Words On Water #98: Greg Quist on Sewers, Smartphones, Satellites, and Southern California


The word aw <music> Hi welcome to words on water a podcast from the Water Environment Federation. This is the host Travis loop joined for this episode by Greg Quist he is C._E._o.. SMART cover systems. He's the chair of the Urban Water Institute Institute and he is on the Board of Rincon del Diablo Water district and these are just a few of his many hats. He Wears Greg. How are you doing great? How're you doing today drums? I'm doing pretty good. I'm doing good. I'm very excited to talk to you like I had mentioned <hes> because you have had a very interesting career in water water and technology also been involved with kind of the water seen there in California <hes> and so a lot of different areas for us to touch John. One of my first questions is based on looking at your bio and I'm curious how someone who majored in astrophysics and modern modern economics and then got a p._H._d.. In physics ended up in the water sector that that's a great question. Obviously didn't start out that way but let me let me go back a little little bit in time to give you some context first of all I was born and raised in Vermont as a country boy and <hes> one of the things I did when I wanted out at nighttime was to look at how it look at the sky because we had a great dark sky there and I think that became the inspiration of my at least starting my career and academic career in astrophysics physics by the time I got a short full thing but by the time it got to Grad School at U._C.. Santa Barbara which is how I got the California and while I loved I realized I liked to do astrophysics career. I realized I really wasn't good enough to to be career a academic after physics guy so I kind of wandered off into simple theoretical physics if you like got out of Grad School and founded defense firm in San Diego that was doing some work and end up working for them married. My wife that I married that I met in Santa Barbara Barbara and we moved escondido lived in kind of a rural area <hes> for coastal California and that's really how I kinda ran into the waterworld oddly enough where I live <hes> we we were in an area where there was not much housing but after we moved in a whole bunch of houses got built around us and <hes> suburbia was happening and the only really outlet that we could could use to kind of talk about that to Escondido city council protests so again short story in the summer of Nineteen Ninety. The mayor of Escondido wide really didn't know very well. L. called me up and asked me if I would run for this board. That's a local water district and I hadn't even heard of the water. District hadn't heard of the board <hes> I realized I was paying my bills to those folks but in okay fine I said yes. I figured I can't lose and I had beaten the incumbent two to one and run the clock ahead now. I've been in the Rincon Board for Twenty Twenty eight years and thank God it was re elected this last election so I'm headed toward thirty two years so that's kind of how I got involved in water on the policy side on the technology side. I'll just Kinda <unk> truncated the story and tell you that Rincon imported me to the San Diego County <hes> <unk> Water Forty Board in nineteen ninety sex and that's where I met my business partner my future business partner David Drake <hes> David was a caltech electrical engineering graduate worked J._P._l.. So he literally was a rocket scientist so between the two of us we had significant technical background after the Berlin Wall fell in the early nineties in the defense industry restarted contract David I kind of got involved in a couple of companies that were doing kind of fun stuff water like detecting microorganisms in water in real time things like cryptosporidium <hes> and after we jettison one of these companies <hes> we were literally called up three of our friends in the industry and said what keeps you up at night and they they told us what kept him up at night with sewer spills so in two thousand five we on this company called hand-drawn ex <hes> which has become smart cover systems and we've been providing realtime monitoring pursuers <hes> and operators operators of sewage systems now for about fourteen years so you could sort of say my career path started out in the stars and ended up in sewage. That's that it is a great one. I liked that a lot so there's a bunch of pass we can go to explore here with technology and with kind of water policy and with California yeah so let's go with that technology route here <hes> you've been involved with technology throughout your careers you kind of outlined and you've been involved with this monitoring aspect for a while. How would you describe the current state of technology in the water sector? You've seen it change. You've seen it evolve. <hes> what's what's exciting writing about the moment we are right now. I'm to me I think what's exciting is kind of on a daily basis. <hes> is that I'm working in an industry that is literally providing the lifeblood lifeblood to the faucets of people in this country and in this area where I live and really I don't think people appreciate the effort that goes on and what's been going on for decades behind find the scenes to make it possible for them to walk up to their you know their faucets and turn it on seven twenty four and have good quality reliable low cost water. Come out of out of the TAP and oddly except for maybe you know people like us like you and me that live in the water sector everyday you know water and sewage is pretty much outta sight outta mind and as long as things are going well. People don't really care and the analogy I I like to use his were sort of like defensive backs and football when they're doing their job well. You'd really don't notice them because no one's wants throwing passes to the guys are covering but when they miss a coverage in somebody blows by them for a touchdown the whole stadium knows who made the mistake and in the water industries a little bit like that we do our job well and nobody seems to really notice but there's lots of cases in history for example <hes> if you want to think about Flint Michigan <hes> The folks inflict were trying to do the right thing like changing their water water supply to lower the cost of delivering water and then they made a where where the biofilms at coated their lead pipe so that led got in the water okay now that's bad science the next thing they did was the covered up the mistake that's criminal and people we'll responsible gone to jail as they should so incidents like flint cause nightmares for operators and therefore they they stick with what works in the kind of thing is if it ain't broke don't fix so i think the frustrating thing to me about the water industry is the slow speed of adoption of technologies and i think it's understandable given things like like point yeah so let's build on that <hes> the the frustration of we've got all this great technology out there there are a lot of great solutions there's ways to deal l. a. some of these challenges but we're kind of sitting on our hands a little bit what why do you think that there's that slow speed of adoption and what do you think could be done what about that so i think there's there's two parts of that one is the inherent conservativism of the water agencies because what they've been doing has been working for long periods of time i mean look at look chlorine chlorine was first introduced in the early nineteen hundreds i believe if not a little bit later than that and that's still what we're using for the main disinfectant for drinking water the second thing thing is <hes> every water agency is its own little universe it doesn't necessarily have to compete with somebody next door so i can't buy water from another water district i'm kinda stuck with my own provider so because all these agencies are independent agencies there's not any competitive drive necessarily to say hey look at doing mind better i'm doing my cheaper so that that that conservativism also i think the plays into it you've been on the technology side of things for a while you've seen how things have changed and and how they've trended where do you think things might be headed in five ten years i think that if you look back at sort of where we are today and everyone takes it for granted that they've got a smartphone in their hand but i think that smartphone world has really is really going to make a difference in the water industry not i mean all these other technologies that came out earlier have had an impact but i think that the smartphone is is the big one and if you're thinking about when the iphone came out that wasn't that long ago and you and i look look at our phones and we think gosh we've had these forever but they really only came out in two thousand six which is not that long ago and i think that kind of information availability to people is this is going to be valuable for folks it's only starting to have an impact i think on water and sewage systems although there is an example <hes> for example automated meter infrastructure grandma which came out of the power industry and that's becoming more and more common in providing useful data for our utilities as well as our customers so i think <hes> you know a huge problem that we're facing in the industry is aging infrastructure which has been there a long time supporting water delivery and sewage collection and the question is where's the money gonna come i'm from fix this trillion dollar problem in my opinion is you know what's going to happen over the next few years is that if we're going to start using the more more information technology type solutions that are agencies are using for example g._i._s.'s a good example of that as well i still run into agencies that have these huge books that way fifty pounds take their trucks and put them on the front trucks here's here's our system <hes> and they've got it's like an old bible with coffee stains and rip pages in all kinds of stuff off and that's that's the way they keep track of their pipes as opposed to sort of modern systems a so i think i think those kinds of things are happening slowly and his people have age out of the water street the younger generations coming in the more they're more facile uncomfortable with information technologies that's what's gonna make a difference i i like a bunch of those points the one about mobile phones in having these these smartphones in our hands i wonder if you have any thoughts on how they might change things for water consumers so we put in a._m. i in our water our district rincon about five years ago we were one of the early adopters and again when you know what's going on out your collection system or your your distribution system and you know in real time you're gonna discover stuff the didn't know about before one of the major things that we discovered was leaks and people system so at four o'clock in the morning when typically ugly there's no household use if there's any water running through meter which we could detect real time there's a leak in their system and i think we've detected something like six thousand leaks over the past i five years and we've saved several million gallons of water that way so that was an unintended consequence the really the reason we put them in was to kind of pull guys outta trucks and stop them from doing meter reading but it turns out that that data turned him something more useful so now anybody walking around in our district and go don't application on their smartphone and see what's going on in their house and how how much water is being used right now and i think that's a that's a very important part of customer service and it has a very tangible outcome i wish i had that personally at my the house i would i would love to i would love to have that i probably would spend even more time staring at my phone though so that might might not be good another thing that i'm really interested in is you know you mentioned g. i s. and locations <hes> and data and everything i'm really interested in the role of satellites in the water sector and how how satellites can tie into technology and provide us with this wealth of information i know this is something that you've been directly involved with with your your smart covers systems so i would love to just kind of hear about when satellites started being used with water technology and and how they're us now with potential lance so <hes> the availability of satellite data has again really relatively recently been been available to everybody in the waters drew for that was pretty pretty much only defense department application by the way gymnast's was the same way right now you can tell within meters where you are in your car that sort of capability was not available bowl before or now it is <hes> g._p._s. It's critical is when there's bad stuff going on and oftentimes that's when you lose earth-based wireless communications and that's why our military uses things like iridium communication system because hurricanes could knock out cell phones that happened in in Florida Hurricane Irma knocked out cellphones for a couple of weeks <hes> and the only way to communicate was with handhelds or satellite communications <hes> second reason is the cases sewers which is what we're involved in because sewers are run mostly by gravity. The pipes tend to be laid in the lowest possible locations nations so that means that wireless communications is really kind of best looking straight up not at the horizon which is where cellphone towers are they tend to be on the horizon so they provide better communications by looking straight up and the third thing is this is an interesting one <hes> water utilities. You're used to putting things in the ground that lasts for a long time <hes> pipes last fifty seventy five one hundred ears and typically they don't require a lot of maintenance so since we use the iridium satellite system the systems had the same protocol for the past twenty years and they just finished their last watching watching iridium next out of Vanenburg <unk> in January and this next generation is going to be using the same protocols for at least another twenty years so that timeframe some of a forty year no change protocols important for the water industry because if think about cell phones they they come and go quite quickly that to g cell systems are dead <hes> a three g systems. They're shutting down at the end of this year. People talking about four and five G. SO systems that would depend on obsolete or dead wireless communications have to be replaced and our customers aren't used to doing that. They're used the putting stuff on the ground that lasts a long time and satellites <hes> help meet that need you've founded and spun off a number of water tech company something you kind of mentioned earlier Iran. I'm curious what that process is like <hes> you know from a from a business perspective and and what advice you might have for others that are trying to do. I appreciate that question because I it's a I do like to give advice because I've learned several ways. I'm not to do it <hes>. I'm I'm on my seventh water startup. <hes> I've endured several failures and <hes> as you probably know you learn from your mistakes not your successes and one of the prettiest obvious reasons that I think our company now is doing well is we started started by effectively having a blank sheet of paper David I had jettisoned accompany in February two thousand five. We call it a three of our friends in the water street that we knew well that were like US policy also people we said hey what what keeps you up at night. That was the question we asked them and when they told us that sewer spills was there probably frankly surprised so we we figured out that nobody else was doing doing it and we went back and ask them specifically what they wanted so again. We had a blank sheet of paper. They said keep the sensor out of the water. Make It easy to install and service and tell us when it's going to be a problem when the problem before for the problem occurs and that time in two thousand five Dave and I were kind of lucky in a couple of ways first of all he and I both had the technical backgrounds to try to solve these problems and <hes> second of all if this had happened five years earlier the communications wouldn't have been there the battery types would have been there. All these new batteries that are coming along. Are Such a big deal if you if you remember the old the movie about plastics the the now should be batteries. You know one word you WANNA remember anyway. <hes> we did come up with a good idea of ourselves. We really went went to the customers instead. What problem are you having and I think if you try to do something saying I think I got a better idea? It's really best to run it by the customers I and especially in the waters through that's it's very conservative. They have a lot of problems and you should go to them and ask them questions and say what. What problems do you need? How saw maybe I can help you? If you don't have an answer you it's going to be hard. It's it's GonNa be hard road. I definitely see a lot of <hes> on social media in other places. There's a lot of efforts to Kinda incubate water startups and especially on the technology analogy fronton and help them get going so great to hear from someone that's been through this a number of times shifting gears a little bit. I mentioned that you're the chair of the Urban Water Institute. Could you tell me what that organization does. And why it's important. Urban water has been around for about twenty six years. It was founded by gentleman named Wayne Clark who passed asked away last year. Wayne's vision institute vision really is to have an organization. It's different than a lot of the organizations out here. We Have Association California Water Agencies Aqua. We have the southern California Water Committee <hes> but we were dedicated to the dissemination of Information Education on water problems at avoiding bias and political influence as hard ars that might be that doesn't mean we don't address these things on the contrary we try to have panels that are kind of battle sixty minutes point counterpoint where we have posted on different sides of the issue you bringing their ideas because we believe that good solutions come from actually conflict and disagreement as long as it's respectable and in the water industry. There's a lot of mutual respect because we're all trying to do something that's good for society so even though we have disagreements on on things that tends not to be disagreeable <hes> we have two conferences does annually and we try to bring the best and the brightest to talk to us about what is the absolute latest in the modern history and we have long Q._N._A.. Sessions after panels <hes> so there's a lot of interaction interaction going on we have social gatherings where other interactions going on and one of our theses is really that solutions come from people not from things and if if people that are on on different sides of the aisle can get together and break bread or have a beer together they're more likely to try to solve a problem together than fight and <hes> and <hes> just for an example apple turn to the quality of people. We have <hes> just last Friday. George Hawkins who I think has also been on your blog <hes> former C._E._o.. of DC water came in and gave the keynote address on his moonshot activities activities and <hes> that was a great great One thing that I've learned is that you don't know everything and water continues to change all the time so one thing that really encourages me in stimulates me is continually early learning experience. You're always learning new things in water is incredibly complex and incredibly valuable. I'm really Kinda grateful but I've had a chance to learn much about water and and and I would say that the water industry is filled with people with high ethics which you know and I've met a lot of folks that become colleagues good friends and I I i.. I really enjoy that what's interesting aspect about what we're doing and one of my old friends. Bud Lewis who was the mayor Carlsbad and I don't know if you know about the diesel plan out here but the diesel all plants named after him <hes> used to call us used to call us a shadow government because while all our meetings were kind of open and transparent. Nobody seems to go or generally care. We're so I'm going to go back to that that old defensive back analogy as long as you're doing your job you know nobody really notices but we do have situations where things go wrong <hes> and again <unk> our job is to try to be a good defense back and make sure nobody catches a pass in front of us and you know we've had things like by droughts and the Corpus per diem crisis in Milwaukee Ninety three and that sort of thing or the the whole water street has had to make changes because of these big events that happened in in typically because water is such ubiquitous thing <hes> when bad things this happened one place they can happen someplace else in California. We've been fighting particularly things like droughts and <hes> we've been working together on that and <hes> the old Mark Twain saying seining of nobody knows the worth of water till the well was dry is is really is really true out here and <hes> and again people don't tend to pay attention so a lot of meetings we go to <hes>. I have one or two meetings a month <hes> in the evenings. There's hardly anyone in the audience which means frankly. We're doing our job well so <hes> what happened my first my first meeting in nineteen ninety the water was about ready to cut our water deliveries by fifty percent and the my first meeting that I showed up and I never been on the meaning one before winning in that election was filled with people angry about the water. There's going to be cut off so they care but they want to make sure that you know actually they wanna go on with their daily lives and not have to worry about it so that's our job is was to take that responsibility off their shoulders and make sure we provide light reliable high quality affordable water and sewer services to our citizens. Well you know it seems like the public's attention is probably a lot more on water in California these past few years you know the drought <hes> that's been going on and the fires and <hes> just continued growth in the southern. California area so do you do. You think there's a little bit more public awareness about what a water utility does. How important didn't these decisions are how much they should pay attention absolutely been. It was funny you so this'll be a twenty minute conversation. I don't have time to give you all the answers on that one but because the there's a lot of stuff going on in California right now it's it's actually very exciting <hes> but I think <hes> what's interesting is California. If if you turn us into a country we I think we'd have the fifth largest economy in the world so we're supporting a very very large economy <hes> and if you look at sort of the the demographics of water in California most of it falls in the North that most of the people live in the south so really we have a distribution problem here in the state but I'm proud of how we've done as a state together <hes> all the way from San Sandy Goes Wide Rica solving our problems together and but I do want to mention a trend that I think people ought to know about it's a little troubling and I don't know how this is. GonNa work out but in two thousand MM fifteen <hes> the governor state of California for the first time apply across the board cut in water deliveries to all urban users and oddly enough in San Diego we had spent spent two billion dollars over the past twenty years developing emergency supplies for exactly that reason if you look at San Diego respectively water cul de sac where the the far southwestern part of the state and you go south you're in Mexico. We don't get any water from Mexico. Everything comes from the north so we had to be very sure that you know problems happen either. Natural disasters like earthquakes or or droughts that we were prepared for that sort of thing so during the last drought which ended seventeen <hes> we had ninety nine percent of the water we needed. Abu Couldn't access it because the governor said couldn't use it now. We've we've been fighting about that. Since then and it's been relieved more recently in we're getting tons of rain. Is I look out the window right now. <hes> which is good <hes> but it's an interesting thing because this is the first time the state came in and tried to solve a problem prior to that the <hes> the agency's. California's about a thousand water agencies in California worked together <hes> as a group to try to solve these problems again all the way from what my Rica Sandiego even though we have tremendously different situations from a a hydraulic standpoint from a demographic standpoint. We understand that we're all Californians and we're trying to solve that problem so we did pretty well and now there's something coming up called. A water tax acts that the is is showing up in in California. I don't know if this exists anywhere else in the country. I don't think it does but it's a little scary about taxing water which is something people people need to live on <hes> to pay for projects and I I'm vastly in disfavor of that. I think we can help solve our problems internally. There are some issues in central valley where there's some people with water delivery problems but again <hes> we saw those together without bringing the state end so it's an interesting interesting situation. There is if if you think about the again the Hydroxy California is one hundred forty million acre feet of water fall on an average in the state which is a lot of water and only fourteen million of that is used for for municipal used the split between the agriculture the environment so how we solve these problems next five ten years is GonNa be exciting and critical so we'll be interesting to see how folds yeah well. You guys have a lot of attention from the rest of the country and really around the world on water policy management in California yeah so it'd be fun to watch how things go. That's for sure we'll greg. I appreciate the conversation I think that on each of these angles we could keep going and going. There's a lot to talk about but <hes> I appreciate the insights information that you shared Travis. I appreciate the time word correct the.

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