify other PFAS advocates and experts

It might also be useful to take stock of other experts in your network or area who might be doing important PFAS work.

Are there any local academics who have published research on PFAS in the past? Environmentalists who have lobbied local governments? Media outlets who have published stories about PFAS? Now might be a good time to become familiar with them and their work, and use it to inform your strategy. 

3. Take a leadership role

Even if your utility already does excellent work on PFAS and has good relationships with external stakeholders, you might still feel apprehensive about broadcasting those efforts to your customers. 

McGill understands why utilities might be nervous to take the lead, but he says that the ones that do stand to benefit far more in the long run than those who stay quiet.

“You need to become a thought leader, because by doing so you help out the entire industry. You show the path of how to handle it properly.”

Getting More out of Biosolids With Better Data

“We used to have a plant manager who would say he’d put it on a Triscuit and eat it. I don’t know that I’d do that, but it certainly wouldn’t harm you.”

That’s what Ryan Cerrato, an employee at New York-based composting company WeCare Organics, told a Vice journalist about his company’s compost in a recent documentary.

WeCare makes compost from biosolids—human waste that has passed through sewage treatment—which it then sells to farmers, nurseries, and gardeners as high-quality fertilizer. While most American consumers might not know it, biosolids are becoming an increasingly important part of our water treatment and agricultural systems. 

As wastewater utilities face growing pressures to find cost savings while also increasing environmental outcomes, improving the quality of biosolids is becoming more important than ever before. 

So how exactly can treatment plant managers get more out of biosolids while spending less? It’s a question that might very well come down to data.

What are biosolids?

Biosolids are solid waste that have been treated and reclaimed from the water system. 

About half of all biosolids produced in the U.S. today are recycled and used as fertilizer. But not all biosolids are recycled: of the roughly 4.75 million dry metric tons (dmt) the country produced in 2019, a little under half ended up incinerated, landfilled, or stored as waste. With the right treatment processes, all of that waste could be put to more beneficial uses. 

That’s where the question of biosolids quality comes in.

What are Class A and Class B biosolids?

The EPA’s 40 CFR Part 503 is the guiding star for wastewater operators and other processors looking to gauge the quality of their biosolids. This framework breaks biosolids down into two classes:

Class A biosolids have been treated and tested for pathogens and deemed safe enough to use in agriculture, gardening, and landscaping. They’re the kind that companies like WeCare buy from utilities, process, and resell: good for the environment and crucial to creating a closed loop, zero-waste system.

Class B biosolids are any that don’t make Class A. They might be safe enough to use in some applications, but they also contain detectable pathogens and/or high concentrations of metals like arsenic, chromium, and mercury that might make them unsuitable for growing food or soil remediation. 

While Class A biosolids are an asset, Class B are expensive to dispose of and transport, and might pose a health risk for people working with them. So getting that B grade up to an A is worth more than just extra credit.

How to test biosolids

Most wastewater treatment plant operators have their eye on three different kinds of data when they make decisions about what to do with biosolids:

  • Sampling results, which are conducted at various stages of the treatment process and analyze water and biosolids for pathogens, drugs, metals, and other contaminants.
  • Continuous monitoring data from certain pieces of plant equipment for variables like temperature and pressure.
  • End product data, like class (A/B), weight, water content, transportation and disposal cost, etc.

For decades, plant operators have relied on legacy infrastructure to monitor this data and make decisions in the biosolids treatment process. But modern cloud-based platforms are giving operators the ability to view and analyze this information, so they can spot trends and act sooner. 

Systems like Klir merge real-time data from sources like supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and laboratory information management systems (LIMS) to reveal opportunities to improve the product quality while managing harmful contaminants from the outset. 

The risks of lagging data in biosolids processing

Working in spreadsheets and SCADA systems can feel a bit like pulling teeth. They’re slow, opaque, unintuitive, and often few people at an organization have the ability to pull reports.

These delays mean that operators are often reviewing the data long after it was processed—sometimes a month later, and have little means of intervening in the biosolids treatment process until it’s too late.  

These lagging data sources aren’t just an annoying time suck: they can also pose a genuine threat to your operation. 

Those risks include:

  1. Releasing contaminated biosolids 

When there’s a lag between the time a sampling test is completed, and the time that an operator can manually query and interpret those results, there’s a lot that can be missed or go wrong, including the possibility that those solids leave the plant before the test results come back. 

Those kinds of mistakes can be costly—nine agencies received hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from the EPA in 2019 for approving contaminated biosolids.

  1. Reporting and record-keeping errors

Using Excel to deal with ever-larger data sets opens you up to the possibility of data loss, which can cause major reporting problems.

Filing a false report, even by accident, carries a fine of up to $10,000 and up to 2 years in prison. Meanwhile, willful violations carry a criminal fine of $5,000 to $50,000 per day of violation and up to 3 years in prison. 

  1. Data access problems

Your organization’s data should belong to the organization. But if team members are constantly creating their own workarounds to address the limitations of legacy software and spreadsheets, that can create problems around data ownership, especially if one of those team members is absent or leaves the organization.

How real-time data analysis drives better biosolids 

For treatment plant operators, intuitive platforms like Klir are making it easier to access and display vital data and make decisions quickly. 

The result? Treatment plants save on transportation costs, while minimizing biosolid waste. 

Here are the key ways that water & wastewater analytics software help drive better outcomes:

1. Reduce costs and improve product quality

Biosolids are heavy, and the more water a treatment plant can extract from them, (known as “cake dryness”) the lower their transportation costs. With real-time data analytics, plant operators can take the right actions to lower transportation costs and identify efficiencies that might otherwise be invisible.

Real time data lets you:

  • Proactively influence the product outcome with an end-to-end view of operations
  • Develop key insights into product grading
  • Perform ongoing weight vs. cost analysis
  • Set budgets to meet cost and quality goals

2. Better report design and data collection

Displaying data in a format that is easy to understand and ‘ready to go’ decreases the amount of time workers must spend processing and understanding their data while also encouraging and rewarding better data collection.

3. Stay in compliance and predict problems before they happen

Data analytics dashboards help operators and managers identify any failures or problems that might come up, cutting down on costly compliance errors. 

Quicker and more up-to-date sampling results also mean that plant operators can focus on forecasting trends and anticipating problems rather than constantly working backwards to trace where a contaminant came from. The result? Treatment plant teams can:

  • Stay compliant with real-time quality monitoring 
  • Receive automatic warnings when contaminants approach or exceed limits
  • Proactively triage issues and intervene before contaminated product leaves the facility

4. Increase efficiency

Automated data analysis frees plant managers from data detective work, and gives them new insights on how to continuously improve their processes, allowing them to:

  • Analyze sampling data in real time, no queries required
  • Spot problems before they happen
  • Ensure monthly and annual reports are always consistent
  • Perform reporting work in a fraction of the time

5. Break down data silos

Providing plant operators and employees with clear visuals and a holistic data view can help dismantle a culture of reactivity by de-siloing information. The result is a holistic picture of operations across the plant.

With transparent and interactive dashboards, managers and employees can:

  • ‘Slice and dice’ data to meet their business needs
  • Confidently depend on a single source of truth
  • Create an open forum for communication 

6. Futureproofing

Wastewater organizations that move to cloud-based systems to manage data across their plants are in a better position to anticipate future changes to biosolids regulations and industry standards. That’s because they can easily add new reporting criteria and scheduling requirements, merge in new data sources, or add in new parameters to instantly spot troubling maximum contaminant levels (MCLs). 

Improve your biosolids with Klir

Klir’s treatment plants module is designed to help wastewater treatment operators access real-time insights, so they can reduce the cost of managing biosolids and effluents while improving their environmental performance.

Interested in learning how Klir can help your facility improve its performance? Talk to one of our experts.

Acting Fast on PFAS: Now is the Time

How one California water utility is leading the fight against the ‘forever chemicals’

If you work in water and wastewater, you might remember Erin Brockovich’s successful 1993 lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), which proved the company had contaminated a small California town’s water supply with a toxic compound called chromium 6. 

The $333 million settlement Brockovich negotiated is still the largest in U.S. history, and the wave of awareness her case brought to environmental toxins–helped along by the eponymous 2000 Oscar-winning Julia Roberts film–is considered by many environmentalists today to be a turning point in environmental policy.

So, when the Santa Clarita Valley (SCV) Water Agency’s Mike Alvord first heard about per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or “PFAS” in 2019, he was certain the general public was due for a similar wake up call.

Ohio residents had launched a similar class action lawsuit alleging a DuPont chemical plant had contaminated the drinking water of 70,000 people with PFAS in the early 2000s. A film about the lawsuit titled Dark Waters starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway premiered in 2019, just a few months after the state of California ordered water utilities like SCV to start sampling wells for PFAS. At one point Erin Brockovich herself even re-emerged into the public eye to sound the alarm on PFAS

“I really thought that was going to be the next Erin Brockovich,” says Alvord. 

But the premiere of Dark Waters came and went, and the anticipated wave of public outcry against PFAS never materialized. 

“It didn’t turn into much. Maybe [with COVID] there were too many distractions.”

Despite the relatively tepid public response, Alvord and his colleagues at SCV knew that PFAS was real and that it wasn’t going away any time soon. So instead of waiting for regulators and the public to catch up, they decided to get ahead of the problem.

What is PFAS?

PFAS (pronounced ‘Pee-Fass’) are a class of synthetic “forever chemicals” found in everything from nonstick pans to takeout containers to the foams used in firefighting.

“It’s ubiquitous. The United States has been manufacturing PFAS chemicals since the fifties, and consumers have been enjoying the benefits of PFAS chemicals for decades,” says Alvord.

Studies have shown that PFAS may be associated with reproductive health issues, testicular and kidney cancer, high cholesterol and suppression of vaccine effectiveness in children, and that it might already be present in 98 out of every 100 people’s bloodstreams.

Some European countries and Maine have banned the compounds, but American water utilities are still grappling with how to best manage these contaminants. Most of them weren’t aware of PFAS until 2015 when the EPA added it to the list of contaminants it tracks under the unregulated contaminant monitoring rule (UCMR), and to this day there are few concrete rules around PFAS.

Alvord is the Director of Operations and Maintenance at SCV, which provides water to more than 300,000 business and residential customers in Southern California. When he and his colleagues discovered that one of the agency’s wells had exceeded the EPA’s advisory level of 70 nanograms per liter for two PFAS chemicals in 2019, no law or rule required them to shut down the well.

“But we immediately shut it off. We didn’t have to, but we did–for the sake of the public and the sake of the uncertainty. We just didn’t know what was going on.”

The first line of defence: transparency

Instead of dealing with it quietly, the SCV decided to bring their fight with PFAS out into the open.

The 2019 California order had only required SCV to sample 15 of their wells for PFAS, but the agency began sampling all of them. They also began posting regular updates about their findings to their website, and took a radically transparent approach to informing their customers about the PFAS threat in Southern California.

Ariel view of Santa Clarita Valley

Alvord says that transparency didn’t just help SCV act quickly on the PFAS problem. It also helped the agency–which was formed after the state merged four separate water utilities in 2018–find its feet as a new organization, come together as a team, and build a strong work culture on short notice.

“We brought in different cultures, different personalities, and we immediately had to work together because we had to try to form our own new culture,” says Alvord. 

“If we were separate, even though we worked well together separately, I think it would have been much more difficult.”

Removing PFAS from water

Most drinking water & wastewater utilities have three lines of defence against PFAS. They can use: 

1. Reverse osmosis, which forces water through a high-pressure membrane.

2. Granular activated carbon, like the kind you find in refrigerator water filtration systems, which is also the most studied PFAS removal solution.

3. Ion exchange, a process by which PFAS compounds are absorbed into a special kind of resin. 

The problem is that none of these technologies were originally designed to remove PFAS from the water, and they each have room for improvement. 

The energy costs involved in reverse osmosis, for example, usually make it prohibitively expensive for water utilities. Granular activated carbon can also get expensive, not just materials-wise but also because of the amount of byproduct that needs to be disposed of. 

Even ion exchange, the solution SCV settled on, can be challenging in the amount of byproduct it produces.

Staying flexible and keeping an open mind

More interesting than SCV’s technology choice itself, however, is the sheer speed with which the water agency was able to design, permit, and build the facility–during the COVID shutdown no less.

SCV’s new PFAS treatment facility in Valencia is an impressive sight: six massive vessels filled with ion exchange resin churn through up to 6,250 gallons of water per minute, enough to serve an estimated 5,000 households every year.

Most agencies would have taken years to build the facility, but that was time that Alvord says the SCV didn’t have when they embarked on the project in 2019.

“So instead, we did all of it at the same time. We were doing planning, bidding for construction, design–all of that simultaneously.”

It took just one year to construct the facility, which today produces upwards of 6,000 gallons of clean water per minute and has become a template for future plants slated for construction.

Alvord doesn’t recommend other utilities hold themselves to a similarly tight deadline. But he says the resourcefulness and speed SCV was able to bring to the treatment plant project is a product of the organization’s culture of flexibility and cooperation between groups like engineering and operations.

“Don’t just leave it up to your engineering group to do everything: spread the wealth and, you know, spread the pain,” suggests Alvord, acknowledging the tension that can sometimes exist between technically-minded engineers and operators with their eye on the bottom line.

“Engineers have to rely on operations staff to tell them what’s in the field, so make sure you do those field visits together, so that what they’re planning is going to match with what’s happening in reality.” 

The value of good communication and trust

Talking to Alvord, it quickly becomes clear that SCV’s ability to get ahead of the PFAS problem is as much an organizational achievement as it is a technical one. 

When asked about what advice he’d give to organizations and operations leaders trying to replicate those results, Alvord reiterates the importance of transparency, openness, and communication in the water industry.

“I preach that the two most important things to be successful are good communication and building relationships,” says Alvord, who also works as an instructor in the Water Systems Technology department at a local college.

“If you can learn to communicate effectively without sounding arrogant, without sounding offensive or derogatory, you’re going to be ahead of the game.”

Looking to get ahead of PFAS regulation? Start by automating your water monitoring plan with Klir. Talk to one of our specialists today.

How to Overcome NPDES Challenges: Best Management Practices

Managing permits under the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) is complex and high stakes for water utilities.

Ensuring NPDES compliance at your utility is not just important—it’s critical. While some discharges are routine and controlled, others are unplanned and can come up suddenly, such as combined sewer overflows, pipe breaks, and water main leaks. Either way, under NPDES they must be properly documented and reported. Failing to meet these requirements can result in hefty regulatory fines. In some situations, mismanaging NPDES compliance could even lead to a jail sentence.

What is NPDES?

The Clean Water Act prohibits anybody from discharging pollutants through a point source (such as a water or wastewater utility), into a “water of the United States” unless they have an NPDES permit. The permit includes limits on what you can discharge, stipulates monitoring and reporting requirements, and outlines other provisions to protect water quality and human health.

Achieving NPDES coverage in California

Managing water pollutants is a huge concern for water and wastewater utilities. In California, it’s a particularly big issue.

“Unlike some other states, we don’t have a lot of water. When utilities discharge into limited receiving waters, any pollutants are more likely to have an environmental impact,” says Francois Rodigari, Director of Corporate Sustainability & Innovation for San Jose Water.

Calero reservoir, Santa Clara county, California

Despite this, for years drinking water utilities did not qualify for existing discharge permits—even for routine reasons.

“In some cases, the regional water quality control board fined utilities for discharge incidents, even though there was no NPDES permit available to them,” he adds. “While most drinking water utilities followed the general NPDES requirements, we didn’t have permit coverage and consequently we weren’t doing any reporting. Our utilities were at risk.”

Rodigari was Director of Water Quality and Environmental Services when San Jose Water decided it would seek out better ways to manage NPDES. His team was instrumental in developing the Statewide General NPDES Permit for Drinking Water System Discharges to Waters of the United States, which the California State Water Board adopted in November 2014. Today, all utilities in the state with 1,000 connections or more are required to apply for an NPDES permit (unless they qualify under another permit). 

Ensuring NPDES compliance through Best Management Practices

With a state-wide solution, it’s now easier for utilities to make NPDES permit applications. For some utilities, NPDES has also underscored the importance of building and maintaining an accessible database.

“For NPDES compliance, we have to track and report our discharges when they’re over a certain volume,” says Rodigari. “There are annual reporting requirements, too. It’s a lot of information to manage.”

To support the state’s water utilities as they navigate NPDES, the San Jose Water Environmental Compliance group also led an effort to update the Best Management Practices Manual (BMP) for Drinking Water System Releases for the California-Nevada Section of the American Water Works Association. The manual provides directions on how to minimize and handle the number of planned and unplanned discharges.

How to handle common NPDES challenges:

For many utilities, moving toward NPDES compliance is part of an ongoing commitment to implementing best management practices. For others, it means taking a brand new approach to managing data and meeting reporting requirements. 

Wherever you are in the process, achieving NPDES compliance probably means your utility will be going through some changes. 

With this in mind, we asked Rodigari to share some of his team’s best practices for improving utility performance and making NPDES reporting easier.

1. An effective data management system is key to achieving ISO 14001 standards

Achieving compliance in line with ISO 14001 standards means setting up an effective environmental management system. The requirements are extensive, Rodigari says. “Most utilities are actively working toward meeting the management framework, but it remains a complex process.”

Rodigari says choosing a secure, robust compliance system to manage your utility’s data is a critical part of the ISO 14001 journey.

“As an industry, we can no longer depend on spreadsheets,” he says. “The environmental and economic risks are too great.”

NPDES reporting requires utilities to track permit obligations, discharges, reporting, and fines. With the right platform in place, you can achieve compliance, but your utility can also raise its game. “When you can visualize your data and reports, it’s easier to see the ways you can improve your utility’s performance,” he says.

2. Track hazardous waste sites assessment data for reporting—and future projects

As a 150-year-old utility, San Jose Water often learns about legacy sites through site assessments for construction, renovation, or facility retirement. 

“When we complete an assessment, we generate a lot of data about the soil and hazmat that we might not have already known existed on the site,” Rodigari says. 

San Jose Water uses this information to prepare bidding documents. “Contractors need to know about any precautions they need to take during demolition and disposal,” he says. 

If the findings require action, the utility might map the site and construct barriers to ensure runoff doesn’t migrate to another property. In other cases, the utility works with Santa Clara County and the Department of Environmental Health to propose a cleanup and remediation plan. 

Furthermore, the utility maps the sites to protect workers. “If future work will disturb the soil, workers need to know,” Rodigari says.

With more than 100 properties, San Jose Water can’t manage everything with individual engineering reports, Rodigari adds. “We need our data to be readily available and easy to retrieve. It’s critical for managers to have that information.”

3. Keep a central record of hazmat manifests

A utility is required—and has an obligation—to manage hazardous materials manifests in order to minimize liability from cradle to grave, Rodigari says. “When you have multiple entities generating and disposing of waste on your utility’s behalf, you need a system that allows everyone to report uniformly.” 

In California there are tax requirements associated with generating hazmat and solid waste. Manifests play a key role in the ability to draw an inventory and understand its fate, he adds, so it’s important to store them in a platform that is easy to query.

4. Remove the burden of gathering environmental and compliance data with automated reports and alerts

Automating NPDES reports can lift a huge administrative burden for a utility. The first challenge, however, is making sure you have all of the relevant data in the right place.

Rodigari says it can take time to harmonize NPDES data sources, but it should be an important priority. “Across our utility, several teams generate discharges, from operations to contractors to field service. Ensuring all reports are properly filed in one platform and easy to retrieve is a best practice that can protect your utility from liability.”

For San Jose Water, fully automating all NPDES reporting is a goal for the longer term. In the meantime, the utility is aiming to collect all data in one platform, Rodigari says. And, to ensure compliance, the utility’s platform is programmed to send reminders to parties responsible for collecting data that the NPDES permit requires. “If there’s a failure to document, the platform issues an escalation. This helps managers track and follow up on missed deadlines.”

Collecting all data on NPDES permits within a single platform helps to ensure compliance.

Improving performance and environmental impact with NPDES best practices

Rodigari says he’s confident that the state-wide NPDES permit has improved best management practices in California’s water utilities. For San Jose Water, that’s meant a major shift in the way the utility manages discharges.

“We’re doing a better job of ensuring water quality, including reducing turbidity, and removing chlorine prior to discharge,” Rodigari says. “We’re also minimizing water loss during discharges, and we’ve set some ambitious goals in terms of non-revenue water.”

Rodigari credits the utility’s hard work, as well as the way the industry is starting to think about data and reporting. “Making sense of our data is an important step in the path to improving our environmental impact and organizational performance,” he says. “That’s the point of NPDES.”

For Oregon’s Clean Water Services, Digital Transformation is About Smarter Watershed Management

Located on the Tualatin River Basin, Clean Water Services in Oregon serves a population of over 600,000 residents in urban Washington County and businesses including Nike and Intel. A fitting name, Clean Water Services is internationally recognized as a leader for holistic watershed management, and a One Water approach that integrates wastewater and stormwater collection and treatment.

But it wasn’t always this way. This is the story of how a polluted river, reduced to just a stream, spawned what today has become one of the most innovative water systems in America.

In this article, we’ll dive into key lessons from CWS’ digital transformation, and how it flows from a commitment to watershed restoration.

Necessity breeds innovation


In the late 1960s, Washington County’s water was in crisis. The Tualatin River, the area’s only river, was choked with pollution. Twenty-six treatment plants were discharging contaminated wastewater into area streams, provoking a moratorium on any new development in the region. The viability of the entire region was in question.

In the summer, the river was so small in some places, you could stand across it.

By 1970, the people of Washington County voted two-to-one in favor of creating a regional sewer utility—one of the first in the state. The vote signaled the community’s early commitment to protecting public health and the local environment through clean water.

And now…

Fast forward to today, and Clean Water Services’ CEO Diane Taniguchi-Dennis will tell you that everything the organization does aims to protect public health while enhancing the natural environment of Oregon’s Tualatin River Watershed. 

That means that CWS’ job doesn’t stop at the treatment plant: it includes building salmon habitat, planting a canopy that mitigates evaporation, and offering conservation education.

As organic as it all might sound, these initiatives aren’t driven by intuition. They’re backed by cold, hard data, and a commitment to innovation. 

For Washington Country, there’s no other way: this is about securing a safe water supply for generations to come. 

Digital transformation requires culture change

In an industry historically focused on pipes and pumps, CWS has learned to stop viewing itself as a team of engineers, and instead as 400 water entrepreneurs working together to leverage science and technology through the power of Mother Nature. 

“In my experience, significant sustainable advances in smart water are only possible through culture change,” says Taniguchi-Dennis. “It’s really about a mindset focused on learning, thriving, and growing that drives digital transformation.” 

The defining features of CWS’ culture of innovation include: 

  1. Practicing agility and change readiness.

  2. Becoming less hierarchical and more networked.

  3. Bridging gaps between different subject matter expertise via multidisciplinary project teams.

It’s a commitment that cascades across every level of the organization, but is perhaps best illustrated by the tech team.

Transform IT into a Digital Solutions team

Innovating at the watershed-scale depends on having the right leaders around the table. That’s why CWS has transformed its IT department from a service center into a strategic business partner. 

The Digital Solutions team, led by Dr. Ting Lu, is a confluence of Information Technology (IT), Operations Technology (OT), and Engineering Technology (ET) that supports the organization on everything from permit compliance to optimizing water for the region. 

This team’s impact has been transformative, having introduced:

  • Dashboards to support transparency & decision making throughout the district

  • Real-time controls to optimize storm runoff capacity 

  • Automated vehicle-locator technology, sewer sensors and GIS data integration for data driven operations 

  • Technology to optimize basin planning and risk management

  • Virtual collaboration and learning platforms

  • Open-source, low cost IoT sensor solutions

And they’re not stopping there. 

Dr. Lu shared her vision for the next decade: “We would like to be using smart water and digital twin systems to provide insights and operational and planning decision support to not only our gray infrastructure, but also integrating our green infrastructure, natural systems and the watershed together at scale.”

Start with the basics

Like any good digital strategy, CWS started with the basics: compliance.

In 1991, the organization was targeting an aggressive Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL) target of 0.1 milligrams of phosphorus per liter, which meant they needed to be operating some of the most advanced wastewater treatment facilities of the time. 

The effort was so paramount, it provoked its own sing-song slogan: “Point one in ninety one!

So, when CWS later ran into a thermal compliance issue based on excess ammonia in the water from fisheries, they saw the opportunity to rise above their regulatory duty and take control of their own destiny. 

“We realized that just focusing on the water chemistry or water quality wasn’t going to be enough to really meet the promise that the Clean Water Act brings to us, which is fishable, swimmable, drinkable waters,” says Taniguchi-Dennis. 

Instead of putting chillers at the treatment facility outfalls—where the benefit would have washed away just a few miles downstream—CWS decided to look at the problem holistically across the watershed. The solution? Planting trees and shrubs along the river and its tributaries.

And thanks to innovation at every level—from financing and revegetation to partnerships that tap into new revenue sources—CWS has the resources to do so quickly. Where CWS could previously plant 2 million trees and shrubs in a decade, they can now reach that target in a single year.

“You have to get to a point where regulatory compliance is just one part of an output of what your utility does, but really your purpose, or the outcomes you’re trying to achieve, are so much greater than that,” says Taniguchi-Dennis.

“And that’s really what smart technology is starting to allow us to do. It’s allowing us to really hear what’s going on in the environment.”

The Ultimate Guide to Writing Your Utility’s Digital Playbook

The water industry is awash with tech buzzwords. Digital twin, smart water, biosensors, IoT, artificial intelligence. They all sound great. But for most utilities, these technologies are so far from the present reality that they sound more like a distraction than a realistic goal.

“I’m using a software system that was built in 1991, and you want to talk to me about smart water and biosensors?”

“We don’t have the money or the time to experiment with this right now.”

“We’ve been burned by Cisco before—how do we know this will be different?”

These common frustrations reflect two challenging realities in the world of water today:

  • On one hand, the world of work has changed, and so have the challenges facing the industry. But many utilities are making do with outdated, offline technology, and threadbare budgets.
  • Meanwhile, major technology providers selling data warehousing projects have missed the boat on water. They promised the moon and then failed to deliver. But the costs of those projects are permanently stained on the balance sheet. 

It’s time for a new approach.

You need a systematic way to tackle digital transformation in bite-sized chunks in a way that works for your organization. What you need is a digital playbook

In this guide, we’ll show you how to write your digital strategy and drive buy-in with a step-by-step approach.

Why you need a digital playbook

Future proofing your organization

Change is coming fast and furious. 

About a third of the water workforce will retire in the next few years. Much of the knowledge and processes we rely on are currently trapped in those workers’ desk drawers, corkboards, spreadsheets—or worse, their heads.

Meanwhile, the nature of the work is getting more complex: regulations are more stringent, and weather patterns are less predictable. 

You can’t afford to work with tech that doesn’t work.

Finding the middle ground

Moving closer to the water utility of the future doesn’t involve moving a massive boulder. Instead, it happens brick-by-brick

There is a middle ground between the world of offline spreadsheets and the false promise of enterprise-scale data warehousing. Cloud-based tools can help bring mission-critical data out of Excel and into powerful dashboards, so your organization can act on those insights sooner.

How digital transformation happens

Tying innovation to organizational goals

Digital transformation without North Star goals will just result in more of the same. The key is to ensure your investments are being made with vision and purpose

All utilities share a universal goal: delivering clean and safe water. To do that today, and for generations to come, most utilities are looking to:

  • Curb soaring operational costs
  • Identify new opportunities for revenue capture
  • Engage the community 
  • Deliver excellent customer service

That means that any digital transformation project that’s worth its salt should tackle these challenges in some way or another.

Building blocks of change

There’s a reason that so many tech overhauls have failed: change is hard. And for that same reason, you can’t expect to leap from an Excel spreadsheet to AI-driven decision making overnight. To maximize benefit while minimizing disruption, you’ll need to approach transformation in stages. 

One framework we’ve found useful for thinking about this is the Data, Information, Knowledge, Wisdom (DIKW) Pyramid.

The DIKW Pyramid

The idea here is that you can’t move up the pyramid before laying the foundation—and the bedrock of every good digital strategy is data.


Data is the lifeblood of our connected world, increasingly defining how our industry plans, understands, and executes projects.

If you’re just starting to experiment with digital transformation, removing data from silos and making it more accessible to everyone in your organization—i.e. freeing it from the C-drive or the desk drawer—should be the target.

It’s important to keep in mind as well that more data isn’t necessarily better. It might be that what your organization actually needs most is a data diet, i.e. a sustained effort to become more specific and intentional with the data you do collect.


Of course, data is meaningless without context. 

For example, let’s say you’ve just spent the last few weeks collecting cost data. Without labels—i.e. ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’ and ‘where’ each cost is occurring—that data is just a series of numbers: “$5,876.46,” “$447.64,” “$77.89.”

To make data work for us, we need to ask it questions. And when that happens, data becomes information. It starts to tell us things about our organization that we didn’t know before—like which parts of the business are the most or least expensive to operate.

Knowledge and Wisdom

For that information to become something we can act on, we need to know why and how those things are happening. When we ask those questions, information turns into knowledge and wisdom.

In the water world, this part of the DIKW pyramid is where we’ll be able to use things like artificial intelligence and digital twins to make predictions. But that’s a bit beyond the scope of this guide: we’re focused on utilities that are just starting to grapple with data and how best to start metabolizing it.

The important thing to remember here is that the tools you use to make decisions about your organization—whether management tools, artificial intelligence, etc.—are only as good as the data and information you feed into them.

You can’t jump from “data” to “wisdom” overnight. But by asking the right questions and being intentional with the data collected, you can make steady incremental progress towards that goal.

Steps to drafting your digital roadmap

So far we’ve been talking about digital transformation in a very abstract way. But what does all of this look like in practice?

The reality is that technological transformation is as much a human challenge as it is a technological one. Piloting a new technology is pointless—harmful even—if it leads to discouraging failures that test your team’s patience. 

The solution is to look for incremental wins—changes you can make that won’t take ten years to come to fruition, that address some of the easier to fix or critical problems in your organization, and most importantly, that build trust and confidence in the digital transformation process.

Your roadmap should single out the lowest-hanging fruit and chart a clear path for incremental change.

Step 1: Audit your existing processes

First, scan your organization’s existing processes top to bottom and catalogue what works and what doesn’t. What tools is your team currently using to get the job done, and which tool does each team member use for what purpose? To get the full picture, you may want to do the following:

  • Schedule internal interviews to get a complete map of existing systems, and an honest take on what works and what doesn’t.
  • Compile your findings in a spreadsheet, or somewhere where you can see them all in one place.

Step 2: Prioritize

The whole point of this exercise is to acknowledge that you can’t do everything at once. You need to pick your priorities and find the processes that are crying out the loudest for an overhaul. 

When deciding which goals to start with first, make sure to keep the following in mind:

  • Make sure they’re achievable. In many cases, a realistic goal for the next 1-3 years might simply be to bring data out of silos and start sharing it across your organization.
  • Figure out what you don’t want to change.
  • Identify low-hanging fruit.

Step 3: Align

Once you’ve picked out a reasonable set of goals, it’s time to go back to your team and double check your reasoning against their experiences.

  1. Communicate your vision. As the person responsible for digital change at your utility, it’s up to you to prove that new technology can help them get ahead. 
  2. Listen. Your team needs to come away from this process feeling like they were heard and that they contributed to it. Think WIIFM: what’s in it for me?
  3. Get buy-in. Digital transformation won’t work if everyone has their own unique vision for change and individuals go off and try to do everything on their own. Your team needs to leave this process feeling like this roadmap is also their roadmap.

Executing the Playbook: Procurement

We’ve already mentioned how digital transformation is best handled in small, easy to manage, confidence-boosting chunks, rather than messy system-wide overhauls. 

Incremental change is king, and that applies to procurement and implementation, too.

But if multi-year tech installs aren’t the way to go, what’s the alternative? If you ask us, it’s pilots.

Pilots 101

Pilots have become the new gold standard for tech acquisition within municipal utilities because they’re lower risk, more manageable, and can help drive buy-in among teams that are resistant to sweeping changes.

To run a pilot, you’ll need to define project goals, involve key internal stakeholders, and pick a vendor that meets your specific needs and your budget.

Pilots don’t succeed every time—in fact, many of them won’t. Some utilities set themselves a goal of a 40% success rate for pilots. However high you do set the bar, the point is to not set it too high. 

Keep in mind that many utilities today have dedicated innovation budgets, and smaller scale pilots may run below the RFP thresholds, which makes it easier to get up and running quickly.

Picking a vendor: a checklist

With your game-plan set, the final step is to select vendors to work with.

Just as there is no one single perfect vendor for any one single utility, there is no universal rule for picking a vendor. This checklist, however, comes pretty close:

1. They understand the problem you’re trying to solve A good vendor should focus on your objectives, will spend time listening to your problems, and will demonstrate that they understand your particular needs. A bad vendor will spend more time talking about their specific product’s features, and will leave you feeling like they don’t really “get it.”

2. Selling a tool tailored to your utility’s needs One size does not fit all. Will configuring a tool for your needs end up costing more than the tool itself? When exploring vendors, don’t shy away from asking tough and pointed questions: that will help you determine whether the vendor really knows how to cater to a utility like yours.

3. Has a partnership mindset  Vendor support should be ongoing, not just at the time of install. It should feel like your vendor is on your side, that they’re available to help you when you need it—and not like they’re just trying to hand off responsibility and move on to the next project. 

4. Integrates with parallel systems 

New technology should reduce data silos, not create new ones. If it feels like a particular tool or implementation might be creating more problems than it’s solving, your vendor might not actually understand what your organization needs.

5. Searches for utility-wide benefits Digital initiatives should drive cross-departmental collaboration. Vendors should understand this and should be proactively looking for and suggesting opportunities, rather than just waiting for you to do so.


Although digital transformation represents an exciting opportunity for water utilities, implementing new processes and technologies takes time, money, and one resource that is particularly difficult to get back once you lose it: the trust of your team members. 

Instead of pursuing expensive and demoralizing data warehousing projects, utilities are far better off taking a pragmatic, gradual approach to achieving their smart water goals. Cloud-based solutions tailored to utilities’ needs make this new approach possible.  

With a digital playbook to guide your decisions, you can start driving change right now, not ten years from now.

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