Accepting on Behalf of Team Blue

I was honored to accept the US Water Prize for 2016 on behalf of DC Water at the impressive US Water Alliance meeting in Atlanta. The US Water Alliance has come a long way since Radhika Fox has taken on the helm, and it is the premier effort to drive a one water strategy among the many players in the Water realm. I was honored to be there, in concert with the three founders of the US Water Alliance whom were inducted into the Water Alliance Hall of Fame, and the two parties that also received the US Water Prize – Dow and Emory University.

I have been asked several times since I delivered a short acceptance speech if I had it written down. Unfortunately, I almost never work from a prepared script and almost never remember what I actually say except in summary points. Yet this was a short speech, about 5 minutes – so I think I can capture it. To wit, this is my best recollection of what I said, although I must admit I have embellished it a bit…

Water Prize 4.png

Due to a decision made by President Roosevelt and then confirmed by President Eisenhower, the Washington, DC metropolitan region is served by one huge facility. Both of these Presidents, seasoned by war, wanted to be sure that the treatment facility for a large region was south of Washington, DC. Then, if there were ever a war on our soil, or some sort of attack, the consequence would be horrendous of course, but it would not cause untreated sewage to flow directly through the capital city.

Blue Plains in 1960
Blue Plains in 1960

DC Water’s Blue Plain’s facility is therefore the only water reclamation facility with a service area that crosses not one, but two state boundaries – serving the heavily populated portions of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, Fairfax and Loudon counties in Virginia, and of course the District of Columbia itself. This is a 725 square mile area that flows all the way to its Southern tip.

The practical consequence is that Blue Plains treats a huge amount of wastewater – or as we think of it, enriched water! Every day, day after day, we generated about 60 full size tanker trucks of the solids (mostly carbon and nutrients) we remove from the water. Solids that we don’t want in the Potomac, Rock Creek, Anacostia, or ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay. Once treated to EPA standards, we call this material biosolids. A tanker truck is about the length of this stage – and 60 tanker trucks equals about 1200 wet tons A DAY. Think on that a moment, but not too long, for it is hard to contemplate.

We are aware that many in our industry “digest” these biosolids – because this material is enriched with value. One key value is the BTUs of energy that can be unlocked when the material is eaten by small microbes, which in their digestion process create methane as a byproduct. Methane can be captured, refined, and then burned as fuel. And, the residual digestion solids (those not converted to methane) can come out of the process a carbon and nutrient rich, low odor soil amendment orfertilizer. My gosh, what a fantastic prospect.

Several years of assessment over a decade ago ran into a road block. The little bugs take some time to work through this material – typically about 20 days for each batch of biosolids. Our scientists and engineers were able to figure out the design requirements: so much biosolids, 20 days per batch, 1200 wet tons per day – and the conclusion was a deal breaker. We simply did not have enough space at our constrained urban location at Blue Plains to build enough digesters to handle the huge thru-put. Remember, there is 1200 wet tons of new material being generated EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Many urban reclamation facilities face the same constraint.

Yet rather than be daunted, what seemed like an insurmountable challenge triggered what is best about DC Water and our industry. When confronted with an obstacle, our scientists and engineers get really excited! We are at our best when solving problems: it is in our DNA, it is what we do every day. I could almost feel the excitement of our team. Plus, the issue was now at very high stakes: our old lime stabilization process needed about $150 million in capital upgrades and improvements – creating the prospect of spending substantial funds to lock in our “Class B” biosolids production process at 1,200 tons a day for the next several decades.

By the way, we counted this as a significant potential liability. Biosolids are classed by letters – with A the cleanest, B less so, and so on. Not surprisingly, Class B biosolids are regulated more heavily than Class A by USEPA and any state where we seek to send it – in our case mostly Virginia, but also Maryland. At any moment, the regulations governing Class B biosolids could change, making it harder and more expensive to recycle. So this $150 million dollar investment was going to lock-in our commitment to a Class B process. If regulations became more restrictive for B, our biosolids reuse costs could become astronomical.

So our team engaged in research and investigation worldwide! We turned over every stone, evaluated every new technology – anything that could help us solve a problem of volume, time and space. We found a possible solution in Northern Europe. A glimmer of hope on the horizon called CAMBI.


What is CAMBI? To me, CAMBI is a process that is based on the old notion of a pressure cooker. My Mom used a pressure cooker to tenderize meats. The high heat and pressure helps break down the cells of the meat. Remarkably, this common kitchen process works for biosolids too – in a process technically called thermal hydrolysis. In short, the biosolids are processed into a consistent material, heated up and “cooked” in vessels at high temperature and pressure, and then flashed into tanks where the pressure suddenly drops.

DSC_0074Three results were key to us. First, the high heat in the reactor tanks (160o C) sterilizes the material – destroying the pathogens. Second, the sudden drop in pressure from the reactor (90 psi) to the flash tank (atmospheric pressure – 14 psi) bursts the cell walls of the biosolids, making it much easier to pump and mix. The result of this action is that we can feed our digesters at twice the normal percent solids, meaning we need only half the digester volume as conventional practices. The choice to implement CAMBI allowed us to intensify the process and build the capacity we needed on our limited footprint. Third, when the solids hydrolize and the cells burst, we make a more tender and available food for the hungry microbes in the digesters, whose job it is to convert that organic matter into methane. As a result of this very available food, the digesters generate more methane faster than conventional digestion. A win, win, win scenario!

Victory! With CAMBI, we would reduce the volume of our biosolids and make it easier for the microbes to do their magical work. We could fit the needed digesters, create a sterilized, super clean biosolid, generate significant clean, on-site power, eliminate the risk of future liability and increasing biosolids reuse costs – and have a solution for the next century.

Water PrizeI am here today accepting the US Water Prize because nearly ten years later we have built the largest CAMBI digester system in the world, and the first in North America. We have invested $470 million of ratepayer money to generate power, clean biosolids, reduce risk and reduce our carbon footprint. And I can report that it is working better than we expected. The Bailey Bioenergy Facility is the reason I stand before you accepting the 2016 US Water Prize.

The bountiful table that is DC Water, and that is the foundation for this accomplishment and so many others, is founded on four reinforced legs. Each leg is critical on its own, yet only succeeds in concert with the other three.

First, I want to thank our Board of Directors. Leadership for DC Water rests first and foremost with our Board, which sets the tone for the enterprise by overseeing the process on budgets and rates, reviewing all major procurement contracts and the procedures we use to select them, and then reviewing the substance of those procurements to ensure performance. The Board was deeply involved in this process that lead up to the Bailey facility, hosting dozens of meetings over almost a decade to review in detail the technical and financial aspects of the program. The Board asked probing questions, highlighted potential risks and rewards, sent us back to the drawing board several times, was both open and supportive of new ideas, but also cautious and skeptical of any claims not fully supported by theory, research and some tried and true practical experience.

Ultimately, though, after engaging in comprehensive oversight, the Board demonstrated the courage to approve a $470 million investment in this technology – new to North America and built nowhere at our planned scale. And approving the investment has only been a step on their path, with continued oversight and focus on an almost monthly basis since. DC Water’s strength starts with our Board, and I am humbled by, and salute, their commitment, depth of effort, and ultimately, their leadership and courage.

Second, I want to thank our staff. As I have written, our profession is at its best when confronted with what seems like an insurmountable problem. Although we are risk averse, because we must not be wrong with both public health at risk and with budgets that have little margins for error – that does not mean we are not creative problem-solvers. Every single day we are solving problems that are constantly changing, impressively complicated – and doing so with constrained budgets, tight time frames, and a demanding public.

And just like we do on so many of the challenges we confront every day, our team rose to the challenge in this case – from Walt Bailey, Len Benson, Sudhir Murthy, Chris Peot, Aklile Tesfaye and Salil Kharkar, to our finance team, customer service team, research office – everyone at DC Water had to step up and be part of the solution. Dozens of technologies were assessed. Dozens of scientific studies and peer-reviewed papers were written. Dozens of financial models were reviewed.

Moreover, this work was undertaken over many years – demonstrating a strength of purpose that was breathtaking to watch. And it continues, as we gear up with new staff to operate and maintain the system for decades in the future – long after the luster of a new process has worn off and attention moved elsewhere. I am humbled to work aside this team and consider myself blessed to be part of what I call the “Super Bowl” team of water. I am inspired by Team Blue every day.

Third, I want to thank the people we serve – arguable the most important group. Without the support of the people we serve, our ratepayers, none of this work would be possible. We are very conscious that everything we do is supported by ratepayer funds, and that only their willingness to support us through their bill each month enables everything else. Although no one likes higher rates, I am encouraged by the excitement and interest I have heard from our ratepayers as I have toured the city each year. We are our ratepayers, and our ratepayers are us. We owe them everything, and work hard to earn their trust and support.

Finally, I want to thank the fourth leg of that stool – which is exemplified by the people here in the room celebrating with us. I joined the water utility world 7 years ago and have been on a wonderful rocket ship ride of learning ever since. I am impressed and personally grateful at how open and forthcoming my colleagues have been during that entire period with advice, ideas and support – hard-won by so many over so many years of service. I have never been around a more dedicated group of public servants and am astonished and touched by the mutual support we provide each other. There is no doubt we are better every day from what we learn from our compatriots in this industry, and I hope we offer the same in return. In many respects, this award reflects the strength of all of us, not just DC Water.

Certainly in this case, I want to thank our partners in the university and private sectors. Rarely do we every accomplish anything on our own. We work best when we partner with Universities to gain the best of young minds to focus research on challenges we need to overcome. We work best when we partner with private companies that can bring knowledge and experience from places worldwide to our operations here. In this case, we have been blessed to work side-by-side with some of the finest in both categories, including Virginia Tech and Bucknell University and Thames Water across the pond in the United Kingdom. We have built the system using a combination of procurement approaches, including Design-Build (thermal hydrolysis and anaerobic digestion), Design-Build-Operate (combined heat and power plant.). I want to highlight the excellent work of Brown and Caldwell, CDM Smith and PC Construction, and Pepco Energy Services. Of course we worked closely with the Norwegian-based CAMBI as well.  Many other firms contributed along the way including CH2M on design; Hawkins, Delafield and Wood LLP as special counsel on the contracts; our project delivery consultant Capital Project Strategies; and Arcadis with construction management.

I would be remise if I didn’t also mention our very fruitful collaboration with US EPA’s Office of Research and Development – especially Dr. Jim Smith and Mr. Mark Meckes. Their invaluable assistance helped us develop desirable biosolids product characteristics. Thank you all for bringing such knowledge and experience to our ratepayers here in Washington, D.C. We have some important customers, so I am delighted that we have so many folks helping us perform at our best.

On behalf of all the good people who have supported us over the years, who have helped us achieve this accomplishment and many others, I offer our humble gratitude. I am reminded that when the Good Lord, however each of us perceives that entity, breathed life into our nostrils, she did not bless us to do small things. She gave us great skills and dreams, and the capability to serve in great ways, to grasp for what is best in us. I am so honored and pleased to work with folks who were able to achieve that grasp of great service and accomplishment, and look forward to all that will come next.

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *