Dr. Wendy Slusser, Andy Gere
Dr. Wendy Slusser 00:02
Hello, my name is Dr. Wendy Slusser. And here at the Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center at UCLA, we strive to be trailblazers in building a culture of health and well-being. Starting in our own backyard, Semel HCI transforms ideas into reality to create a campus-wide culture of health by promoting physical, emotional, and social well-being. Welcome to our center’s podcast, LiveWell. Join us as we interview leading experts and discover new perspectives on health and well-being. Each episode we will bring to you scientists and world-class operators who will share with you cutting-edge research and practices and never-before-broadcasted tips to live a more healthful life for yourself, community and our planet. Today, I chat with President and Chief Operating Officer of San Jose Water, Andy Gere, about the ins and outs of running a water company. What does it take to provide affordable, clean, and safe water to drink? How does running a water company relate to environmental stewardship? Join me as I chat with Andy about what happens behind the faucet. Okay, Andy, so I want to thank you so much for being part of this podcast, this virtual podcast, and I think this is the way of the future for all of us. And I have to say, I mean, inviting you to teach at our Food Studies Colloquium and also our undergraduate food studies minor, Sustainability Through the Lens of Food. You’ve been so open to sharing your wisdoms to our students at UCLA, and now with this podcast, hopefully, more broadly. And I want to thank you for that. In spite of many challenges, I mean, we have to stop meeting this way, you know, two years ago was a fire here in Los Angeles that cut the power and you had to improvise with your PowerPoint, sort of describing the beautiful photos you had in it. And now this time around, which gives us sort of a time frame of where we are, it’s the coronavirus. And I think this is interesting, because I’d like you to talk about water and your role as a CEO and what the importance of water in our infrastructure and why you actually are probably almost better prepared for all of these kinds of natural disasters, so to speak. And we can start with that.
Andy Gere 02:36
Sure, yeah. Well, thanks so much for having me, you know. I’m passionate about water and providing water service to our communities. And so it’s an easy thing for me to say yes to these kinds of opportunities. And, you know, my ulterior motive is that I’ll interest one or more people to say, boy, I’d like to have a career in the water industry. So I’m putting that out there, because we’re always looking for bright people to join us in the really important mission that we have. You touched on something that is, you know, kind of front-and-center today, but it’s always sort of part of what we do, and that sort of readiness and disaster response. And, you know, I would consider response to a virus outbreak like this one is very in line. And in fact, a few years ago, we developed a pandemic response plan, when a previous episode was threatening, it didn’t manifest itself like this one has, but you know, we have a responsibility to provide water service to customers 24/7, and so we can’t sort of take a day off from that. And when our work conditions get challenged by our natural surroundings, or events, like an earthquake or a flood or a fire, we have to be ready to do it in other ways. And so we spent a lot of time planning so when these things happen, we will be ready, and the coronavirus is right in line with that. So, you know, I was on a call just prior to this, with my greater team, working out details on how we move into telecommuting for folks. We’ve already done a lot of internal social distancing. But we’re continuing to look at ways to minimize the opportunity for transmission and the disease. And you’ll still serve customers. And so we still have to have people that get out in the field and repair water leaks and operate treatment plants and wells. And make sure that we’re meeting all of our regulatory guidelines and requirements. And so we’re doing that, we’re doing it with less face-to-face contact and leveraging technology and changing the way people report to work and the way they get to work. Instead of having folks meet in a ready room, we’re conducting meetings outdoors at a safer distance and then having folks report directly to their trucks and taking a lot of sanitary measures and wiping down surfaces and wearing gloves and things like that. And there’s some things that we’re temporarily discontinuing where we think that the risk is too high and, and the benefit is too low relative to keeping everybody safe.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 04:59
Yeah, I mean It really speaks to the fact that water is such a critical part, not just of our daily lives, but our health, and in the importance of it being clean, but also accessible and ready and available 24/7, like you’re saying. And I feel that, especially in these kinds of roles like yours, which is an essential, essential role on a daily basis 24/7, I feel your work is important to not only be continuing, but also to give people a sense of confidence, that they’re going to continue to have that kind of essential resource. So, you know, a lot of people don’t really think about where their water comes from. And you kind of take it for granted. And so I’d like you to, if you could, sort of step us through what happens on your end, and how do we receive this incredible resource on a regular basis that’s in most of our communities, safe and and tasted?
Andy Gere 05:59
Yeah, so that’s really our primary mission. You know, when folks asked me, you know, what is it that you do? What business are you in? I always tell everyone, we’re in the public health business, you know, water service is the only utility that folks ingest. And they need to be able to do it without questioning whether it’s safe, wondering if it’s healthy, that has to be sort of a given. It has to be 100% of the time, and highly reliable, which means the water has to be on, right, not just, you know, when it’s convenient. And so there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. And I think it starts with our source water monitoring. And you know, we’re regulated by the state Water Board and the Division of Drinking Water. And what they do is they take regulations that are promulgated both at the state level and at the federal level, through US EPA, through effectively what is the Safe Drinking Water Act. And the Safe Drinking Water Act was enacted in 1974, and it was it was sort of the first piece of legislation that said, you know, we really need to be very specific about what a public health standard for water is. And that has evolved quite a bit over the time since then. And so there’s a lot of monitoring that goes on, there’s a lot of water sampling, we take about 400 laboratory tests a month for our source waters, and our wholesale supplier does even more than that. And then, in addition to those monitoring programs, we have a lot of treatment at our two surface water treatment plants, where we really focus on making sure that source water meets all the requirements for good public health. And so we have certified operators that operate all of our plants and our groundwater wells. We do a lot of monitoring. And then system integrity is the other piece that most folks don’t think about, I mean, water is delivered to people’s homes through water mains that are typically buried several feet under the street out in front of their house. And so we need to maintain that infrastructure and make a lot of investment in taking care of that infrastructure, replacing it, before it reaches a point of failure. And when it does break or leak, you know, make sure that we make those repairs and do it in a way that is protective of public health. And make sure there’s no opportunity for contamination. We do a lot of follow up sampling after we do repairs, and work directly with consumers to make sure that they understand what’s happening and what we do to protect public health. So it’s sort of, you know, one of those, it takes a village kind of businesses, you know, we have a lot of departments that all work closely together to ensure that the good source water that we start off with makes it all the way to the consumers’ faucet in healthful and potable condition.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 08:31
Yeah, so I’d like to unpack what you just said, because I really like what you described as the step by. So when you refer to good source water, what is that good source water for you?
Andy Gere 08:42
So we’re very fortunate here in Santa Clara Valley to have sort of three primary types of source water. And one is groundwater, so this is water pumped from deep in the aquifers below Santa Clara Valley, anywhere from 500 to almost 1000 feet below the surface. And it’s a confined aquifer. So it’s the third of three aquifers, the deepest of three. So the natural soil layers and structure do a very good job of keeping potential contamination that may be up on the surface of the Earth from reaching that water. But it’s not a foolproof system because there’s places where that’s not completely intact, although it does a great job. So we also provide a lot of monitoring for both natural and manmade contaminants and disinfection to make sure that once that water comes out of the wellhead that it remains biologically inactive until it reaches customers. The other source we have is what we call our imported supply. So we have a partner and it’s a wholesale water supply agency here in Santa Clara Valley called Valley Water. And they supply us water through three of their surface water treatment plants from either local reservoir supplies or water that’s imported from one of the two big California Water projects. The Central Valley project, which is run by The Bureau of Reclamation, it’s a federal project. Or the California Aqueduct, which is the state water project. And that’s delivered to two of their plants. And the third, the federal water is delivered to the third of their plants. They have a very rigorous treatment process and monitoring process. And we take that as finished or ready-to-serve water at 14 locations in our distribution system. And then the third source is from our two treatment plants where we collect water at intakes and in reservoirs in the Santa Cruz Mountains. So this is our local source. And both of those treatment plants use a membrane technology, which is sort of pretty state-of-the-art, treatment technology for surface water. And the idea is to remove naturally-occurring contaminants, primarily microorganisms that can potentially make folks sick. So we have a very diverse water supply. It’s not completely interchangeable, but there’s a lot of overlap and where those supplies serve. So if we have difficulty with with any one of those, we can generally shift some things around and pump water from one location to another, make sure that we meet our needs. And we do a lot of contingency planning. So we know exactly how that works. And if we have a well that needs to go offline that we have other wells ready to serve, or we can replace a groundwater source with an import or surface water source. So flexibility is key and we’re quite fortunate in our service area that we have three different sources to work with.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 11:19
Is that common that many of the other water companies that serve or services around the country have these kinds of multi-source water?
Andy Gere 11:29
Probably not as diverse as ours. You know, there are a lot of areas in the country where it’s all groundwater, although you know, the larger system certainly don’t rely on a single well, but they may have many wells drawing from a single aquifer. So if there’s problems with the aquifer, that problem can translate. Here in California, there are certainly many other water districts and water companies that have at least two different sources. And sometimes three, I think California is a little bit unique in that water scarcity sort of drives to redundancy or, you know, multiple supplies. So that one is not available or not available in the volume that would normally be there that there’s another source to fall back on. Yeah, we look at our groundwater basin as the biggest reservoir in our system. And that’s where we have the most water stored. It’s about a three-year supply, not just for our system, but for the other communities that draw from that aquifer. And it’s a managed aquifer, which is not completely unique, but is a growing trend in California. And what that means is that the withdrawal from the aquifer never exceeds its safe yield. And so the way that works is that our wholesale agency actually collects water in reservoirs, and uses that to recharge the aquifer artificially. The natural use, back when it was an agricultural area, as opposed to Silicon Valley was really overtaxing the natural recharge. The natural recharge would be what happens through rain and just would infiltrate through creek bottoms, after storm events and so forth. It wasn’t enough and so they began as early as the 1930s, developing a system where water would be collected in surface water reservoirs. And then the groundwater basin would be artificially recharged so that those groundwater users would have an adequate supply. And that continues. Today, there’s recharge basins all over the valley in areas where there’s good infiltration zones, so places where there aren’t those thick clay layers that prevent water from flowing down. And so that’s a very good system and it provides a high degree of reliability.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 13:29
So there are two things that you’ve just said that are really fascinating to me. One is the the recharge concept. And are you recharging it with rainwater? Or what is the water that you capture that then recharges?
Andy Gere 13:42
So that’s right, and so the idea is that, you know, during a big rain event, a lot of the water that would you know potentially be available will just roll off the surface and wind up in San Francisco Bay, it’s a very slow process to to recharge the groundwater basin. So what happens is the Valley Water has built reservoirs and they capture that that runoff, that rainwater, in a surface reservoir and then very slowly transport that into the spreading basins that allow the the recharge into the underground and then so it’s sort of a winter-summer cycle. So the you know, the reservoirs fill all winter, and in the summertime, they’re drawn down and the aquifer recharges slowly over the dry months. When the winter rains return, those reservoirs are at their lower levels so that there’s capacity to capture next season’s rainfall and so on.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 14:32
So that speaks to safety, given that you’re talking about it being slowly recharged over time, right, because that cleans the water right? And you also described how having a system like you have where you have multiple sources also contributes to the safety of the water if there’s a problem with one water or another or even just supply right. How do you in general, communicate and reassure your customers around safety and the water that you’re offering to the population? How do you instill confidence?
Andy Gere 15:06
Well, that is one of our biggest challenges. And not just in San Jose Water, but in the industry in general. And so we’re using a lot of methods. And we’ve sort of really changed the way we do this. You know, when I started my career in drinking water over 25 years ago, sort of the the motto is kind of the less folks know about us, the better, we’ll do our work and the product speaks for itself. And that’s really changed, right? The user base is informed, folks understand they’re really focused on their own health and really want to understand what’s in their water, and what are we doing to take care of it. And so we’ve had to use all kinds of tools. And certainly social media is probably the one that’s grown the most. And we spend a lot of time and effort getting messaging out on that and really trying to communicate. We also use things like direct mail. So when we send someone a water bill, we include information in there about what we’re doing, and sort of little articles and stories that sort of help people understand in bits and pieces. Because you have to sort of recognize folks’ attention span is not that long, and they want to kind of be reassured. But you know, we can’t write a novel either. We also do a lot of community events. And these are perhaps the best way where we can get in front of our customers and really kind of help them understand what it is we’re doing. So whether it’s a festival, or, you know, a community event, like Bark in the Park is one where folks bring their dogs, and there’s dog events, and we sponsor activities for the dogs there. But we also have information and you talk with folks, one-on-one and things like that. But we’ve also started doing community open houses. And so just about every month, we’re out in a different neighborhood and within our service area, and we advertise these as much as we can to get folks interested in attending. And then we have displays kind of throughout a community room or auditorium that show the whole sort of process of where does your water come from? How does, how do we bill you? What are our customer service opportunities? How do you conserve water? And what can we do to help you with that. Near and dear to my heart water quality and water treatment, and what we do to ensure the quality of water, so folks know that it’s safe to drink. And those have been very popular and well-attended. And I think it’s something that we’re going to continue to do, because that’s where folks can one-on-one, talk with a water treatment operator or a you know, water quality manager or an engineer and say, you know, what exactly does it mean when you say you do this, you know, what is, what is the treatment plant really doing? What are you removing? And those things, I think, are very useful. And we’re also using a lot of things like YouTube videos, and putting those on our website and getting those out on social media. So folks can really get a kind of an easy to digest, but sort of, you know, sort of news-rich bit of information about what we’re doing to ensure that we are maintaining public health, and we are doing everything we can to provide the safest product into people’s homes. Yeah, I mean, I’m a big believer in tap water. And I just scratched my head about this sort of shift where people are often looking at bottled water as being safer than tap water in general. I know there’s some places and communities where that’s the case. How do you deal with that general belief that seems to be cropping up all over the last decade, two decades? Well, it’s certainly something that we’ve really focused on. And you know, the bottled water industry has a big marketing budget, and that really works against us. And you know, they usually indirectly, but sometimes somewhat directly, you know, plant the seed that you know, you need to be drinking bottled water if you want water safety. And so, you know, that’s a tough message to get past people if they’ve sort of been ingrained with that. But we really build that into a lot of our messaging and really want folks to know that for a penny a gallon, and that’s about what tap water delivered to your house costs, you have a product that is as good or better than bottled water. And so one of the things that a lot of folks don’t know about bottled water is it’s often just reprocessed, repackaged tap water. There’s a bottling plant often in a community water system. And you know, they have a large service and eight or ten-inch service and they have a bottling plant, and sometimes they’ll polish it up with something like ozone that can improve the taste or they’ll add some minerals, but it’s often the same product. What folks don’t know though, is that while tap water is monitoring and tested daily, bottled water has much less frequent testing requirements. Even though they are supposed to meet the same drinking water standards, they are not regulated by the Division of Drinking Water here in California or US EPA. It’s Food and Drug and their requirements for testing are much lower. And so I’m not suggesting that there’s necessarily a problem but then the amount of assurance and the amount of review and double checking that we do far exceeds anything you would have in bottled water and you know, I think something that folks are also becoming aware of. And I think, you know, we’re certainly kind of looking at it and wondering why folks are not sort of worried about plastics and sort of from two perspectives, you know, are there opportunities for compounds that are in the plastic to leach into bottled water? There’s studies out there that suggest that this can be happening. And you know, I think the jury’s maybe out a little bit on what those health effects may be. But I think that’s, you know, if you don’t have to be exposed to that, why would you? And then there’s the trash problem, you know, bottled water creates this sort of waste product, and it’s the bottle. And while most folks I think, would like to say, well, I recycle that bottle and it goes, you know, it’s reused. The reality is that is an ever shrinking truth. Because there’s so much waste plastic out there, there’s not enough beneficial uses for that. And a lot of those bottles do wind up in the landfill.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 20:55
Yeah, the single-use plastic bottle too, is particularly concerning for our environment, there’s no question. And in fact, you see, I think we’ve just passed a policy that in the next decade or two, I’m not sure about the exact date, we’re going to be removing it from all campuses. So I think there is that trend, fortunately, and I agree with you. The other thing is as a pediatrician I’m concerned about is the plastic bottle that’s been hanging around in your car and getting heated up. Or often many people are putting their plastic water bottles into the freezer to freeze it. And we don’t know completely what that does to the plastics in terms of its leaching into the water. So those are two other kinds of scenarios that the jury’s still out, I guess, is really what we’re up against. But I know with plastic bottles with babies with breast milk, they’re recommending not freezing breast milk and plastic bottles for that reason.
Andy Gere 21:52
That makes a lot of sense. You know, I guess you could say it’s troubling, or maybe it’s an opportunity, depending on how you look at it. It’s the cost. In 2018, US consumers spent 31 billion dollars on bottled water. And this is a statistic that comes from the bottled water industry. So we know it’s, you know, it’s probably pretty reliable. At the same time, US EPA has estimated that in the United States water infrastructure would take $24 billion a year to fund the needed upgrades nationally in US water infrastructure. So, you know, Americans are out spending on bottled water, you know, by $7 billion a year what it would take to renew and replace the US water infrastructure that, in so many cases needs that renewal. And it’s sort of a misguided spend, if you will. And if we can get consumers to think more about that, yeah, we’d like to make those investments and the money you saved by getting off bottled water can go to much better use and much sort of longer lasting benefit.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 22:51
Yeah, that takes a collective effort, right? I am sort of like thinking, how do you move that needle? Do you have any dreams that you’ve thought of that would help that?
Andy Gere 23:00
You know, it’s, you have to do it a little bit at a time. I mean, we are San Jose Water is an investor-owned water company and infrastructure renewal is a big part of what we do. And certainly we know that, you know, renewing infrastructure impacts water bills, and it impacts rates. And so we’ve been really working hard to communicate to our customers, to the communities that we serve, to local elected officials, and really anybody who is who is sort of engaged. That investment has long-lasting benefit. And it provides folks with a reliability and a public health benefit that’s really a good value and it’s relatively inexpensive compared to alternatives. And bottled water would be considered an alternative by a lot of customers. Look, rate increases are never popular, right? But I think when when folks and what we see when we talk with people, when they understand that those increases are often for in our system, for example, we replaced 24 miles of watermain per year. And we’ve been doing that for decades. So that’s a 1% a year replacement rate. They feel like oh, wow, you know, I’m getting some value for that. So I’m not going to have to worry about waking up one day and my water’s out for two weeks because the watermain is completely destroyed, right? That’s something that I think when folks understand it, you know, maybe they’re still not that happy writing that check every other month, but they understand where it’s going and they feel like it’s a good investment.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 24:22
That’s a very interesting perspective and strategy that you’re taking on through San Jose Water Company, which is an investor-owned public utility. It just brings to mind what happened here in Los Angeles a number of years ago, where the water main burst and it was 30 feet high spouting on Sunset Boulevard, and then rushed down UCLA down to our newly floored pavilion, basketball pavilion, and everyone’s saying always because infrastructure was so old. I think that was LADWP. And they’re publicly owned, is that right, or publicly run? Explain to me the differences between these two approaches to running the water systems.
Andy Gere 25:08
Sure. So a publicly owned utility, and it could be either, you know, owned by a municipality, a city or a town, or it could be a California special district. So it’s sort of its own government entity with an elected board of directors and its own sort of funding sources through water rates, and sometimes taxes, or an investor owned like ours, where it’s a private company, and I think most folks sort of think of their power and gas company as sort of the typical investor-run utility. But we are what’s called a regulated monopoly. So we have a service area that is sort of granted to us by the Public Utilities Commission. And then the Public Utilities Commission is our economic regulator. And so what they do is they represent the consumer, they sort of serve in that role of protecting the consumer. And the idea is to make sure that we’re making prudent investment in the system, we maintain the utility infrastructure that we operate it well, which means we provide the right level of treatment, the reliability, we do everything we need to do to make sure that service is really good. And in return for that, we get to earn a rate of return on the investment part and actually on a portion of the investment part. And so we have an opportunity to earn an authorized rate of return if you meet the obligation of running your utility properly. And that’s what they sort of call the regulatory compact. The municipals and the and the quasi-government in the special districts, they work in a similar way, except that they set their own rates and it’s done through either their city council, or through an elected board of directors. And they typically have processes to do that. But one of the disconnects, I think that is out there with the municipal side is if you’re a city councilman, and you’re a mayor, and you’re running for office this year, how popular are you going to be if you raise the water rates? And you know, the answer is probably not very popular. Folks look at that probably akin to raising taxes. And so there is often negative motivation to raise water rates, which means deferring maintenance and infrastructure. And I wouldn’t want to suggest that this happens universally, there are many, many, well-run special districts and city water departments and so forth. But that exists and it maybe happens at micro-levels sometimes and that there’s less of an incentive to really push for not just you know, enough infrastructure renewal to kind of just keep you above water, but really to be sustainable in the long term. And in our model requires us to go out and attract capital, and we take risk doing that, right? But if we make those investments, and we make the right ones, and the commission gets to weigh in on that, we have to sort of bring a rate case to them and say, this is the infrastructure we need to renew or replace, or build anew. And here are the reasons, you make a business case and they sort of arbitrate over that and say, yeah, that’s reasonable, or no, we want you to do that, but at a lower cost, and there’s this negotiated process. And then you ultimately get the opportunity to recover those costs through water rates, and then earn a rate of return on the investment portion or on half the investment portion. And the way that works is a little complicated, but we borrow about half the money we need to make investment and then we use, you know, retained earnings or investor money for the other half. And so we’re allowed to earn a rate of return on the investment part, because that’s what’s considered to be at risk. And so, but it provides a good business incentive for us with, I think, good checks and balances to make sure that the investments we make are prudent. And we don’t just decide that, a very strong and competent regulatory agency decides that. And then we have to deliver on what we say we will do and make good on those promises.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 28:55
Yeah. So the whole challenge that you’ve brought up in the past about how the water system in general is quite fragmented, and there are, what, 200+ water systems in LA County itself, and Bay Area’s 50. And under your umbrella, you have the capacity to do this infrastructure improvements and so forth. What’s your thoughts about this fragmented water system that we have?
Andy Gere 29:20
Well, I think it’s something that the entire industry is is really focused on and perhaps even more so by by the investor-owned industry, because in some ways we have some unique capacity to help be something of a solution. So as you said, there’s there’s over 50,000 water systems in the United States, more than half of those serve 500 or fewer customers and why that’s a problem is they lack scale. And so often these small water systems were maybe built by a developer when his subdivision went in and they laid the pipes and they drilled a single well and put a little tank in and they were up and running or you know, they were a small community that, you know, got together collectively and built a water system. 50 years ago, that was probably a viable thing. You know, certainly the requirements in terms of water quality management and monitoring and treatment were a lot easier, just environmental requirements to make sure we’re good stewards of the environment. And the operations were easier. What’s happened now is in many cases, that infrastructure is aged out, and they just don’t have enough customers to afford an infrastructure replacement program or an asset management program that can really renew that infrastructure as fast as it’s wearing out. And so it was sort of built once it was, you know, sort of kind of run to failure as opposed to built and then renewed over time. So the small water systems, their biggest problem is, they just don’t have a big enough customer base to fund the improvements and the operation that they need to, which is, you know, more expensive and more difficult than it was when they were formed. So consolidation is the idea of, instead of having a lot of these small systems kind of scattered and trying to go it alone, you bring as many of them together in critical mass, you do that either by serving them off an existing bigger customer base. And we’ve done a lot of that, here in our San Jose system, where we folded small systems in and you know, acquired them, purchased them or negotiated with the system owners to become part of our system. And, you know, we’re able to sort of spread those costs over a much bigger user base. And so the idea is that not every part of the system needs infrastructure renewal every year. But if you do it right, and you have a good asset management plan, you can, you can do that with sort of this collective buying power of the bigger system. And, you know, obviously, it makes it much easier for us, you know, we have an internal engineering department, we do a lot of work ourselves, which lowers the cost. And that’s something that’s just not available to a small water system. You know, if you’re a two or three hundred customer system, there’s probably one paid employee in the system, it’s usually the the owner and you know, they pull their family in to kind of help and get things done. But it’s pretty tough, you know, they generally lack the technical and financial capability to both plan infrastructure improvements to get them built, but also to sort of manage water quality and regulatory compliance, often treatment. If you look nationally at water quality violations, they’re overwhelmingly in small systems. And so this is something that there needs to be a national effort to address. And, you know, one of my other roles is I’m the chair of the National Association of water companies and that’s an industry association that represents the investor-owned utilities. And we’ve been doing a lot of work there with the state legislatures and the commissions to work on mechanisms that make it easier for us to consolidate these systems, to sort of remove barriers, to make it easier to get regulatory approval to do it, to solve economic issues around it. So if we can buy a system and get that folded in more efficiently, we can then begin making improvements and helping out those those customers sooner. And so that’s something we’re working on, I think that the municipal and special districts are as well, but they have a lot of constraints, because they’re sort of you know, they’re government entities. And they’re just by their nature, not quite as nimble and that’s not their fault. But I think it’s just tougher for those kinds of utilities to get in there and consolidate small systems. And so we see it as our role as a way to sort of grow customer base, but also really provide service to a lot of folks who just aren’t really getting good water service right now.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 33:47
That really sounds like a very much of a health equity role that you’re fulfilling and something that I find quite admirable. And I wonder, are the public utility, water utilities, are they are any of them small, or are they sort of, at larger scale?
Andy Gere 34:09
There’s lots of small ones. There are and, you know, sometimes that’s sort of a barrier, you know, a small public agency, I mean, there’s one near us, they’re a California special district, they serve, I think under 200 customers, but their locally elected board, their friends and neighbors, and they often sort of have pride in what they do and appropriately so. And are sometimes reluctant to sort of give up control to someone else. Sometimes they’re just small municipally owned systems, you know, a small village or town where they just serve a few hundred folks, and again, you know, the watermaster there may also be in charge of streets and storm drains and a lot of other things and it’s difficult for those folks to do it. And so with city-owned small systems often we provide us solution, you know, their their water guy is retiring and they, you know, they can’t find him, they can’t hire anybody who say, look, you know, we can buy that system from you and you can deploy that capital somewhere else in your municipality that provides some other benefit, and then sort of get you out of the water business, because we can, you know, sort of do a better job. We already have staff and infrastructure and equipment and trucks and all the things we need to serve. And so, you know, we’re always looking for those situations where it’s a win-win, right? You know, we’re not going to take over anybody’s system who’s not interested in that kind of help. But we do have to sort of make that value proposition and make it work. And so we’ve done a bunch of them, and I think we’re going to be doing more and more, and I think there was a time often when, you know, not that long ago, when some of these systems were, they were kind of right at the edge of being viable, the way they are operated. And as costs have gone up, or as the infrastructure is aged and not been kept up with, they’re having higher operating costs, because their investment was low. And they reach a point where they’re like, wow, you know, the investment is too high. Now, we how do we get out from under this and you know, we have some ability to, to attract capital and make that investment and earn a rate of return on so it’s beneficial to us, they get out of a situation where they, you know, it’s almost like a no win. And so those are sort of on a national scale opportunities we’re looking for, and, obviously, we have to make good on it, you know, you certainly, you just can’t operate a system that’s a troubled system, and they say, trouble, that doesn’t work. And so we have to have the commitment to that and sort of come into this with our eyes wide open and understand, like, we have to put resources on it and get folks up to the standard they need to be at for this to work. And I think, you know, my personal philosophy is I think if you sort of do it and show it rather than tell it, you have some success stories, like others will look and say, you know, wow, that really worked out well for that community. The municipality got something that they needed, the customers are getting better service, and the investor-run utility was able to grow as well. And that’s sort of a win all the way around. But you have to I think demonstrate it for folks to believe. I think there’s skepticism. I mean, look, I’ll be honest, you know, folks think, well, you you have shareholders, there’s a profit motive, you must be up to no good. And, you know, you can tell them you’re not or you can show them you’re not. I think if you show them, I think that’s the way to do it.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 37:19
That’s for sure, yes. Actions speak a thousand words, there’s no question.
Andy Gere 37:24
Dr. Wendy Slusser 37:25
Yeah. And that gets me to I mean, what you’re describing to me is when you’re not at scale is harder to do everything, given the costs and the concerns and the potential stakeholders or whatever. But, you know, PFAs I know, you’ve talked a lot about this and in other venues. And I’d like you to explain what that means, and also what it means moving forward with all this climate change that’s happening and fires and how it’s impacting potentially, our water sources and what you’re doing about it. That’s a lot of questions.
Andy Gere 38:00
So climate change is something that, you know, is here and we see it, and I think particularly in California, where we, you know, we’re sort of a water-scarce region to begin with, when you see these bigger swings in sort of big rain, rainfall years, followed by drier years and longer periods and longer, you know, deeper droughts, I think we have to really make the right investments there. And those investments, you know, are already even bigger scale and at times bigger than just that the utility or they may be the state and the federal level. And sort of, you know, one of the biggest solutions is storage. And it’s not sort of an instant or an easy solution. But clearly we we need more storage. So when you have these these rain events, you have the ability to capture more of it and have it available. And you know, the other thing that’s changing in California relative to climate is more rain events and less snow events. So the snowpack in the Sierra is that the biggest reservoir statewide and that sort of slow melt-off of that snowpack sort of meters water slowly out where it gets, you know, captured in reservoirs and in intakes and in groundwater basins in a way that’s sort of controlled and usable and sort of, more efficient. When you have more rain events, you typically have more water running to the base and ocean, right where it’s much difficult to extract in a usable fashion. And so storage is really the key and one area where there’s a lot of growth is in managing basins and using groundwater aquifers to store water because you don’t have to construct something as big as a big reservoir. And also you have a sort of built in distribution system, right? If you have users that are above an aquifer, they can drill a well, where they need the water as opposed to you know, piping it from some distant place and generally having to pump it, move it. So that’s an area that’s certainly growing and there’s been some legislation in California recently requiring all basins in California to become balanced basins and in some cases that means extracting less. But I think a lot of basins, what we’re going to see over time is taking water that may not have been immediately available as drinking water and infiltrating those basins and storing it in them. And so that’s going to change the way that happens. But certainly physical reservoirs, storage facilities are, I think back on the agenda, and certainly I think are going to happen. Environmental concerns are certainly legitimate around reservoirs, particularly those where you are damming an existing river system and fish migration and fish passage is a real issue. I think offstream storage is really what’s going to be the growth area. And we’ve seen some of that already, you know, Contra Costa Water District, built the Los Vaqueros Reservoir, it’s been enlarged once and is in the planning process of being enlarged again. And that’s an offstream reservoir. So they take water that comes through the California Delta. And when the availability and good water quality is there, they bring it into that reservoir, and they store it there. And then they have the ability to use that at other times of the year or in other years, even when water supplies are not as good or are scarce. And I think that’s a pretty good model. And I think we’re gonna see more of that there’s some big ones that have been proposed, and that are kind of going through the environmental review periods in Northern California. And I think that’s an area where we’re gonna have to really get serious about water storage. Now, these are big investments, these are sort of, you know, generational investments. And it’s important for folks to know that, you know, reliable water supply, because we need to invest in storage, this is probably going to cost more so for us, you know, we’re not building a big reservoir. But to the extent that we get water from a wholesale agency that may benefit from that their rate will reflect that. And that gets passed on to our consumers. So there’s some costs with it. But I think the reliability equation is so critical. And if you think about potable water supply, and community water supplies as sort of the backbone of economic prosperity, right? We can’t have businesses and industry and schools and universities and all the things that a society is made of, without a reliable water supply. And, you know, if those water supplies are not reliable in California, I think we’ll see an exodus of businesses and, you know, the state suffers. And I think, you know, businesses like agriculture will suffer, and sort of our way of life suffers. And so I think these are generational investments that are worth making, and will be made, but they take time, and they take sort of a little bit of a mental fortitude to understand, like, you know, water’s is going to cost more over time, and climate change is going to drive some of that.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 42:45
In light of climate change, and the diminished rainfall and snow cap that we have here in California, we also are seeing more fires, and from what I understand, you know, the the PFAs are something that we’re going to have to be concerned about, in particular, in areas where there have been fires in terms of contaminating the water supply. And I’m wondering what your thoughts are on that, and how can we prevent this moving forward?
Andy Gere 43:14
Yeah, that’s a really good question, because our system is sort of right at the urban-wildland interface. So that area where you go from sort of dense population and sort of cities and towns up into forested areas, and there’s a lot of our water system, as well as our service area that’s up in those hillside areas in those wooded areas. And so this is something that we’ve dealt with, we had two pretty lengthy public safety power shutdowns in the past year, and we did a lot of planning around that. We certainly, through our earthquake resiliency, have over a long period of time geared up with standby power generators. And we’ve done that in a way that’s flexible, a lot of them are trailers so we can move them where we need to. We were lucky and fortunate that all of that planning paid off in a way we never imagined, which is these power shutdowns. I think the power shutdowns are going to continue to occur because I think it’s sort of the one way that the power companies can ensure that these ignition sources aren’t going to happen when they have these wind events. But it’s a huge disruption to the populace and to the extent that we keep the water on, we’ve been successful in doing that. Now, at the same time, we own and maintain a 6000-acre watershed and it’s you know, redwood and Douglas fir and hardwood forests. And the purpose of owning that watershed is, is sort of the first barrier of protection for those water supplies. So if you can control activities, on the drainage area to your water supply, you have to provide less treatment, right, you have less impurities getting in there. And so it’s an important function. But as forest fires become an issue, it’s also a potential risk. And so forest fires on our own land are something we’re very focused on and in fact, we are working right now. on a pretty large fuel management project. And so we are essentially working with firefighting agencies, we’ve done a lot of modeling on the watershed to understand how fire will behave. And you know, over the last 50 years, there’s been two large fires on it. And you know, it’s sort of overdue for a burn, if you will. And the idea is to install treatments like shaded fuel breaks, where you leave the trees, you leave the big trees, but you get rid of the brush, and you limb the trees up high. So if you have a fire it’s a ground fire, you create these corridors that are defensible. So the firefighting agencies like CalFire, can get in there and build a fire line and protect life safety, and then, you know, prevent the fires from getting as large as some of the ones that we’ve seen have now. I’s expensive work, it takes a lot of time. And so we’re sort of doing a two-tiered approach, and one is looking at the ability to use some ratepayer funded work. But the larger pieces, there’s pretty big statewide recognition that this is this is an issue and our watershed happens to be in one of the high-hazard areas, but there is grant money available. And so we are working really hard to develop an application in pursuit of some of that grant money and build some of these resilient firebreaks that will work in conjunction with others that already exists, you know, there’s nothing we can do that will completely eliminate the hazard from fire. I mean, you just can’t do it. But we believe that making investment and really sort of strategic efforts can reduce the risk, you know, measurably, and it’s something that’s worth doing. You know, we know that from previous fires just sort of the runoff with with ash and sort of the smokiness of it all, just from a taste and odor perspective, you know, our watershed was was out of commission for over a year when the Lexington Fire came through, and that was in 1984. That’s a lot of water supply that we don’t want to give up. It’s a lot of infrastructure there. That’s, you know, sort of in harm’s way. So we’re making investments. And we’re looking to leverage some of those investments with some public funding, and it has a secondary benefit of providing life safety for folks who live in and around our watershed sort of on the periphery. And so we think that that’s a win-win. And we’re working closely with the Santa Clara Fire Safe Council as this evolves, and they’re a nonprofit organization that ties communities and firefighting agencies and companies like ours and Pacific Gas and Electric and others together to kind of find community solutions. We think those are better and work more effectively than any sort of go-it-alone plan and so on. That’s the direction we’re heading in on that.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 47:31
It’s really striking to me how, how holistic your business is in so many ways, because you have to be thinking about all these different challenges, which is what you started to say in the beginning, public health. And I’d love you to share with me some wisdoms for people like my family that have a well, on our farm, near a big fire in Santa Rosa, and the concern about the quality of the water that might be coming out of that well, and how do you test it for those and what are PFA is that which everyone was saying everything that was under people’s sinks were what was the issue in these fires in terms of pollutants? And people were unhappy, and, you know, these suits to clean up the ash of these houses and apartments that were burnt in Santa Rosa. So love to have you give some wisdoms to to the farmers of the single-use well.
Andy Gere 48:32
Yeah, I’ll tell you, I think that it’s really wise to sort of be thinking about that. When an entire community burns, like Santa Rosa did, where it’s just so widespread, I think the amount of material that is consumed in that is staggering. And so a lot of it really depends on how the well is constructed. Is there is there good wellhead protection, you know, our wells that are built for drinking water wells have a pad and their sanitary seal. And there’s some construction elements that are designed to really prevent surface runoff from getting down there. But agricultural wells may not have that and sort of, you know, family, backyard wells may not have all of those features. So it probably makes sense to do some monitoring. And the guidance I always tell people is you know, you want to use a state-certified laboratory. And you can go to the California Department of Health Service’s laboratory accreditation program, you can go on their website and find a state certified laboratory and often the laboratory will offer services to come out and do the monitoring for you. And I always recommend that because a lot of the monitoring techniques are pretty tricky. It’s not just a matter of putting water in a jar and sending it in. For example, if you are testing for volatile organic chemicals, you have to make sure that they don’t volatize off in the sample collection procedure and you want to do a travel plug to make sure that there’s not sort of contamination from atmospheric sources and so forth. But an accredited laboratory can certainly guide you in that and you can also look at, you know, what are the constituents that are required for public water systems under Title 22 in California and look at that list, you know, there’s metals, there’s inorganic chemicals, organic chemicals, and get some advice from a water professional on what may be in there. I mean, in our system, we pretty much monitor for everything that’s regulated. And that’s sort of prudent. And it’s all-encompassing. And it’s sort of it’s a little bit expensive to do that. But if there’s public health at stake, we think it’s worth it. So a private well owner may be well advised to do that. Or if it’s a well that’s shared by a community, sort of pool funds from a group of neighbors to do that and see what’s going on. I think these big fires are sort of phenomena that no one was really kind of thinking about very much. And I think it’s a different environment. And it’s certainly one that has potential hazards. And I certainly wouldn’t want to frighten anybody say, look, if you live in an area where there’s a fire your well’s contaminated. That’s not proven to be the case. But because the potential is there, it’s probably smart to to do some looking and see what’s going on.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 50:59
That’s really helpful. I really appreciate it. That’s the best answer I’ve ever had from anyone about this question. Just moving a little bit away from drinking water, but just water in general, Dr. Jenny Jay here at UCLA has been following surfers and testing the flora in their nose and looking to see the percentage of methicillin-resistant bugs in their nose before and after rainstorms. And they found an increase after the rain. And I’m just wondering, in general, do you have you know, for water that you’re working with, do you test for not obviously, human subjects, but do you test for like antibiotics, or, I know, there’s also conversation around like antidepressants that are in the water, because people dump their drugs in the toilet in the Sacramento River and things like that? I didn’t know if that is something routinely tested.
Andy Gere 51:55
So this is an area that’s certainly known in the businesses, emerging contaminants. And what’s happening is, EPA is beginning to look at those contaminants and looking for where there is potential contaminants where there’s analytical technology that can detect them. And then they do a program that’s called the information collection run. And what’s what goes on is you’re essentially getting utilities to do some sampling out there to see what occurrence is. And then from that, if there’s occurrence, and potential health effects, they develop standards from that. And so the personal care products and pharmaceuticals are kind of it’s on the early stages, but I think we’re going there, certainly, to the extent that water reclamation is going on, and we’re moving as a state into indirect or direct potable reuse, that monitoring will continue. But what that part of the industry is doing is it’s sort of assuming that those things are there and developing treatment that will remove it. Because, you know, the the monitoring technology, while it’s developing, it said, you know, these, some of these things are at such low levels in the parts per trillion, it’s difficult to necessarily get really good qualitative and quantitative data on that. And also, the health effects are sort of unknown. And so I sort of, I think the default for now is, you know, you use very robust technologies, reverse osmosis, and, you know, ultraviolet light with oxidation and techniques like that, that will destroy these compounds that they know, are pretty effective at it. But I think, you know, it does, it does point to sort of this larger issue too, of do you know,your source water in California has been sort of very forward looking in that, and about a dozen years ago, put out a requirement for what’s called a source water assessment, where we had to look at every water source we had and identify any potential sources of contamination within the recharge zones of wells, or within the watershed, or areas that go to our treatment plants. And the idea was to sort of say, look, you know, are there activities, you know, sort of manmade activities, or naturally occurring ones that could represent a threat to water and then say, you know, it’s a monitoring mapping correctly with that is the treatment mapping correctly with that. And so that’s been going on going on for a long time, you know, here in San Jose Water, and I think our wholesale supplier as well, the reservoirs that are used to capture water, they go directly to our treatment plants or that are used for groundwater recharge, tend to be high up in the watershed, you know, above the developed areas. And that’s by design, you know, there’s a lot of folks out there saying, well, geez, why don’t we build some storage way down at the bottom right before it hits the bay? Well, that water has flowed through a lot of urban areas, and has had a lot of opportunity to pick up impurities along the way. And that’s not to suggest that those aren’t viable sources. You mentioned Sacramento River, and that’s a water source and that flows through a large part of the state. But I think the idea is to the extent that we can collect water at sort of the most pristine places we do. In areas where it’s less pristine, you have to have more treatment, you have to have more robust treatment because monitoring alone isn’t enough, you know, you can’t monitor everything continuously. I think if your monitoring detects contaminants there sometimes are at low levels, you have to assume there’s times when it may be higher, and you have to build treatment capability and sort of multi-barrier treatment capability to make sure that you’re effectively removing those things. But I think this is something that’s evolving, and it’s going to continue to change. And I think it’s going to drive to a more robust treatment technologies over time.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 55:30
It just goes to show you how multifactorial and how much you have to look at all these different angles to deliver what we don’t even think about as the water through our tap. I mean, it’s so complicated, and so many good ways because you’re really protecting the safety of the human population, and also our environment, given the fact that you are the stewards of the land where you’re deriving the water from. So it’s a really holistic approach, I think, and I’m wondering, based on what you’ve been talking about how much you’re thinking about all these different possibilities and also scenarios, what keeps you up at night?
Andy Gere 56:12
Well, a lot of things right now it’s coronavirus, and, you know, mostly in the sense that we need our workforce to be able to maintain their health and come to work and or work remotely, or do their work is probably what I should say. So we can continue to serve customers without interruption. That’s sort of the immediate, I think one of the things that sort of tied to that, though, is this long-term workforce development situation. So we’ve got a lot of folks who are professionals and have worked long careers in the water industry. And many of them are nearing retirement and are at retirement. And so one of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time on over the last five to ten years is developing workforce. And you have to do that in sort of a broad scale. So that it starts at the sort of elementary schools and high schools and getting folks interested in the water industry. Well, first, they have to know that there is a water industry, most folks don’t know that this is a career path and a place that you can have a really interesting career. You can do a lot of different things and really make a valuable contribution to society and do something worthwhile. You know, high tech is really sexy. And it’s interesting, and it’s exciting. But high tech doesn’t exist if we don’t exist, right. And so attracting people to the business, really promoting STEM education and getting young people interested in that. And from there into the water utility business. And that’s not just college education, it’s folks who want to have a career as a water treatment operator. And you can become a water treatment operator with you know, a high school diploma and some home study or community college, study and get your water license and work your way up. And we’ve built programs into our company where we sort of grow our own operators. You may come in as a laborer or somebody who works in construction. And with a little bit of education and some help from us, you can get the training and experience to be a water treatment operator, which is a profession that’s in critically short supply. And it pays well. And it’s exciting and dynamic and really important. But we need more folks that are interested in that and electricians, folks that are interested in technology, but in water technology, so it may be SCADA systems, which are the computer systems that control water systems. There’s things like advanced metering infrastructure that’s rising, where we have smart meters and folks that can can program and collect data from those and put that data to beneficial use. So really keeping our workforce growing and expanding and, you know, water quality professionals, you know, there’s scientists and environmental engineers and folks like that. So that’s something I think a lot of that when, when I should be sleeping, I guess. But it’s something that I think we’re making inroads into that and doing it sort of as an industry and in sort of in a grassroots way. We’re working with community colleges and high schools and workforce development boards. In the Bay Area, we’ve started our own sort of collective called Bay Work. And it’s where instead of what sort of used to be the practice, where one utility would poach the good talent from another we’re working together to develop talent and, you know, share internship programs and provide training opportunities and develop curriculums for community colleges and study-at-home programs and find a way where pooled resources, we can help bring people into the industry and train them and develop them instead of sort of passing the same people around and getting into bidding wars with them. And that’s been really successful. It’s also helped us grow the talent we have and provide educational opportunities and enrichment and growth for folks who so they can take on more difficult and challenging jobs and advance their standard of living and things within utility that they already work for.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 59:46
That makes me think it’d be great if you could give us a set of skills that would be useful for people to learn at a college level and then also a high school level that we could share with our student body, but also we work in partner very much with different high schools in LA Unified School District and beyond. So it’d be really something that we could provide that kind of guidance, especially in this day and age, when a lot of people are hearing jobs are being, you know, becoming obsolete. This is the opposite.
Andy Gere 1:00:17
It’s just the opposite. It’s a growth area. Well, it all starts with math, right. And, you know, I’m a good civil engineer. And so, you know, it begins with math, but math and science, for sure, but also sort of mechanical aptitude. I mean, you know, somebody who’s interested in auto shop, and tinkering with cars is probably a pretty good plant mechanic or meter mechanic. Right. So, those sort of a hands on skills, I think, are equally important. And I think there’s, the combination of them is probably the most powerful thing. So folks who have sort of good physical and mechanical aptitude, have the ability to read a blueprint, or an electrical line diagram, all those kinds of things. But it’s starting off math, science, you need to be able to communicate, so I can’t emphasize communication skills enough. A lot of it is, maybe you don’t have to be a great writer, but you have to be a pretty good speaker, and you have to sort of organize thoughts and ideas. And I think anything that sort of helps that makes folks dynamic, an area that’s really grown tremendously for us is GIS, and we use GIS technology to really share information across our company and make so many different departments’ jobs easier and more efficient. And so folks that are interested in mapping and GIS technology, I think that’s an area that once folks get exposed to it, it’s really pretty fascinating. And it’s really powerful, you can store so much information graphically in a digital map, and do so much with it. I think if folks have some basic exposure to that, and a high school class, you know, I think the sky’s the limit in what they can do in a utility setting. So, those are just some areas, but I think also just at the real base level, you know, elementary school kids, get them thinking about their natural environment, you know, how does the sort of natural water cycle work? How does what we do in one part of our lives, whether it’s what pesticides we may put on our lawn and garden, affect other parts where our water comes from? And how can we be sort of better stewards of the environment? I think what I see with a lot of young people, my own daughter included is they’re keyed into that, and they’re kind of hungry for it. And they know that the planet’s in jeopardy right to sort of put in a real dramatic sense. I think what they need to know is that there’s places that they can get involved in and make meaningful change. And I think the water utility industry is one of those, and they just need to make that connection and understand I mean, just giving kids a tour of a water plant or a facility or bring them to an open house where they can meet with people I think is really powerful. Because they’re like, wow, I didn’t know that was a job, right? And then they can start thinking about what part of it they want to do. You know, one of the things we did with Bay Work that was really interesting, and I think is super powerful. And it’s on their website, baywork.org is a series of videos where folks throughout the business spoke for a few minutes about what they do. And you know, there’s some fantastic sort of information out there that’s easy to digest, it’s a two or three minute video, folks get a little look in on what someone does. And they’ll talk a little bit about what got them interested or how that why they’re passionate about it, and from utilities all over the Bay Area. And I think that’s a great resource to share with students to sort of say, here’s a, you know, I know I have a couple of teenage kids who spent a lot of time on YouTube, take a little bit of your YouTube time, and see what people are doing in this business and see if there’s some appeal there. And I think the enthusiasm that will come out of that will be pretty startling. A lot of people think that you know, California water is in dire straits. And you know, we’re going to run out. And I think what I’d like folks to know is that there’s water professionals throughout the industry, both the municipal and the investor-owned, that are working really hard every day to make sure that that doesn’t happen. We need our customers’ help. You know, conservation is a way of life here in California. And that’s going to continue to be and we’ve seen just through the last drought, great contributions from our customers, but we’re going to need that to continue and we’re going to want them to be engaged and work with us. And so that’s, that’s my ask is, get to know your water situation and your water company and work with them for for a great solution.
Dr. Wendy Slusser 1:04:19
Thank you so much, Andy. This was an amazing interview. And I’m so looking forward to presenting to our Food Studies Graduate Student Colloquium today about food and water and its intersection with health. Thanks so much. Bye-bye. Thank you for tuning into Live Well today. Today’s podcast was brought to you by UCLA Semel Healthy Campus Initiative Center. For more information on Andy’s work and to listen to our other episodes, please visit our website at healthy.ucla.edu/livewellpodcast.