Partnerships are formed to benefit everyone involved. Like business partnerships that enhance operations or expand services, partnerships can be created between communities to develop solutions for shared challenges and to maximize the use of available resources. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and its wholesale customer communities have developed a partnership using a collaborative outreach process that has matured over the past 14 years and is reaping benefits for the region. Together, they are implementing positive change.
The DWSD first reached out to their wholesale wastewater customers in 1997 when a fair and equitable cost allocation was needed to fund their Long Term Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Control Plan estimated to cost $1.07 billion at the time. Two years of detailed technical, financial and legal discussions ensued through work groups using facilitators and a Wastewater Steering Committee to guide the process. The resulting cost sharing agreement marked the beginning of a new era where difficult decisions were made directly with wholesale customers rather than settled in court. The success of this effort was contagious and in 2003 a similar partnership process was undertaken with water customers that has established a new standard for how area water professionals work together.
“The outreach process has created a trust between wholesale customers and the DWSD that historically had never been present,” explains Eric Witte, Water and Sewer Utility Manager for the City of Dearborn. “The use of an outside consultant to facilitate the meetings, summarize them fairly, and guide discussions through difficult questions allowed collaborative decision making to occur on a range of issues. I participated in the process while working for three wholesale communities and witnessed positive change in many areas.”
“Our relationship with wholesale customers has changed dramatically,” concurs Mary Alfonso, DWSD Public Affairs Manager and Technical Advisory Committee Co-Chair. “We are no longer the entity that just sends the bills. Customer communities call us to discuss problems, make suggestions and work with us to address concerns. Together, we have created a new model water contract, customized our meter reading system, and developed technical solutions for specific level of service issues in the water distribution system. These are all significant improvements in working together to service residents and businesses. The exchange of knowledge and information is helping all of us to work better.”
Focusing on the technical issues to ignite change
The outreach effort fosters cooperation and the open exchange of information as DWSD and wholesale customers work together to achieve common goals and address service issues. Two committees oversee the activities of seven work groups that were created to focus on operational and management aspects of water delivery and wastewater collection. These work groups meet 6 to 12 times a year and range in size from 10 to 40 members with participation at all organizational levels from facility operators to members of the Board of Water Commissioners.
Over the years, work groups have developed a shared technical knowledge base exploring topics like rate structures, the system hydraulic model, the water metering system and contract frameworks, enabling higher level discussions to ensue. The result of this maturation is a shift to addressing very specific system issues like items a new model contract should contain, which system performance graphs to include on the dashboard for the Wholesale Automated Meter Reading (WAMR) program and the best solution to address water pressure level of service issues.
“The TAC Analytical Work Group has been extremely beneficial to participate in because of its ability to complete tasks, resolve disputes and implement improvements,” explains Eric Witte. “The WAMR project that wholesale customers helped create is a tool that everyone can use to better manage their distribution system and document anomalies.”
The Analytical Work Group has also tackled issues like how to use set values in the new contract that are used in the rate structure, use of the hydraulic model, and what improvements are needed after adjustments were made to DWSD’s capital improvement plan (CIP). Many of the issues address level of services, or the pressure and volumes of water the system is capable of delivering. Increasing level of service frequently requires infrastructure improvements whose costs must be weighed with the benefits received.
Model water contract provides a new way of doing business
Approval of the new model contract by the TAC in 2008 was a critical milestone in the outreach effort. According to Jim Taylor, Superintendent with Van Buren Township’s Public Works Department and a TAC Co-Chair, “After we accepted the new model contract a feeling of true partnership was evident. Developing and unanimously accepting the model contract cemented everyone’s desire to continue to work together to implement it. Through the process we gained a better understanding of each other’s concerns and discovered we can develop mutually beneficial solutions.”
Many of the previous contracts had been in place since the 1900s and did not guarantee the pressures at which DWSD would deliver flows to customers or consider how wholesale customers were managing demands in their systems. A customer satisfaction survey undertaken in 2004 highlighted the need for a model water contract to empower customers to better manage rate volatility and give DWSD more accurate estimates of the demand that would be placed on the system. This data was used to begin discussing and developing three guiding principles, or pillars, to serve as the foundation of the new contract. These pillars included establishing desired pressure ranges for service to each customer, customers agreeing to establish and not exceed a maximum flow rate, and using the TAC to review contract incidents with pressure ranges and flow limits.
The model water contract allows wholesale customers to negotiate peak hour and maximum day limits at contract initiation and in years 2 and 5 of the 30-year contract, and every five years thereafter. These values are critical because they create the ultimate system demand that DWSD must plan for and maintain its treatment plants and transmission mains to deliver. If the value is unrealistically high, DWSD could make infrastructure changes that are not needed; if it is too low, other customers could be negatively impacted because DWSD cannot deliver their required pressure. Accurately estimating this number enables DWSD and each wholesale customer to optimize system operations and associated costs. Under the new contract, this number is scrutinized more closely and customers can implement peak management practices like storage and lawn irrigation ordinances to reduce this number. This prevents large swings in system operating costs and rates when hot, dry summers can increase consumption.
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