The Value of Tailored Research at City of Calgary

Interview with Natasha Harckham, Norma Ruecker, and Mark Crowdis

The City of Calgary provides safe, reliable water to over 900,000 residential customers and over 20,000 industrial, commercial, and institutional customers. A founding member of WRF, the City of Calgary has participated in many projects since the late 1980s. More recently, Calgary has taken advantage of WRF’s Tailored Collaboration (TC) program, participating in a series of projects on diverse topics including risk governance, enterprise resilience, and filtration process control. WRF sat down with Natasha Harckham, Implementation Program Manager – Realignment; Norma Ruecker, Leader of Microbiology in Water Quality Services; and Mark Crowdis, Manager of Water Quality Services; to hear more about their experiences.

Tell me about yourselves—how long have you worked at the City of Calgary and what are your roles there?

Natasha Harckham: I have been at the City of Calgary for 10 years. Seven of those years were in the Water Resources Unit as the Senior Regulatory Analyst of our biosolids program. Currently, I am moving into a role more focused on infrastructure delivery and corporate capital planning. In terms of academics, I am a soil scientist by background. To step in line with the career I now have, I recently completed my Executive MBA.

Mark Crowdis: I have spent just over 25 years with the City of Calgary. I started my career with wastewater treatment in several different roles. I have been the Water Services Quality Manager in Water Resources for just over two years. I recently finished a master’s degree in leadership, and I have some supporting university certificates in business and environmental components.

Norma Ruecker: I’ve been with the utility over 11 years, always in a technical role in Water Quality Services. I’m a microbiologist. I did my PhD on Cryptosporidium. I wrote a white paper for The Water Research Foundation a long time ago and was active with WRF for a long time before I came to the utility. I work on the public health side of our water utility and my team stewards projects on our watershed and our drinking water, stormwater, and wastewater.

Let’s talk about your ongoing TC project, Filtration Process Control for Pathogen Removal and Climate Change Adaptation (5110). What were the drivers to pursue this project?

Ruecker: Even as a graduate student, I was always talking about how the current regulatory framework for Cryptosporidium in the U.S. and Canada was forcing water treatment plants into large dollar amount capital upgrades that weren’t actually protecting or improving public health. Cryptosporidium is host-specific, plus we have no measurement of infectivity in our current protocols. When I first came to the utility, we were looking at UV disinfection upgrades in Calgary because of our protozoa concentrations, but we have since deferred our UV investments because we have determined that there is not enough risk from Cryptosporidium to justify those investments.

I’ve known Liza Ballantyne at the City of Toronto for a long time. With her as a water treatment engineer and myself as a microbiologist, we have had lots of conversations around pathogen risk at water utilities. Something Calgary and Toronto have in common is very high-quality source water.

Toronto draws water from Lake Ontario, and their raw water turbidity is often so low that they often meet the filter effluent turbidity requirements before any treatment is applied. They were questioning how to know whether they've achieved optimal coagulation as turbidity did not necessarily appear to a sufficient parameter to indicate treatment performance. Since Calgary was similarly questioning the use of turbidity as the primary indicator of treatment performance, we decided to team up and revisit conventional filtration. Some of the preliminary data from the pilot testing in Toronto has shown that even in the middle of winter, when source water quality is high, direct filtration options can be more protective than conventional treatment, just because you have a much better chance of getting that coagulation right. So that led us to the question—is turbidity the right measurement for filter bed performance?

This project is really an easy collaboration between the two utilities and the University because we all have the same concerns. And it is all about leveraging investments—If we can partner with Toronto to help us in the future, this saves Calgary time and money.

Could you speak more to the climate change adaptation aspect of this project?

Ruecker: Climate change brings more drought, more floods, more forest fires, and those things happen quickly and can affect water conditions very quickly. We need to be able to optimize our treatment process in the blink of the eye and be able to respond when those things happen. This project will help us do that.

Calgary has also been involved on some Tailored Collaboration projects on risk governance (4363, 4573). How is risk governance is handled today at the City of Calgary?

Crowdis: I have been involved in different risk focus areas at the City of Calgary, and our approach has been influenced by this research. One example I’ll speak to is our risk-based management practices. We had a lot of conversation around our culture, the different levels of where people are coming to the table. We have some operations people who have a particular tolerance level for risk, whereas there are others outside of operations who have a different tolerance for risk. When you bring those opinions together, you start to get into the nitty gritty of how we want to mitigate a particular risk, and how, as a collective utility, are we willing to live with that risk going forward.

Harckham: There was a tremendous amount of work and effort that went into those risk governance projects. The culmination was the project workbooks that folks could use at various utilities wherever they may happen to be in their risk governance journey. And I think that’s always been one of the great things about working with WRF, is really the kind of tactile, applicable pieces that come out of the research, that utilities themselves can use.

Natasha, I know you’ve also been involved in the Real-Life Enterprise Resilience project (4734). Can you talk about the drivers for Calgary to get involved in that project?

Harckham: I think the main driver was the extensive flooding that we experienced in Calgary back in 2013. We had a flood recovery task force after that, and a lot of the recommendations that came out of that task force focused on building resilience within the utility. So, this Tailored Collaboration project was proposed to draw on the expertise of others and the wider international research community on how to work toward becoming a resilient city.

This work also aligned with Calgary being accepted into the 100 Resilient Cities Initiative that the Rockefeller Foundation had underway. It was the right time to build upon the risk research that had already been undertaken through WRF and go to the next step of creating something on the enterprise level, looking at everything holistically—looking at people and culture all the way through to operations and treatment. Those final deliverables will be coming soon, and it will be great to share them as the culmination of many years of work.

What would you say the most impactful outcome of that study was?

Harckham: The final deliverable is an interactive “i-book,” which is a strong resource for people who may not have as much understanding of what enterprise resilience is. The i-book is great as an introductory piece, but it also goes deeper. There are case studies highlighting actual strategies and tactics that utilities have used to mitigate various risks that they’ve faced, whether political or environmental, climate change, what have you. I think the greatest thing about this project is it provides tangible, field-applicable tools that people can use. The project really captured an international breadth of experience and knowledge around enterprise resilience. It was interesting to see how strategies that have been used in other areas might be applicable for us in the not-too-distant future.

Is there anything you’d share with or recommend to a utility planning to apply to the TC Program for the first time?

Ruecker: WRF puts a lot of effort into talking to subscribers and finding out what everyone’s concerns are, and it’s how you decide what projects are going to go forward to RFP. But there are always people who may have a valuable thing they need to study, but it doesn’t quite fit what all the “mainstream” utilities are doing. That’s the really nice thing about the TC Program—it allows a utility to focus on a problem that’s really specific, just like we are doing with the filtration project.

Crowdis: I want to speak to the accountability piece. The money we are spending and how we utilize those dollars in the eyes of our customers and regulators is very important. When I’m approached about a project that can be tailored to our specific needs, I have much more confidence in the money we are putting forward, that we can really identify and solve some of our problems. A TC project really allows us to show value. There’s a difference between just participating in a research project and being truly involved. It helps me tremendously when I know we are getting into projects that are more specific to our needs.

Harckham: It’s about leveraging research dollars and that great opportunity that WRF provides. Like Norma said, you can tailor the project to very specific things your utility is experiencing within your region. Of equal importance is that you can find other people who may be experiencing similar things. Just because of the breadth and depth of the subscribership with WRF. There have been connections that have been made through that subscriber network that we wouldn’t have made on our own.

Ruecker: It’s also advantageous to WRF projects that there are Project Advisory Committees (PACs). That means we at the utility don’t have to provide all the peer review. We get to utilize other subject matter experts across the WRF network. If you’re new to something, it’s hard to peer review it, and so it’s really nice that WRF finds those expert PAC members—that really helps us.

Harckham: Sparked by Norma’s comment about the value of the PAC—it would be remiss not to touch on the level of support and driving that WRF Research Program Managers do as part of these projects. Maureen was just amazing at keeping everybody on track, making sure that the right things were happening at the right time. Having somebody who is fulfilling that need on these projects is massive. It takes that off the utility’s shoulders, and you have the assurance that the things that are supposed to be happening are happening. I found her support invaluable, and I really want to acknowledge that.