The City of Atlanta is making strides to become one of the more sustainable cities in the United States. A strong partner in the sustainability and resilience of the city, the Department of Watershed Management (DWM) aims to be a leader in innovation, service and value. It delivers excellent customer service and ensures the treatment and delivery of high-quality drinking water, as well as the collection and reclamation of wastewater to a high standard, while implementing innovative solutions for resource recovery. In this interview with DWM Commissioner Mikita Browning, she gives an overview of the initiatives and unique programmes behind the department’s successful operations.
Question: Can you tell us briefly about your career path and your current role as Commissioner of Watershed Management?
Answer: I began my career over 20 years ago as an entry-level engineer in the public sector and quickly realized that I needed to transition to the private sector to learn and grow in the field of civil/environmental engineering. Since then, I have been fortunate to have developed a diverse depth and breadth of professional experience in municipal and consulting within the engineering industry. I have been employed with the City of Atlanta since 2011, previously serving as Watershed’s Assistant Commissioner, leading daily administrative operations, and overseeing the implementation of the Clean Water Atlanta Program. Prior to becoming Assistant Commissioner, I served as the Consent Decree Program Director and provided leadership for daily operations and implementation of the City’s Clean Water Atlanta Program, a comprehensive, $3B multi-program to improve water quality in Atlanta. Prior to joining the City, I worked as a consulting engineer in the private sector and had the honour of working with a few global water and wastewater engineering firms and overseeing a variety of water/wastewater/stormwater design and construction projects. My years of experience have allowed me the great experience of managing large, complex, linear, and vertical capital construction, regulatory compliance, operation, and maintenance programs. As a result, I have acquired extensive experience in water, wastewater, stormwater conveyance and storage infrastructure design and construction; air quality and transportation regulatory compliance; traditional and natural treatment facilities design; green infrastructure design and implementation; planning and permitting; and environmental policy. My work has also allowed me to deepen my skills as a cross-functional leader with extensive experience coordinating with the community stakeholders, local, state, and federal agencies, and other utilities.
Q: The Department of Watershed Management (DWM) aims to lead in innovation, service, and value. The Strategic Plan 2022 identifies the transition to a Smart Utility as a priority area. Can you give us an overview of the progress made in this area so far?
A: We have begun mapping business processes to identify areas of opportunity to deliver services more efficiently and optimize operations. We are currently implementing the migration of our data centre to the cloud in support of the City of Atlanta's cloud-first strategy. We are also in the process of upgrading critical systems and consolidating applications to streamline decision making and achieve potential cost savings.
Nutrient Recovery System.
Q: Can you tell us about DWM’s efforts to improve the resilience and sustainability of its operations?
A: DWM continues to invest in critical infrastructure at our water treatment and water reclamation plants, as well as our distribution system and wastewater collection system through our Clean Water Atlanta program. Under the Capital Improvement Program, we are reaping the benefits of our strategic planning. With several key projects completed, these upgrades will allow for lower operations and maintenance requirements and operate more efficiently.
Q: To what extent has the current pandemic posed challenges to ongoing operations and the implementation of the strategic plan? Have investments to improve resilience paid off in these challenging times?
A: Like many utilities across the country, the pandemic has proven to be a uniquely challenging time. And DWM has experienced the real-life impacts of the pandemic on our frontline workforce, and we have had to quickly respond by implementing smart and proactive measures to safeguard the health and safety of our workers. At the same time, we have had to remain laser-focused in continuing to provide the very vital resource of water and related services to our customers daily despite the conditions. Similarly, and as a testament to resiliency, we have also continued our planning, design, and construction efforts in implementing priority infrastructure improvements pursuant to our $1.06B 5-year Capital Improvements Program and strategic plan.
We are currently implementing the migration of our data centre to the cloud in support of the City of Atlanta's cloud first strategy
Over the past year, we managed to meet a regulatory milestone for one of our federally mandated Consent Decrees, instituted an updated stormwater ordinance, completed construction of a water reservoir and green infrastructure capital projects, and continued to maintain regulatory permit compliance. It is through many of the capital investments in our infrastructure over recent years that we have observed first-hand the positive impacts of sound investments in our water/wastewater/stormwater infrastructure and that has resulted in infrastructure reliability and resiliency.
Q: Can you comment on the success of cost-saving initiatives such as energy savings improvements and nutrient recovery from wastewater streams?
A: DWM has continued investments under two Guaranteed Energy Savings Performance Contracts to save energy and reduce operation and maintenance costs. Cost savings improvements include increasing the life of our facilities by replacing aging equipment with efficient technology, reducing maintenance time with new mixing systems, UV lighting upgrades and enhancing staff visibility with real-time metering.
The Nutrient Recovery System at the R.M. Clayton WRC is expected to remove 150 tons of phosphorus and 70 tons of nitrogen per year. The City of Atlanta expects 1,000 tons of the fertilizer product Crystal Green Pearl to be produced annually. Enhanced nutrient removal will improve permit compliance, reduce chemical and operating costs, and provide a reusable by-product. Based on the pilot findings and subsequent evaluation of projected design and operating conditions, as well as capital investment requirements, it was projected that the nutrient recovery system would have a payback period of approximately 12 years, with a net savings of approximately $2,500 per day on facility operations. All this would add up to significant operational and financial benefits to both the RM Clayton Water Reclamation Center and the City of Atlanta.
Nutrient Recovery System.
Q: The DWM takes pride in its customer service performance. Can you expand on your customer service initiatives, such as the Neighbourhood Planning Unit Ambassador Program?
A: The NPU Ambassador Program is comprised of 27 DWM employees assigned to a specific NPU. The ambassadors attend NPU meetings monthly and provide information on the following topics: DWM operational updates, customer service/incentive programs, water quality reports, capital improvement projects (per NPU), water conservation/educational information, and national awareness campaigns. Ambassadors also receive customer inquiries or concerns about their water bill, work taking place in the neighbourhood and related news stories DWM programs.
DWM has continued investments under two Guaranteed Energy Savings Performance Contracts to save energy and reduce O&M costs
In addition, we also offer the Customer Experience Improvement (CEIP) and Care and Conserve Programs. The goal of the CEIP is to educate stakeholders of our efforts to improve the customer experience, build relationships, increase our credibility, and establish a new culture as part of the commitment to a world-class customer experience. The City offers financial assistance to low to moderate-income ratepayers who are having difficulty paying water and sewer bills through an innovative program called Care & Conserve. The Care & Conserve program takes the further step of helping these ratepayers prevent future high bills by providing assistance with plumbing problems and with the installation of water efficiency devices. Care and Conserve benefits all customers of the Department of Watershed Management by helping to reduce the burden of outstanding debt on the system and by promoting the most efficient use of our water resources. Senior Citizens may also be eligible for a 30% discount on water and sewer bill if they meet eligibility requirements.
Q: DWM has some innovative programs to engage the public in water conservation and stormwater management, such as the ‘Adopt a drain’ program and the rain barrel workshops. To what extent do you think they contribute to improving the city’s storm drainage system and raising awareness about sustainable water management in general?
A: The Adopt-A-Drain Program has been instrumental in raising awareness about the City’s stormwater infrastructure. Volunteers are given the necessary tools to clean their drain, as well as signage. It is also a great opportunity for residents to engage their neighbours, share information, and get them involved. We do not have quantitative data to measure the improvements and success of the Adopt-A-Drain Program. However, storm drain inspections by our crews, along with our outreach programs, helps us maintain and improve our system. Our customers know to call the ATL311 Customer Service Center if they see issues with a storm drain in the city. In regard to the Rain Barrel Workshops, due to the pandemic, no workshops were conducted in 2020 but interest in our rain barrel workshop remains constant. We receive regular inquiries about the return of our rain barrel workshop, which is held from April through September. This is a strong indication of the awareness of our programs. It also reflects the effort of individuals to want to be better stewards of this natural resource.
The Care & Conserve program offers financial and other assistance to ratepayers who are having difficulty paying water and sewer bills
The Office of Communications and Community Relations is working to determine the best method of offering the workshop albeit virtual, limited in-person participation based on CDC guidelines and directives from the Mayor, or as a drive-by service providing the installation kit at cost for those who already have the knowledge of how to construct a rain barrel. We are also developing an evaluation process for our next season of workshops. Collection of information through annual surveys, from previous and current participants, will give us information on the usefulness and benefit of those who have installed their rain barrels at their homes or offices.
Preparing for pavers installation.
Q: Can you comment on the contribution of green infrastructure and watershed protection projects to address flooding and water quality concerns?
A: The City of Atlanta is dedicated to managing stormwater in a holistic and equitable fashion. This requires having strong development standards that mitigate additional runoff from new construction, but also having a robust preventative and maintenance program to address existing stormwater infrastructure. In areas served by the combined sewer, the City has invested in large-scale green infrastructure solutions in the Custer and Proctor-North Ave basins to help reduce localized flooding. The City has also adopted a Green Infrastructure Strategic Action Plan that promotes an integrated approach to managing stormwater through partnerships, policies, capital projects, and outreach.
Q: Could you give examples of situations your department has successfully handled that can provide a model to replicate in other areas of the United States?
A: Relating to the pandemic, we quickly realized the need to institute proactive measures to safeguard the health and safety of our workers. As a result, we implemented non-invasive temperature checks at all of our facilities very early on in the pandemic. Similarly, we implemented staggered shifts to limit the number of employees in the workspace and ensure social distancing, posted signage at facilities to reinforce the importance of practicing safe social distancing, as well as implemented an aggressive deep cleaning protocol for our facilities and shared fleet vehicles to ensure a clean and safe work environment for our workers. Of course, a top priority was to equip our workers with the necessary PPEs, such as masks, gloves, etc. to use and perform their daily job duties. And we recently implemented rapid testing at our facilities to further help safeguard the spread of the virus. We learned that clear and routine communication with our workforce was very important, as well as taking proactive steps to show our commitment to ensuring their health and safety was imperative. We also recently have partnered with two local, distinguished universities to conduct sampling of wastewater as an indicator for COVID-19. We are excited about this unique and relevant initiative that could potentially provide very useful and predictive public health data concerning the virus and potential spikes.