OC SAN Board Chair John Withers on the Business Case for Water Infrastructure

With severe drought gripping California and the Western US, TPR interviews OC Sanitation District’s new Board Chair, John Withers to afford the latter a platform to elaborate on Orange County’s reputation as global leader in water recycling and prudent steward of public resources and investment. Withers, who has served on the Irvine Ranch Water District board for 32 years and has represented IRWD on the OC San District Board for 12 years, shares the promise of new technologies for capturing and recycling wastewater to improve resilience throughout Southern California.

For decades, Orange County has been internationally recognized as an absolute leader in the West on implementing water recycling and reuse to enhance local water supply. As the new Chairman of the Orange County Sanitation District Board of Directors, address what you envision as your overarching priorities and goals for the OC SAN?

John Withers: First of all, I’ll give just a brief introduction to OC San for people that may not be as familiar with who we are, the scope of our service, and our membership. The  OC Sanitation District serves 2.6 million Orange Countians and happens to be the third largest sanitation agency west of the Mississippi; we're very large by any standard. We have a 25 member board of directors that includes 20 city council members, one of the County Supervisors, and four water/sanitary District board members. It's a very large, diverse board that has its own issues in terms of developing any type of a unified position. If I were to identify a theme for my upcoming administration, it would be trust.

We all live in a low trust world right now where everybody is questioning everything. I think part of the reason for the success of OC San is the high level of trust that we have with our ratepayers. We're a very transparent agency, we try to communicate our goals and objectives clearly, and my goal as chair is to really maintain the trust we have with the various publics we serve, and increase the level of trust. When I say trust I mean the trust between our board and the leadership of our board, our board of directors and the staff of the district, and ultimately the public itself has to have a high level of trust in the district, and because of that it enables us to innovate and be cutting edge.

I see the OC San district as a regional agency that can help lead the Orange County community and economy out of the COVID-19 doldrums. This year, we happen to be fortunate enough to be putting out a record capital improvement program that will spend approximately $260 million this year; it's a high watermark for the agency. We are actually working on accelerating projects, and we're working right now on an outreach effort—consistent with rules and regulations— to make sure Orange County businesses participate in this work. We're going to be reaching out encouraging other regional agencies in other fields, like transportation and other related agencies, to do the same.

In terms of other projects that we have, every two years the district goes through quite a comprehensive strategic planning process, and we've just concluded three workshops where we have identified 14 strategic areas. As a matter of fact, today there is a staff retreat where they're going to take the direction of the board and build a work program that will capture how they plan to progress on a number of these areas. This really allows us to have a very focused, objective, and measurable business plan in which the board and the staff are in sync with one another.

Square for our readers Orange County Sanitation District's recognized leadership role in water reuse with OC’s reputation as being led by fiscally conservative elected officials.

I don't think the two are necessarily at odds. I think the key in Orange County is that for the various investments that we have made in infrastructure, there has been a corresponding business case. Take, for example, the extension of the half cent sales tax for transportation. The business community had to be sold on why that was a reasonable investment, in terms of the reduction of congestion and what that means for the local economy. Also, with some of the strategic investments we made with water, a business case can be made that shows that these are really smart investments that will serve the county well into the coming years, and that our business leadership community recognizes and is willing to step up and make the investments.

Elaborate on OC San’s priorities that have been identified through your strategic planning process.

We did them in three workshops, and there are roughly four or five in each workshop. Workshop one included budget controls and fiscal discipline, cyber security, property management, resilient staffing, and safety and physical security. Workshop two had asset management, energy independence, climate and catastrophic event resiliency, water reuse, and chemical sustainability. And the third covered environmental water quality, food waste treatment, biosolids, and constituents of emerging concern, including the PFOS issue that everyone’s talking about.

Those were our 14 strategic planning silos. The staff begins with statements about each of the areas and their vision, they get the feedback of the board, then they work on a more detailed business plan and sets goals and objectives. That's how the board and the staff work in sync.

Last year, Orange County was forced to shut down many of its wells and increase reliance on Met water due to PFOS and PFAS groundwater contamination. Speak to how OC San’s new strategic plan – which relies on scientific research – will be executed during your term as chair.

I can tell you already that at the research level of this, we know there are emerging technologies and we are beginning conversations on a new technology pioneered by Duke University that we think holds real promise for the treatment and destruction of PFAS compounds and other emerging pollutants, called supercritical water oxidation. I won't bore you with the details but Hazen and Sawyer, which is a national consulting engineering firm, is teamed with 374 Water, Inc. in that effort. They have a 1 tpd (ton per day) pilot program going on at Duke, and we're looking to bring it out here to OC San and scale it up to 6 tons per day, and maybe 30 with the ultimate goal of making it a 200 tons per day operation.

Orange County Water District has been doing great work with groundwater contamination issues. Orange County is organized around them being sort of the responsible lead agency in a number of cleanup efforts that are underway with ion exchange and other technologies. A number of districts have already ordered vessels and are already attacking the problem for those wells offline.

What is the nexus between “water” policy and the Sanitation District's new strategic “wastewater” plans and policies? Is there a growing alignment on the issues that challenge both water and sanitation that can be leveraged in the work being done by OC San? Are there commonalities that are leading to collaboration among the agencies responsible for both?

The traditional notion of wastewater was something that you treated and just disposed of; it was a liability. I think people now see highly treated wastewater as a valuable water resource, and the goal for Orange County is to not have a single drop be lost, discharged to the ocean, or not put to beneficial reuse.

The Santa Ana river around Angel Stadium has a whole series of check dams and weirs to detain 100 percent of the water and put it in the percolation pits for recharge back into the groundwater basin. We're taking the same view with respect to the wastewater influent. The idea is to treat it as much as we do the groundwater replenishment system, taking that 100 million gallons of wastewater flow each day into our plants, treated to levels of non-detect in terms of cleanup through a very advanced process. It then gets piped up the Santa Ana River channel again to the percolation pits in the Anaheim area for recharge to the groundwater basin and ultimate reconsumption after it percolates into the ground and has its detention time.

We are underway now with Phase 3 of the Groundwater Replenishment System, which will take our reclamation ability up to 130 million gallons a day to roughly serve a population of a million people, so it's a significant project. In the case of my own district, Irvine Ranch Water District, I have to be honest and say some of us believed it was too much too fast. We weren't quite sure how all the economics would play out, but I think most will agree it's a tremendously valuable project for the additional resiliency it creates.

Senator Hertzberg—because I know he reads your newsletter—has called Orange County the gold standard of water reclamation and we're very proud of that. There are certain streams of wastewater influent, for example, the influent that comes from the SARI line—the Santa Ana Regional interceptor—which drains much of the industrial waste coming from the Inland Empire. It has always been deemed to be non-reclaimable, because of the concentration of constituents. I'm happy to tell you that we are commencing a study into additional types of treatments and what additional percentage of that currently non-reclaimable waste stream could possibly be reclaimed.

Metropolitan Water Agency, which serves all of Southern California, recently selected a new general manager, Adel Hagekhalil, to replace long serving Jeff Kightlinger. With Adel committed to a One Water agenda, what do foresee as the promise of his new MWD agenda?

First of all, we're pleased with Adel's selection, especially since he happens to be a resident of Orange County. From the point of view of the OC San district, we will fully cooperate with Met’s program when there's an intersection of interests.

I think doing local conservation projects is a great idea. Again, wearing my IRWD hat, our mantra is to control our own destiny, and we're going to do everything we can to get off the state system and keep off the Met system where we can. IRWD’s doing everything we can including setting up water banks in the San Joaquin Valley, buying Table A water, and buying significant acreage in Palo Verde.

The great challenge for Met is going to be as they do these local projects, they also have to take or pay contracts through the state water contractors that are making deliveries from the Colorado and the State Water Project. They have a financial obligation to take their allotted amount every year, and whether they use it or not, they're on the hook with a multi-year contract to pay for it. The great balancing act is the more you are doing these local projects and getting off the system, you don't want to cannibalize the fiscal structure of Met. I'm not a Met director and I don't get to make that determination, but that's going to be the great balancing act.

San Diego is equally dedicated to doing what they can to achieve water independence, and they have made significant investments. The city of LA has a whole other agenda of things they want to do for water independency. I really think the key for Adel and his staff is to work with their member agencies and consultants that can take a longer term view of their rate structure and fiscal modeling that is going to project a fiscally healthy Met on into the future, and try to maintain that balance with the appropriate number of local projects. If San Diego is doing a local project, and it's being paid for by people in the Inland Empire, you get into issues of equity.

Turning back to OC San, you mentioned in your strategic planning process both asset management and multi-benefit infrastructure investment. What are the real-world challenges for ensuring multiple benefits from the asset investments now being planned?

We're talking about strategic asset management. As Orange County ages, and this is also true for LA and San Diego, you transition from building things to connect new development to taking care of what you already have. We now have $10 billion worth of infrastructure at OC San: pipes, tanks, and lift stations.

Strategic asset management is how you maintain that infrastructure and keep rates and charges low. We're in the lowest 25 percent in terms of what people pay for our service, but we've also had the luxury of being a relatively young county with lots of new developments. We’re now shifting the bigger focus to replacing things-- digging up streets and rebuilding things is expensive. Strategic asset management planning is how to smartly manage those assets, extending the life of things where you can or coming up with new processes like supercritical oxidation that can again reduce operating costs related to PFOS. All of these components of infrastructure are regularly surveyed with all kinds of technologies, so we can see what's going on, and we look at how we can do things in a smarter, cheaper, and better way.

The best example I can give to you of multi-benefit infrastructure is in our wastewater operation. Our goal in running the plant, as we are digesting all of this material that comes in with our digesters, is to produce biogas. The long-term goal of our district is to be 100 percent energy independent, which means creating enough energy to meet the operating energy requirements of the plant. Right now, we're about 70 percent.

Biogas is generated and used to power our central generation plant. Right now, we're working as part of the landfill diversion legislation with all of our city members and the waste haulers. We are putting together a food processing operation that would allow food waste to be delivered to our regional Plant No. 2 in Huntington Beach. Like anything else, there are challenges, and we've had to put the construction of the food waste delivery terminal on hold for some additional commitments from the waste haulers in the cities.

 Because before we're going to invest—again, back to this Orange County business case approach to doing things—we're not going to proceed spending the money unless we know we're going to recover that capital cost. We are working with the waste haulers right now, so that's something still in progress, but I'm very optimistic we will be successful in putting that together and will hopefully be a model for others to take a look at.

John, while you often mention OC’s mantra – of having a business case and seeking independence in Orange County – speak now to your staff's priorities, both in terms of their ambitions for assistance from the state of California, but also from the Biden administration and Congress regarding their infrastructure investments.

As part of our legislative and government affairs program, we work with professionals as many of the agencies all over the state do. We're looking at matching up the projects we have in development with available sources of federal, state and local funding, and then going after grants. Because we're in Orange County, we aren’t always favored by the state legislature, but I think we've had pretty good luck with the feds in the current infrastructure funding.

Part of the process is showing up and telling your story, and we are very active with touring our entire legislative delegation with great regularity. Something that we've done recently within the last year are virtual tours of our plant. Our federal and state legislative representatives, and even others not from Orange County, like to come by.

We'd like to think we're pretty good at getting those dollars, but any agency has got to have the discipline to know what's out there, do surveys, talk to their delegations, look for good fits, then go after the money when it makes sense. Sometimes you're just lucky and happen to be at the right place at the right time, and you've got something that's shovel ready and meets the funding criteria.

Help our readers understand how a non-engineer like yourself is in the position you're in now, both in the water district and in the sanitation district. What's prepared you for this role, and what entices you to invest your time in this civic endeavor?

Thirty-two years ago, raising a young family in the city of Irvine, my intent really was just to look for something in the community I could participate in. A friend of mine told me that the Irvine Ranch Water board happened to have a vacancy, and my response was that I didn't really know much about that, but in December of 1989, I was fortunate enough to be appointed to the IRWD board.

Something that shaped me very early on in my career was my participation in the Coro Foundation, which is a great public affairs fellowship program in LA. As I got into serving, I quickly figured out that I liked being in the water resource space, and maybe I'm old fashioned, but I believe public service is a noble thing. I've been on the Water Board in Irvine Ranch for 32 years, and I have no aspirations of higher office; I really love what I do. I love driving around my city, and now Orange County, and seeing things that you had a hand in planning and overseeing the construction of.

When you return to VerdeXchange possibly at the end of January 2022, what successes or progress on OC San’s initiatives would you like to share?

 I don't know that it's going to be any earth shattering thing, but my hope is that we will continue the very steady stewardship of the agency. A good board adopts budgets, sets strategic policy, and handles external factors; I don't want to be the person that walks around micromanaging the place. This idea that the sanitation district has a firm hand at the helm and is steady, reliable and trustworthy; the public maintains a high level of trust and confidence in what we're doing. It may be a little longer, but you're going to see a brand new district administrative headquarters, which will be a state of the art facility.

Another thing I want to develop is a set of metrics to measure the very simple question of how does OC San know it's doing a better job this year than it did last year? What do we look at, and what do we measure? The district has some metrics, but they're rudimentary. My hope as chair is to work with staff to take them up to the next level, something I've learned a great deal about at Irvine Ranch Water District where we have 27 metrics that look at operations, financial performance, and general metrics related to customer satisfaction. Each director that comes in for the monthly board meeting can have a dashboard that shows how we're doing with respect to those metrics, ie. cost per gallon, treated spills, any number of things.


And I'm sure there will be a couple of things that are going to come along that nobody anticipated that we'll be dealing with, but I think the OC San has got an outstanding staff and a real good set of directors, 11 of whom are brand new. You can imagine that's a challenge, but in developing and organizing our board, we went to some pretty extraordinary measures of getting people's resumes, sending out questionnaires to find out what they're interested in, and different policy areas that would match up to our committees. Even though we got a new group, they're very well aligned and we're expecting great things from this board.

“I think the key in Orange County is that for the various investments that we have made in infrastructure, there has been a corresponding business case.”—John Withers
“We're a very transparent agency, we try to communicate our goals and objectives clearly, and my goal as chair is to really maintain and increase the trust we have with the various publics we serve.”