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Podcast: Utility Operations & COVID-19 with Todd Danielson, Avon Lake Regional Water

Posted on April 17, 2020


Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson
Chief Utilities Executive
Avon Lake Regional Water
Bio | LinkedIn | Twitter


Providing water and wastewater during a pandemic. Todd Danielson, Chief Utilities Executive of Avon Lake Regional Water, joined the podcast to talk about how COVID-19 is impacting utility operations. He shared how they have changed shift schedules to protect staff and adjusted their billing to aid customers. Todd also talked about working with the Ohio EPA and how they have adjusted their planned capital projects.

Host: Ben Kittelson

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Learn More

Avon Lake Regional Water COVID-19 Response

Avon Lake Board of Municipal Utilities Recap: March 17, 2020

Avon Lake moves forward on sewer separation deadlines

The Value of Water, More than a Metric – Water in Real Life interview with Todd Danielson

Waterline replacements begin in Avon Lake

Coronavirus & Water: Immediate Action Required to Improve Resiliency Now & in the Future

Rewind: Water Systems & COVID-19 Webinar


Episode Transcript

Ben Kittelson

Hey y’all. This is GovLove, a podcast about local government brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. I’m Ben Kittelson, a consultant at the Novak Consulting Group and GovLove co-host. For today’s episode, we’re continuing our coverage of how local governments are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. And today we’re talking about the impact the pandemic is having on utilities and essential Public Works operations. Before we get to the episode, I just want to remind our GovLove audience that our annual ELGL conference for 2020 has been postponed. It’s going to be October 14th through 16th in Portland, Oregon. And as a reminder, if you want to support GovLove, the best way to do that is to become an ELGL member. ELGL is a professional association engaging the brightest minds in local government. And GovLove is still looking for your feedback. You can visit Govlovesurvey.com and tell us a little about what you think about GovLove. Knowing more about you helps us make GovLove better. That’s Govlovesurvey.com. Now let me introduce today’s guest. Todd Danielson is the Chief Utilities Executive for Avon Lake Regional Water in Ohio. He’s been in that position since 2010. And prior to that served as Manager of Community Systems for Loudon Water in Virginia for about 10 years. Todd has a master’s degrees in both environmental engineering and public administration. So, Todd, welcome to GovLove. Thank you so much for joining us.

 

Todd Danielson

It’s great to be here. Thanks, Ben.

 

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. And so we’re gonna dive in into the, you know, water world and how kind of your operations have been impacted by the pandemic. But we have a tradition on GovLove to do a lightning round to get to know our guest a little better. So I’ve got a couple of hopefully more lighthearted questions for you. So my first one, what book are you currently reading?

 

Todd Danielson

Well, so I know most people probably get these deep you know, great leadership books or something like that. But, but the books I’m reading right now, are primarily kids books. I’ve got three kids but my youngest is seven and he and I are reading the Magic Treehouse series, which is pretty cool. It’s, you know, it’s got action and adventure like kids want to, want to hear. But it’s also got some historical lessons to teach them. And without them even really realizing it. So we’re learning about the Titanic right now.

 

Ben Kittelson

Nice. I loved the treehouse books as a kid. So that gets my strong cosign.

 

Todd Danielson

[Laughter] Great.

 

Ben Kittelson

All right. Are you watching or binging any TV right now?

 

Todd Danielson

You know, I don’t get a chance to watch a lot of TV especially since I do have those three kids. But what I am watching when I can, is are some of the news conferences that are going on. I’m not a professional communicator, but I have an appreciation of communications. And that being the case, you know, different leaders in the world right now are definitely approaching things differently. And some of them, I think, have have a great communication style and it’s very impactful. So I’m appreciating that.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. This is an interesting time to be, you can learn a ton about communication styles right now. Yeah. So I have to give a little context for this next one. I’ve gone from zero puzzles in my household to we now have 3000 piece puzzles. And I think my wife has ordered a couple more, because this is a new habit that has emerged. Have you stocked up on anything as part of your pandemic preparation?

 

Todd Danielson

[Laughter] And it’s so strange, you know, and especially as you keep going out, you know, obviously, none of us want to go out too often. But the biggest thing that we’re going out for right now, only one of us is food. And I think you know, this pandemic has has changed our world completely. And it’s going to be very interesting to see how things remain changed. But our stock up is food, and not just of course, just to be safe, but also we’re having a chance to actually eat dinner together as a family. Like, or even sometimes have breakfasts and lunches together. So whether it’s, you know, a long dinner that takes a little bit longer to make, or a special dessert or something like that, hey, we just had apple crisp the other night and that’s something we don’t get too often. So that’s what we’re doing right now.

 

Ben Kittelson

Awesome, awesome. And my last lightning round question for you, where do you go for inspiration?

 

Todd Danielson

Well being, you know, in the water sector, you know, I definitely have an environmental slant to me and, and so where do I go for innovation is out in nature. You know, usually like in the woods or near water, somehow near water, whether it’s a stream or I live right here in Lake Erie, so that water especially it’s kind of rejuvenating, and also calming at the same time.

 

Ben Kittelson

Awesome, awesome. Well, that is it. That’s a great answer to transition to a kind of the bulk of our conversation. Before I ask some more like operational questions, can you give a little background to our listeners on your organization, kind of where we’re having like regional water is and kind of the scale of your organization?

 

Todd Danielson

Sure, sure. So yeah, anyone like we’re a sub suburb of Cleveland, Ohio. We’re on the west side. We’re right on Lake Erie. We have about 24,000 people here in, in our city. And our organization provides not only retail water and wastewater service to the city itself, but we also provide wholesale services, water services, to seven other jurisdictions in the west side of Cleveland. So that’s about 200,000 people total receive the water that we produce from Lake Erie and then we have some contract services on the wastewater side, so that we are treating wastewater from outside of the city. And then one of the other things I think, that you know, is important here for for a local government perspective, is we are governed by an independently elected board of municipal utilities, even though we’re a component of the City of Avon Lake, our board is exclusively looking at utility related issues. Now, let me add one last thing. Because of that, you know, they they definitely allow us, they give us that latitude, you know, to do the to get a job done. And you know, what is the job, of course, I said that right now and and always, is providing safe and reliable water and wastewater services 24/7/365.

 

Ben Kittelson

So, are you so y’all are a special district?

 

Todd Danielson

Not really, or no, I should say. So, our, our charter, our city’s charter, established a board of municipal utilities. So we really are part of the city, but that board is responsible for overseeing us and approving our budget and, and, you know, making sure that we are, are operating appropriately. So, in our budget itself, as approved by the board that folds into the city’s budget, and the city doesn’t touch it, but it folds into the city’s budget. So it’s a, it’s a different relationship. There are only two of us this way here in the state of Ohio, two of us that I know about, but essentially, it gives much more of an arm’s length. And it really, you know, helps to assure that we operate as a true enterprise fund, and are not, you know, biased by other aspects of city government.

 

Ben Kittelson

Interesting. Well, I appreciate that little tangent into your, into your structure. So kind of, I think it’s been helpful as this I’ve had a couple of these, done a couple of these interviews now to kind of go back in time a little bit. So at the beginning of March when maybe COVID was less of a an active threat and maybe there was more time to prepare, what were you all doing, even like, as you’re monitoring COVID-19? What are you guys doing to prepare?

 

Todd Danielson

Well, that’s a great question. And and always, you know, looking back, you know, at things are an important thing. And, and I guess I want to start by saying, you know, by and large, waterwaste water utilities, I mean, we have historically done such a good job at what we do that people don’t even think twice about us, you know, so they don’t realize, you know, what it takes to turn on the tap or to flush the toilet and the wastewater to go away. So, you know, because of that, you know, there there’s this underlying public trust that people don’t even understand is there. And, and we definitely, you know, especially in the face of this pandemic, don’t want to hurt that public trust. So how do we approach this? Yes, I mean, we have an emergency response plan, just like everybody in the utility sector. However, I don’t think too many of us in in the utility sector don’t think those emergency response plans really covered a pandemic, I mean, covered it not only when, when, you know, your staff might not be able to get in but others staff can’t get in. So we can’t really help each other, you know, this whole social distance thing is really, you know, taxing, you know, the thoughts of what our Emergency Response Plan used to be. So, so, yes, we were first dealing with, you know, continuity of operations. How do we reduce exposure between people? Then, you know, after that you know working through just the that side, then how do you do teleworking? I mean, because has as a utility, you know, we expected our staff to be here. I mean, we’re all essential operations. So it’s definitely different to have essential operations working remotely, but that’s, we’ve worked through that. And then, you know, following that, and of course, now it’s looking at supply chains and inventories. And do we have all of the all of the what we need to get through and then if we don’t, will we be able to continue that because I mean, think about chemicals for our water and wastewater plants, we can’t store enough on site, you know, to get through everything. You know, we hopefully you weren’t we try to have a 30 day supply but, you know, with the way this virus is going forward 30 days isn’t even enough. So, you know, after we work through all those types of things, then as we’re really working on that whole social distancing and continuity of operations, what do we need to maintain, you know, what do we need to keep doing? Like of course, ensuring clean safe water keeps flowing to our customers. And that the wastewater is always flowing away from those customers. And what can we place on hold what, you know, if we are going to have fewer people here, you know, in the office, or we want to kind of reduce that risk, you know, what are the things that that we can just postpone for a little while? Then finally, you know, as we work through all of that, then it’s, uh, you know, I told you before, I’m kind of a, an appreciator of communications. So, so we do have communications people and, and that was one of the things we were really making sure that we were working on is, you know, talking internally and then reaching externally, you know, to make sure that our customers, you know, reassure them, you know, that that we put the plans in place that the water is going to stay safe. And, and that they, you know, they don’t have to think twice about that because they’ve got a lot of other things to be thinking about right now.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. Kind of when you’re in that planning phase, I think what’s been so interesting and interesting in a like, academic way, not in a, like recognizing that this is horrifying for a lot of organizations, a lot of cities, but like preparing for this kind of emergency, like wasn’t in a lot of people’s plans. Like, I would imagine you guys probably had, you know, a ton of preparation for winter storm or utilities down here in the south. Like hurricanes as you know, that’s their bread and butter. They got to figure out how to operate you know, when something like that is coming. But pandemics I imagine, you know, aren’t on the radar. And so like, where do you go to find, you know, this is the continuing of operations plan for a pandemic. Is that you just kind of muddle through and figure out what’s best, or is there a model out there that y’all that y’all were able to, you know, fall back on?

 

Todd Danielson

Well, one of the things that we are specifically doing, you know, here in Ohio, and I’m sure this is the same all across the country is utility leaders, we’re regularly talking with each other. We’ve got emails, texts, phone calls, all going on, to say, Hey, you know, here’s what we’re considering, how are you dealing with it? Or, you know, how are you know, what’s going on with this or whatever, and we even need to give credit and obviously, each state is approaching this differently. And I’m very impressed with how the state of Ohio is doing it. You know, whether it’s the Governor and the Health Directors, you know, daily press briefings, or how all that stuff is working down through. And what I want to say is that Ohio EPA, the division of drinking groundwater, who oversees the drinking water side of things, we are having weekly phone calls with the, you know, the the top level people at, at Ohio EPA, along with a number of utility leaders to interact and make sure that we, we, you know, are collaboratively working on this together to make sure that, you know, the water keeps flowing. And also, that, that Ohio EPA is is, is making sure that that the most important things are what we’re caring about right now. So this has been, I think, a great experience for all of us to learn to work more closely together. Even though we’re socially distant.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. It’s like you’re you’re relying on your network and this this this all the other utilities in next state to kind of find your way through it. That’s, that’s a great. So kind of going into more of the operations, so how have you know, since the pandemic is here and upon us and the social distancing is, you know, what everyone is and should be doing, well, how has your operations changed kind of on a day to day basis?

 

Todd Danielson

Sure. And, and it’s really weird to think that, you know, our last day of the old normal of operations was just less than a month ago. You know, March 13, was our last day of the old normal. And, and yeah, I mean, you just use the word social distancing, you know, the words flattening the curve, all these new terms that are out there, you know, and, and, and we’re definitely trying to do our part. I mean, we closed our office to customers. We stopped our in person meetings. Just earlier this week, we had our first virtual board meeting. So, you know, I mean, it’s a public meeting. So and, you know, public meetings have to be open to the public. But what the, what the Ohio State Legislature has done, which I’m sure others have done across the country is they’re allowing us to do, you know, a meeting like a zoom type of meeting, so long as it’s live streamed, and that there’s a way that the public can, you know, can have a public comment. And we did that for the first time. So we’re trying to do all those types of things. Almost all of our office staff are working from home. We do have a skeleton customer service staff that’s coming in to answer phones, respond to voice mails, things like that. And then one of the things that’s really important to us as we always have, you know, some leadership at the office during the normal business hours, so, my Chief of Operations and me you know, we we flip flop, you know, either he’s in the office or I’m in the office. Same thing at our water plant, our wastewater plant, either the manager or you know, his his first in command. So we’ve got, you know, leadership there all the time, you know, to either help answer the questions or to to at least you know be you know, show that we’re all part of this because it’s like, like you said before this is a team event. You know, in addition to that we have you know, we because we are so much of us are more remote, we’re having multiple leadership meetings per week, you know, zoom style meetings. Switched our operations are you know, because our our two plants, our water and wastewater plants, are 24/7 operations, we’ve switched from eight hour shifts to 12 hour shifts for operators, and implemented A and B teams for either our field crews, our lab, our maintenance staff, you know, all in that whole aspect of trying to reduce the potential number of people that could be together at any one time. And we’ll continue to modify our schedules as appropriate, you know, to best prepare and respond to things like billing, we’ll talk more I’m sure about that. But, you know, we’ve we’ve changed our billing cycles and other things. But we want to make sure that we are fluid, we’re always changing to either respond to the pandemic or to what’s at hand right now.

 

Ben Kittelson

Well, I’ve heard some utilities and other like operations departments in local government, like going to, like half crew so you always have a crew in reserve in case the whole team is infected or exposed. Is that something that you guys have done?

 

Todd Danielson

Yeah, yeah. So what what we have done, especially our distribution and collection, lab, even maintenance people we are doing that type of thing. Now, we’re, you know, some of them are doing it for weeks on end, you know, with with this whole 14 day, up to 14 day gestation period, and, and whatever else, you know, some are doing the long term ones. We’re doing it on a little bit of a shorter cycle. But, but we are maintaining that isolation so that the A team and the B team don’t see each other. The way we’re we do it here, for instance, our field crews, one crew works Monday through Wednesday, the other crew works Thursday and Friday, then the next Monday through Wednesday. And then the first team comes back on Thursday and Friday. So, you know, over a two week period, you know, they’re here in the office for five days, and they’re, they’re home for five days. So that’s the way we’re trying to do it. And yeah, it’s it’s some of those, you know, we don’t want to keep this up for the long run. But it is going to get us through because we we definitely do not want to lose many, if any, hopefully, people to the virus.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Well, kind of administratively, if you’ve got, you know, crews coming in five days over a two week span and probably instead of, you know, I’d imagine 10, what are they doing on their off days. Is that like, hey, PTO or training and development time? Is it we were kind of just for now, for safety reasons we’re just gonna pay you to be at home or what is the kind of, I guess I’m curious about the administration and the management aspect of reducing the amount of time these people are coming in.

 

Todd Danielson

Yeah. And Ben, you know, that is a definitely a fluid situation. And what I mean by that is, is at first it was get them home, get away from here, you know, make sure that we are, are keeping, you know, keeping people apart. But then, and it’s different people are doing different things, you know, for instance, maintenance crews. One of the things that we just did recently, you know, within the last few years, we finished up a major rehabilitation project at our water reclamation facility, so that, you know, our wastewater treatment plant and so we’re in the midst of of kind of implementing a SCADA system there and a variety of other things. So, so certain things like you know, documentation and, and a variety of other things. You know we are, some of our staff are doing things like that. Or, you know, being called and being asked questions about, hey, how about this or that or something else and, and so they’re responding remotely or, or the, you know, the FaceTime type of stuff. So that’s some of it. You know, we are trying to get some of the training in, but we haven’t, you know, we are a small organization, we only have about 40 people here. So, we don’t have a big IT department or HR department or other things like that, that would allow us to set those things up, where we can easily have those staff doing things. But really, you know, I think most of our staff, you know, are able to, to get some things accomplished from home. You know, whether, whether it’s, you know, their remote, you know, coming into their computers you know, checking the voicemails and responding to voicemails obviously depends on different people, you know, people are doing AutoCAD, you know, design work from home and, and some of our GIS work and other things like that. So, we’re getting a lot done. Definitely not as much as if all of us were in the office. But on the other hand, there are fewer distractions right now, for those of us that are at home, so…

 

Ben Kittelson

Unless you got three kids.

 

Todd Danielson

[Laughter] Yep. Yeah, that’s the hard part. But, you know, this is one of those things where, what are we doing? We, we hopefully have to trust our, our employees and our, you know, our, we trust our staff members to, to make sure that they are giving us you know, fair work, you know, in this time while we try to help, you know, keep them safe.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Is there any work that like, I don’t know if it’s scheduled maintenance or, or maybe, you know, regular lab testing that normally you’d be doing or but you kind of scaled back on right now?

 

Todd Danielson

Yeah, definitely. And that’s, you know, when I went back and when I was telling you earlier, what do we have to do? What can we postpone? We are, we’re not doing as much preventative maintenance as we want to do, which, you know, that could eventually come back and bite us and we sure hope it doesn’t. And that’s kind of part of what’s what matters with respect to always changing things, you know, making sure that that we we keep that in mind. So yeah, we have held off on on some of the preventive maintenance. And I was telling you about, you know, regularly talking with Ohio EPA. Ohio EPA is doing some of those things of okay, what samples do you have to collect? What are critical and what aren’t as critical? For instance, fluoride samples you know, you’ve got it, you’ve got to take your fluoride, you know, going into your distribution system. But if you take them out in the in the in the distribution system, those those don’t need to be taken right now, or lead and copper samples have to be taken. But we’re talking right now about, you know, we’re on Lake Erie and you know, the whole harmful Algal Bloom season is starting to come up. Well, maybe we don’t have to take quite as many of those samples. You know, so we’re, we’re trying to work through that with Ohio EPA. They want to be smart about this and not just rule blind. So they’re trying to see what has, what has flexibility in their rules and what doesn’t. So we really appreciate that, you know, that, that that working relationship we have with Ohio EPA.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, that’s a really good point, because there may be stuff that you think could probably wait that they might disagree with and vice versa.

 

Todd Danielson

Right.

 

Ben Kittelson

And then I know you mentioned chemicals kind of at the beginning of our conversation but are there like any supplies to the utility is kind of your you are trying to order and like make sure you have on hand but like your, your that you’re trying to moderate the use of to make sure you can make it through this this time?

 

Todd Danielson

Well, yeah, I mean, you know, as I think all of us who you know, did our Costco runs and, and other grocery store runs and it’ll can’t find toilet paper out there. Which is kind of crazy. But, you know, the, the disinfectants and you know, hand sanitizers that we were having one of our leadership meetings yesterday, and my my Chief of Operations was saying that he’s working through the process with our Amazon business account, to make sure that we’re registered appropriately, to be able to continue to purchase essential items like gloves or respirators, you know, face masks or things like you know, what’s hard to get right now is hand sanitizer. You know, he was just saying, hey, I’ve got the I’ve got the angle on being able to a case, a quart size case of hand sanitizer, and it’s only this and and the price that he said is like, wow, that sounds really expensive. But he said well, yeah, but if you go through the numbers, it’s not that bad. I’m like, okay, well, I guess we got to do it because we want to, we definitely want to do our part to to prevent the transmission and to make sure that we are keeping the water flowing.

 

Ben Kittelson

And one thing we’ve tried to do at ELGL, I mean, I think the concept of fatberg’s is one of the most interesting things that I’ve learned about in the last few years. But we’ve tried to raise some awareness at ELGL around things that are not flushable and flushing wipes is you know, I think it seems like has been on a little bit of a rise with people struggling to find toilet paper. Have you guys had any issues with that with folks, your residents, flushing things that maybe shouldn’t be flushed?

 

Todd Danielson

Yeah, that is definitely an issue and just yesterday my wife had just left Costco, couldn’t get toilet paper again. Luckily we had some before the whole, before all this happened but she said yeah, she’s talking to the Costco employees and people are are buying paper towels and napkins and wipes and all these things, you know, instead of the toilet paper they can’t find and she called me. I said thank you for calling me because we’re, we’re going to be getting that out again on our Facebook page. But yes, we have we have seen an uptick primarily in people’s laterals getting clogged. So yeah, I mean, it eventually will flow into our system but but I think our what we have done is we’ve we have put a couple times out on our Facebook page Hey, please don’t flush these wipes and, and all the other things that the paper towels, the Kleenex, all of it. You know so the three P’s that’s what what are important to flush, you know pee, poop and paper, toilet paper that is. So yeah, nobody wants to have to have have sewage coming back up into their basement because they’ve clogged their lateral. So, and it is amazing. And you’ve probably seen it too, you know, on NBC News or the LA Times or The New York Times or all these all these major, you know, media outlets are putting those pieces out there working with, you know, the DC waters and other big utilities of the world and getting this news out there. Hey, please don’t do that. And I think there is much more sensitivity about that right now. Now, when they run out of toilet paper, they still might not listen as much, but at least they’ve been warned. So they know what their risks are.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. It does seem like there’s been great coverage of it. And there was not, it was not a big story before for sure. And I’m curious, as kind of a utility that you know, it’s an enterprise fund. You need to have payments coming in the door. How have your, you know, utility payments, that kind of operation, how’s that that changed in light of the pandemic, and what kind of, you know, adjustments have you made for that?

 

Todd Danielson

Sure. And you are definitely correct, Ben in that. I mean, we definitely realize that this is not just a health issue. This is an economic issue. I mean, it’s hurting us all in so many different ways. Now, we hear, you know, I’m lucky that I’ve, you know, I’ve got a job, you know, and obviously, it’s an essential service. So I’m going to be continuing to work. But what we have done as an organization, is we, we first, we only bill quarterly, which is, you know, seemed like a great thing. But it is a bigger bill. It’s three times the bill. But so our bill, our first bill was supposed to go out March 31, which of course was right in the midst of the first couple of weeks of Ohio’s, stay at home order. So we did postpone that billing, because people were just, you know, kind of getting used to that idea of thing at home and all these other things. We didn’t want to throw that on top of it. So we did postpone it for, you know, eight or nine days, we were sending it out on April 8. And then instead of the typical three week turnaround from when the bills go out to when they’re due, we’re giving them until June 1st. So that is still before our next billing cycle. But we’re still we’re giving some extra time because you and me and everybody else, our credit card bills are huge right now because we stocked up on everything. But you know, in addition to that, we are offering payment plans for people because you know, they might not be able to pay that entire bill. We’ve we’re also absorbing credit card processing fees, typically that our customers pay that but we’re offering to absorb those for the rest of the year to give our customers more ways to pay and, you know, being able to pay online, you know, away from here and things like that, which is a little bit easier. So we’re trying to do a lot of those different things to try to help, help our customers. Obviously, this is you know, water and wastewater services are essential. They’ve got to have it. You know, we we did postpone any any suspension of service for non payment, then, of course, the state did put that as a requirement anyway. But we were hoping that our customers understand that, please keep paying because your bill is going to keep adding up and we don’t want to have to shut you off immediately after this.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah, yeah. Six months from now or whatever. That’s not that’s not fun. Yeah. Well, I’ve noticed that that that was like a lot of cities did that. Shortly after the pandemic emergency declaration was like, hey, we’re not doing shut offs. Like, we know water is, water is important. So that that’s been kind of a an interesting trend across the country. So what concerns have you heard from your front line staff, your operators, that, you know, they’re the ones that are continuing that, they’re going to have to continue leaving their house to make sure you know, that water is flowing and the water reclamation facility is still operating. Have you what kind of concerns have you heard from them, as they, you know, are continue to going into work week after week?

 

Todd Danielson

Sure. And, you know, that’s, that’s a great question. And and I think you you can definitely apply that to a lot of different places, whether it’s to Walmart or to us. But as kind of a mid size, almost like neighborhood utility, you know, we we are in the whole mindset of neighbors helping neighbors. And, and a lot of us, you know, we got into this type of world because we’re service oriented, we want to make a difference. Yeah, some of our staff, especially those with family members, who are more sensitive to illness, have expressed some concerns. However, most have really seen the lengths to which we have gone to try to limit the chances of them getting sick and they’re comfortable. Some of those who are not, you know, they they decided to take some time off take some vacation and we’re not holding that against them. Obviously we’re each in or each in our own situation and and I think overall, you know, we’re we’re responding appropriately and and you know definitely we’re we’re thanking our staff for the for the work that they’re doing because this is this is something that let’s hope that this never happens again but but we we are very appreciative for for our staff to help make that water flow 24/7.

 

Ben Kittelson

So, in doing kind of a little research on you before this interview, I read that y’all have an initiative around separating combined sewer lines, which for maybe our listeners that are not as you know, nerdy into the wastewater world, means separating stormwater from sanitary sewer. Did I get that right? [Laughter]

 

Todd Danielson

Yeah, yeah.

 

Ben Kittelson

And so and then in January, you also launched a project to replace some old water lines. So I’m curious, just because I know from working with the water department when I was at the City of Durham, like, water utilities tend to have very regimented and very, you know, structured and engineered out plans for their capital investment. And I wonder what kind of an what’s happening with that stuff right now and when what and, you know, any interruption in that, in accomplishing those plans and that work might do to kind of your, your capital planning going forward?

 

Todd Danielson

Sure. Yeah, definitely important questions. And, you know, you have to kind of go back and think. Well, actually, before I say that, you may have mentioned the sewer separations. So yes, a combined sewer system. Essentially, depending on where you are in the country, there could be two, three or four pipes underground. There’s the drinking pipe, you know, so the fresh water coming to your house. There might be, you know, in a perfect world, there would be a wastewater pipe that comes back to the treatment plant. There would be a storm water pipe that goes to wherever the storm water is going to eventually be discharged. And then in some places, there might be another pipe, a reclaimed water pipe, for other, you know, water purposes. Now, we don’t have a reclaimed water pipe here. But many parts of the country you know, older cities only had two pipes underground. They had the drinking pipe, and then they had a combined wastewater and stormwater pipe. And you know, when when too much water would come into that pipe, it would go directly out to the environment, rather than getting anything treated. So we just finished separating those pipes at the end of last year. So now we have three pipes underground here in Avon Lake you know, the drinking pipe, the wastewater pipe, the storm pipe, and that has been huge, especially as we’re talking about the chances for basement backups and all these other things. That has really helped reduce issues that could have happened in the house. We are really glad that, that had been completed before this, you know, before this all started. But then, you know, kind of moving on, you know, into construction going on right now, yeah, we did have some waterline work going. And when the governor’s stay at home order came out, we did pause it for about a week. And then we decided, well, we really do need to keep it going. You know, after after we had had some time to think about it, maybe some of our customers had some time to kind of get at home and kind of relax a little bit. And then we told them, yep, are those those construction projects are starting up again. Because, you know, why are we replacing water lines? Well, because they break, you know, the old lines have been breaking. So we’re replacing those lines. And especially as we were just talking earlier, you know, the provision of water, having the water flowing to your house is hugely important, not just for the you know, the the hydration purposes. But also for the hygiene purposes right now. So we believe that it is important to keep those construction projects going to reduce the chances of, of any, you know, waterline breakage. So those projects are proceeding. Now, there are a couple of other projects that we were just putting out to bid, that were not those critical, you know, health and welfare, and we want to keep the water flowing projects, but they were a little bit more strategic projects, those we’ve put on hold for the time being, to and we intend to bid those probably as as hopefully as the emergency passes, but at least as the stay at home order passes. Because, you know, some of those projects as you have a request for bids out there, you’re going to have, you know, on site meetings about what is this project about and things like that, and we don’t want to have this group of who knows how many people coming to either of our either our water plant or our wastewater plant to, to, you know, see the project, ask the questions and things like that. So those projects are put on hold for the time being.

 

Ben Kittelson

And how long or I’m just curious for the, the one thing you put on hold that, like, you know, are in that plan. Like how long do you think you’ll postpone them or delay them until it’s like, alright, even if, you know, we have to address some of the way this gets done and in a social distancing world or whatever, like, we have to move forward on this in order to like, kind of stick with our like, you know, 10 year, 5 year, 20 year plan as, or is it something that’s literally like, hey, we might take this up next year, it’s really not that big of an impact.

 

Todd Danielson

And specifically, I mean, our, these two projects that we’re doing are a little bit more unique. And, you know, one of them that was literally actually it hadn’t just gone out to bid 17th or 19th of March, something like that. And then we pulled it, we pulled it off, you know and we’re going to hold on, that’s one of those ones that that our water plant. We didn’t want to have people out there, you know, for meetings and stuff like that. So we can make that one wait a little bit of time and we’d still like to get it done this year. It’s a small project, it’s only a couple hundred thousand dollar project. So, yeah, I think you know, that one will probably wait and hopefully we’ll do it this fall. Because it’s, you know, three or four weeks worth of on site work. One on our wastewater plant or water reclamation facility, that project had been a part of a negotiation with Ohio EPA, and it’s supposed to be done by the end of this year. So, right now we are we are playing that one, you know, kind of a fine line on that one. And we we hope to still get that thing out out for bid, probably in May. So in only a month or so from now because you know we need to get that thing completed. I mean, at this point, Ohio EPA, I’m sure will be flexible if we need them to be flexible, but, but we still would like to adhere to requirements if at all possible.

 

Ben Kittelson

Cool. Awesome. Well, I appreciate that tangent into your, into your capital world. Hopefully I didn’t bore too many listeners with that. [Laughter] So what I’m curious kind of as we sort of finish this part of our conversation, is there a challenge or an issue that’s come up that has surprised doing all this?

 

Todd Danielson

Yeah, I think people, the whole people side of things, I think has surprised me a little bit. You know, I, I am a classic. You know, I’m an engineer. I consider myself a recovering engineer. But, you know, and as an engineer, I’m a little bit of an introvert. So I typically recharge you know, I told you, I with nature, you know, kind of quiet times. You know, so and I’ve kept my work and personal life separate. But you know, in this time about isolation, you know, I personally am realizing all the more importance that there really is on connectedness with co workers, you know, being part of each other’s lives, you know, knowing and caring, not just about them, but also about their family. I know, you know, for instance, as I’m on the phone with with a lot of my staff, I’m like, how are you doing? How are you handling, you know, holding up, you know, as a family at your house right now. So, I think that’s, I think, you know, being apart is drawing us closer together.

 

Ben Kittelson

I like that. All right. So I usually ask this question in, you know, in non in our non COVID series, at the beginning of interviews, but I want to make sure I still cover it with folks as we’re talking about kind of this more more pressing issue, but it’s kind of a way to end our our interview together. How did you end up in local government? What, what kind of led you to this, to the water utility field and into your current position?

 

Todd Danielson

Sure, well, yeah. And that’s, that’s a, it’s important and it’s always great. I’ve got a high school senior at home. So, you know, he’s been thinking about, you know, his career choices and stuff like that. So, you know, for me, I grew up in Maine. You know, I was always outside. Lakes, woods, mountains, you know, and I think that probably helped send me toward an environmental career. And then on top of that, you know, I’m, heck I’ll say and I’m always someone who wants to change the world. So local government really is a great place to make a positive impact. You know, my organization, it protects the health and welfare of more than 200,000 Ohioans. And it also helps to protect Lake Erie, you know, to provide safe, reliable drinking water and wastewater services. So you know, I get excited about finding ways to you know, to provide those services more effectively, beneficially, and even for reduced costs. So, you know, that’s, that’s, I think, how I’ve gotten into this and why I want to stay in.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Was there like maybe a project or something that you got to work on early in your career that, like, I don’t know, like confirmed your, your your choice and made you be like this is this is a sector and the world I want to be in?

 

Todd Danielson

Great question. Yeah, I think, each each thing would I do you know kind of adds to it. You know one of the things that that that has not been a success yet for me. But you know, I’ve been pushing this concept is okay, you know, I’ve mentioned Lake Erie. We’re on Lake Erie you know, Lake Erie, you know, with the whole Harmful Algal Blooms has, you know, has you know, it’s following the Chesapeake Bay issues from you know, a decade or more ago and stuff like that. So, you know, I was like, Hey, you know, what, how can we, how can we as utilities help this and, you know, trying to, I was starting to push this idea, obviously, things like COVID-19 and everything else, you know, really slow this down, but, but can we as water utilities band together and maybe, you know, put in money, you know, into this fund that helps for Source Water Protection. You know, there there are surveys out there that that say people are willing to pay a little bit more for for their drinking water if they know that their water is better protected. So could we as water utilities around Lake Erie, you know, put some more money into that. And then work on the Source Water Protection, something like oh, it’s like 80% or more of nutrient impacts are from non point sources here and getting into Lake Erie and what do I mean? A lot of that’s agriculture. Now, agriculture is a is a vital commodity, you know, for not only Ohio but all all other areas. And if if we make the Ohio farmers pay more for Source Water Protection, that hurts their market position across the country. So maybe we are the right people to help put money into that. You know, it’s a way to help better the entire state while bettering, you know, different aspects in addition to that, so, it’s things like that. And I mean, you hear me talking about it, you hear the passion in my voice talking about it. And, and it’s those types of things that, that remind me why I’m in this and why I want to be in this.

 

Ben Kittelson

This is like, hearing you talk like, that reminds me like this is one of the cool things about local government is that like, you can have this passion for the environment and for, you know, fixing Lake Erie and you get to like work on that in local government and like, the water industry allows you to have an impact on that, that you can’t really is like maybe, I don’t know, like it’s doing, you know, environmental or like working in another way. So like this. It’s just really cool to hear you say that was a very, very inspiring. [Laughter] Awesome, so one last question for you. So we have a tradition on GovLove to allow our guests to pick the exit music. So if you could be the GovLove DJ, what song would you pick to close out our episode?

 

Todd Danielson

Okay, well, and obviously we’ve been talking a lot about the virus, the pandemic, our response. And, you know, I think that that this whole time, it’s reminded us that it’s not the athletes or the movie stars and you know that that necessarily deserve all the admiration in the world. Rather, it’s the everyday people who step forward and do what’s right. You know, and and, you know, who are providing these essential services? Yes, we know, we can’t live without our doctors and nurses and others like that, you know, are people who are keeping our groceries, you know, coming in and all other important essentials, but definitely, you know, of course, my bias water and wastewater. So our front line workers, and all of us, we’re all everyday people. So I am even though I’m not parking a much into this specific music style. I was looking around it and I saw this song from an artist named Alesso. And, you know, she has this this song called Heroes. And it’s talking about, you know, we could be heroes, me and you and, you know, everyday people could be heroes. And that’s what I think, you know, it’s this is showing is all of the heroes that are out there, all the heroes that are helping to, to make this world a better place and to you know, to keep us going through this through this time of difficulty. So that’s what I would say.

 

Ben Kittelson

Yeah. Good. That’s a, that’s a great way to to end our episode. So with that, thank you, Todd, so much for coming on and talk with me. I appreciate you taking the time.

 

Todd Danielson

I was I had a great time with it. I appreciate you, you wanting to talk about water and wastewater services, you know during this time and always.

 

Ben Kittelson

Awesome. And for our listeners, GovLove is brought to you by Engaging Local Government Leaders. You can reach us online at elgl.org/govlove or on Twitter at the handle @govlovepodcasts. We also have a bunch of resources for local governments trying to navigate through this COVID-19 pandemic. They are available at elgl.org. We have a number of GovLove episodes as well and resources from, you know, model policies like telecommuting policies to to digital communication strategy. So, if you need anything like that, please head to elgl.org and use this as a resource. As always, you can support GovLove by joining ELGL. Membership is just $40 for an individual or 20 bucks for a student. And as a reminder, ELGL 20, our annual conference, it will be this October 14 through 16th. I hope to see you in Portland this fall. Lastly, subscribe to GovLove on your favorite podcast app. And if you’re already subscribed, go tell a friend or two about this podcast. Help us spread the word that GovLove is the go to place for local government stories. With that, thank you for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.

 

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