August 12, 2015 - From the August, 2015 issue

NACWA's New President Adel Hagekhalil Champions ‘One Water'

As California’s historic drought continues, innovative water experts are exploring ways to make better use of every drop. TPR recently spoke with City of LA Bureau of Sanitation Assistant Director Adel Hagekhalil—one such public servant who recently became president of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies. Hagekhalil calls for the breakdown of bureaucratic silos, adopting instead the“One Water” principle to manage the resource. He also provides an update on City of LA initiatives around wastewater and storm water, highlighting projects that infiltrate and recycle. 

Adel Hagekhalil

"We’re thinking differently about how to produce more recycled water, reuse more water, and provide the tools and the water for DWP to distribute and augment so that the whole city can meet the goal of a 50-percent reduction in imported water by 2024." -Adel Hagekhalil

Adel, in July you were installed as president of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). Share why you have accepted a leadership role in this national organization. 

Adel Hagekhalil: NACWA has been in existence for 45 years, representing utilities like LA Sanitation that deal with water, wastewater treatment and management, and storm-water management across the nation—from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, and Hawaii. NACWA advocates on their behalf in DC to ensure the legislation and regulations in place that impact residents and our work locally are reasonable, affordable, science-based, and implementable. We want the voices of US cities to be heard in D.C. to garner support for our programs and projects.

You recently wrote a post on the NACWA blog titled “Climate Resiliency: Local Perspectives, Global Ideas, and the Upcoming International Water & Climate Forum.” Your post framed the issue in the context of promoting the One Water LA 2040 Plan. Elaborate on the importance of “One Water” and this plan.

Under the leadership of the mayor and City Council, LA has adopted a new way of managing water. The goal is for all of us in the City to think outside the box—maybe even to throw the box away—and manage our water differently through innovation, integration, and collaboration.

In the past, we always managed water in silos. Whether it was wastewater treatment, water recycling, water distribution, water supply, storm water, or flood control, everything was done separately. But we all know that to provide the biggest benefit to our residents and our community, we have to think differently. We have to think and work as “One Water.”

“One Water” looks at planning for the city—and for the future—on a watershed basis, considering all components of water. This includes: increasing recycled water by enhancing wastewater treatment; moving wastewater closest to the demand for recycled water; and managing storm-water, recharging it into the ground, or providing it as a resource to offset imported water.

We all have to come together—agencies, residents, environmental groups, and businesses—to establish a path forward for 2040 that allows LA to be sustainable and resilient. If we don’t do something now about this drought, it will have a huge impact on our jobs and economy. Imagine a day without water in LA. None of us wants to think about that.

In October, we’re doing an “Imagine a Day Without Water” celebration across the country. We’re hoping LA will be the key area talking about water, because we have done so much with the leadership of the mayor, City Council, and the community at large. 

Turning now to your engagement with the LA 2040 Plan: This year, the mayor boldly announced a goal of reducing the amount of water imported into the city by 50 percent. Is this stretch goal a policy driver of LA’s “One Water” effort?

The overall goal is to make Los Angeles sustainable, resilient, and a better place to live. Having a certain and diverse water supply is one component. Addressing water pollution and storm water is a huge issue, because we know the impact of pollution on our economy and waterways. To make our community a better place to live—and for businesses to come to LA—we have to clean our water, provide water supply, and green our communities. All of that can be done if we plan and manage water as “One Water.”

The Rory Shaw Wetlands Park in Sun Valley, in the San Fernando Valley, is one example. That project has taken a gravel pit that was an eyesore for many years—causing health issues in the underserved community—and converted it to capture runoff from a thousand acres, running it through wetlands, creating a park, infiltrating the groundwater, and addressing long-term flooding. At the end of the day, the community is the winner, because it has clean air and water. 

For some of our readers, “wastewater,” “storm water,” “groundwater,” and “imported water” are just a litany of wonk-ish policy terms. You’ve been long involved with each in Los Angeles. Please elaborate on LA’s many project initiatives, innovations, and investments.

LA is on the leading edge of everything, including the infrastructure component of storm-water management. We are implementing projects across the city to capture runoff through a natural treatment system—green infrastructure to infiltrate into the ground. We’re looking at ways to capture runoff into water silos and reuse it to offset irrigation.

In LA, we have to use water. We can’t just go without it. The question is: Can we provide alternative sources? There are a lot of opportunities to do that.

Hyperion is one of the largest wastewater treatment plants in the city. We treat the wastewater and discharge most of it to the ocean. That water is so valuable now. We’re asking: How can we reuse it?

We’re doing something similar at Terminal Island Treatment Plant in San Pedro.

We’re building new, advanced technologies to treat water innovatively and with the smallest footprint, using the least amount of energy we can.

We cannot deal with water use at Hyperion without looking at a regional solution. We have to establish partnerships with MWD and other cities in the area—Santa Monica and those in the South Bay, for instance—to trade water, infiltrate water, and share basins for storage. We are implementing policies that support such programs. Still, there’s a lot that needs to be done.

To give an example, at the Tillman Plant in the San Fernando Valley, there is higher demand for recycled water and reuse than there is base water flow going through that plant. Water conservation is good, but it also has the impact of reducing wastewater flow. As part of “One Water” planning, we’re asking: Can we bring wastewater flow from somewhere else in the system that would go to Tillman from the East Valley and bring it back, against topography, to the West Valley—to Tillman? That would increase flow at Tillman, so that we can use the water closer to the demand. The same thing is going to happen across the city.

We have a lot of sewers running throughout the city. In areas where we think there’s a high demand for water—perhaps for industry or parks—we may have to build satellite regional treatment systems that can take raw sewage out of the sewers, treat it quickly through advanced technology, and then distribute it with LADWP to users, thus generating local water and offsetting imported water.

Innovation is happening in LA. My goal at NACWA is to ensure that our successes here are translated across the country, and that what’s being done across the country is brought back to LA.

Los Angeles’ water agencies have evolved in silos over time, with different responsibilities, different departments, and different agencies. Recently, the mayor has created a Water Cabinet. How are responsibilities assigned? Where does Sanitation naturally take leadership?

This is not about Sanitation, Water & Power, MWD, or Rec & Parks. This is about all of us working together.

The mayor has said that he wants us to look at ways to make Los Angeles sustainable and resilient when it comes to water. Water & Power has been advancing a lot of great things that we’re working with them on, including the Rainwater Harvesting Master Plan and the Recycled Water Master. We’re partnering on the advanced purification at Tillman to recharge the groundwater, as well as on green projects to capture and infiltrate runoff. An MOU was recently approved to create a collaborative partnership to build four or five projects for $15 million.

Water & Power is responsible for water supply and distribution. Sanitation is responsible for wastewater conveyance and treatment, recycled water production, and storm-water management. We can produce all the water in the world at the treatment plants, but if it’s not properly distributed—if it’s not close to the demand—that water is going to go to waste.

Right now, the mayor is challenging us to reduce water consumption, to conserve more, and to support facilities like those under Rec & Parks to make sure we are reusing there. We are working together to create specific guidelines and responsibilities. We’re looking at changing building codes to make things more sustainable and pushing for more water conservation.

We’re thinking differently about how to produce more recycled water, reuse more water, and provide the tools and the water for DWP to distribute and augment so that the whole city can meet the goal of a 50-percent reduction in imported water by 2024. 

Last month, DWP issued a Storm Water Capture Master Plan. What was Sanitation’s involvement in creating that plan? 

We’re partners with DWP on it. The Storm Water Capture Master Plan is focused mainly on water supply augmentation in the San Fernando Valley. This is a subset of the Enhanced Watershed Management Plans that we just developed and finalized as part of compliance with the storm water permit, which says that we need to capture 85 percent of the storms and infiltrate or reuse it.

That work is a subset of the bigger citywide effort, as part of the “One Water” Plan. We’re partnering with everyone on that. It sends a clear message that today’s Water & Power is looking at diversifying its portfolio. It’s investing in local water supply. It’s partnering with utilities, including Sanitation, to help us move forward on the storm-water, recycled water, and water-conservation fronts.

Given your NACWA leadership role, what lessons or practices can be brought back to Los Angeles from New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and other jurisdictions involved with NACWA?

There’s a collaborative effort in NACWA, with other associations, called Utility of the Future—an effort with the EPA and others to identify practices and tools for utilities to become resilient and sustainable.


Resource management is a huge issue. In Chicago, they’re looking at ways to get rid of nutrients—a bad thing that costs a lot of money to remove from treatment systems—and generate algae that can be sold in the energy-production market for a large amount of money.

The East Bay Municipal Utility District in the Bay Area is looking to bring food waste into the system to augment the generation of gas and methane in the treatment and digestion process.

Philadelphia is implementing innovative ideas for green infrastructure and rebates—incentivizing people to implement green technologies that manage runoff in order to address the city’s weather flows and overflows from the sewer system.

DC is implementing innovative finance ideas: a 100-year bond to finance a project.

All of us together are moving this industry forward. But we can only do that if given freedom and flexibility from regulators and policymakers. Working with private industry is another critical element to make this happen. 

In that vein, could you share your thoughts on the evolving role of water agencies and managers, especially given the drought?

Water agencies should not be the only ones addressing water. Water should be part of everything that we do.

If we’re building a building, we should do it in a way that manages water differently—whether it’s runoff, water consumption, or water reuse. If we’re building a transit system, it has to integrate water management and runoff management. We should be building a green city with green sidewalks and green alleys to manage runoff and address flooding together.

Currently, water is not part of what we do every day. It’s treated as an add-on. If we adopt a holistic approach, then we’ll move forward. Big issues like storm-water runoff or reducing our consumption by 50 percent will change once we do that.

In your view, is there a strong nexus between climate change and drought management?  NACWA’s website, for example, states: “NACWA believes that climate change is primarily a water issue, and the Association’s advocacy focuses on the interrelationships between water resources and climate change.” Your thoughts?

Climate change is bigger than just a water issue. NACWA has also opened itself up to other parts of the climate-change discussion. We’re talking about energy and air quality, too. But since we advocate for water, it is our focus.

We need to adapt to the challenges of extreme droughts, extreme rain, and sea-level rise. The way we can adapt is through practices that manage water in innovative ways.

In Miami, people are looking to protect their wastewater treatment plants because of sea-level rise. People in Philadelphia are trying to reduce the amount of rainwater that goes into the sewer system and causes overflows by implementing green infrastructure.

All these things are climate-change-related. Water is visible. It touches people’s lives. NACWA is a key player, along with all the utilities across the nation, in adapting to climate change—becoming more resilient and sustainable. 

You mentioned the practical challenge of moving water from its source to where it is needed. What is the role of the LA River within that system as a vehicle for moving and storing water, in your view?

The river is the backbone of the city and provides a huge benefit when it comes to enhancing the quality of life in communities.

The dialogue about the river has changed in the city, particularly with the mayor’s leadership. Seeing people kayaking in the river and seeing habitats there shifts the conversation. I’m seeing developments now along the river with names like “Riverfront” and “Riverway.”

But we have a huge challenge, because we have to improve water quality in order to address the river. It’s a mandate by law.

At the same time, the river connects communities together. There’s a lot of excitement about revitalizing it. We have the LA River Revitalization Master Plan. The mayor has advocated for revitalizing the river, working hard in DC with the Army Corps and the federal government to move Alternative 20 forward.

In the discussion around “One Water,” one question is: How can we forward river revitalization while managing water in LA in a sustainable way? We are looking at options to improve water quality through projects along the river. At Taylor Yard, we’re considering capturing runoff from Lincoln Heights that goes into the river. We can treat it and provide a green park along the river that can revitalize the area and improve water quality.

There is also an untapped opportunity to use the river as a storage system after a rain event, making that water available for reuse in the vicinity of the river. If we install rubber dams across the river, we estimate that we can store up to about 2 billion gallons of water. In addition to being available for reuse, that water can help us start revitalizing the river and changing people’s experience with it.

We’re looking at all the streets that end at the river, which we want to join the river and become connections. Green streets there can capture runoff, treat it, and create a park that connects people to the river. That’s a win-win. 

TPR’s July issue carried an exchange between LA Times publisher Austin Beutner and Governor Brown about water, as well as an extensive interview with Felicia Marcus, chair of the Water Resources Control Board, on the challenges her board faces. Could you link California state efforts to address the drought with Sanitation’s projects in the City of Los Angeles? What role does state funding—like Proposition 1—play in city plans?

We’re very consistent with the governor’s direction on water conservation. But we’re going beyond that in LA. We’re looking to create new water.

A lot of people say there is no new water. But we’re managing new water, such as storm water, recycled water, and cleaned-up contaminated groundwater.

With the help, hopefully, of leadership in LA and Sacramento, we’ll get some more money into LA through Prop 1—the water bond. That funding could go toward: cleaning up contaminated groundwater in the San Fernando Valley for reuse; doing storm-water projects; harvesting more rainwater to then reuse and infiltrate it; and building more recycled water plants and advanced water purification systems across the city at Hyperion, Tillman, and Terminal Island. 

Lastly, when you again lead a panel at VerdeXchange in January 2016, what will be its focus? What new LA Sanitation accomplishments will you note?

I’m proud of what we have today. The dialogue in LA is now different. People see that water is an essential part of the economy. I’m looking forward to sharing some of the great successes in LA, and particularly the partnerships we’ve made.

We’ve seen a huge reduction in water usage. We’re going to see new projects being built. We just broke ground on a greenway project in South LA.

Hopefully there will be more public-private partnerships, and also maybe public-public ones—between the city, county, and state. The watershed doesn’t know boundaries. We’re all in it together, and we all have to work together to meet future challenges.


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